To me, Edge Computing still feels like this distant concept from the future. Although it has been around for decades, its name has become a buzzword and new interest has shed light on its extensive capabilities and how it could shape our world today and tomorrow. Watch our keynote and read the transcript below to learn more about how Tulip is approaching edge connectivity in this new era of technology democratization.

Before we dive into the history of edge computing and what the democratization of edge looks like, let’s first define the phrase.

What is Edge Computing?

Since its introduction, edge computing has been bouncing back between decentralized and centralized. Let’s see how this shift occurred over time.

Early Days of Big Iron Computing: Vax

Going back to the very early days of big iron computing, the Vax had VT 100 terminals that were just displays and keyboards for computers that were centralized. This solution made computing cost-effective and gave centralized control over complex systems.

Edge in the 80s

In the 80s, personal computers (PCs) came along. This advent, in a sense, was the first notion of edge computation—data collection, interaction with interfaces, and computing were simultaneously happening where people were.

Edge in the 90s and Early 2000s

In the 90s and early 2000s, the trend shifted back again to centralized systems, thanks to the advent of the web. During this time, a lot of the actual computation shifted to data centers, making it available for organizations to directly update and maintain the security of their servers in the cloud. With this also came the rise of management technologies of these fleets of servers and cloud computing.

Edge Today

Democratization has allowed for the hybrid model that brings together the core benefits of both sides; resiliency to network interruptions that come from decentralization, and the ability to maintain some control that comes with centralization.

Let me go a bit further into what I mean by democratization.

The Definition of Democratization

Democratization is fundamentally about making something accessible to everybody. When it comes to the Edge, democratization enables more people to set up and update the edge, while retaining central control. It blurs the lines between the edge and the cloud.

Examples of Decentralized vs. Centralized vs. Democratized

Let's take a look at the brewing industry as an example. Back in the old days, local monks would brew and distribute beer, and the recipes were passed down from generation to generation.

A visual comparison of centralization, decentralization, and democratization of beer industry

That practice then led to a centralized world in which you had massive manufacturers producing beers and large distribution centers that cast wider delivery networks. This new system meant that there were expectations that a brand of beer sold on the east coast of the US tasted the same and complied with the same safety standards as the same brand on the west coast. The same 7-10 beer brands dominated the market.

Today with the rise of knowledge sharing and home brewing equipment, we have a much more diverse beer industry.

The world that we live in now is sort of a democratized beer market, where you still have some centralized distributors that mass produce beer, but also the local breweries that offer a huge variety of different artisanal beers. And at the same time, these different artisanal beers also get to tap into the wide distribution network in order to sell globally. Thanks to food safety regulations, you can ensure that these beers are safe to drink.

We can find a similar shift within the music industry as well.

A visual comparison of centralization, decentralization, and democratization of music

Before the mass distribution of printed music, there were traveling troubadours that would come around town to perform. After the invention of recorded music, centralized record labels controlled who could record their music, and distribution centers such as radio stations played the recordings across vast networks, often favoring music with popular appeal. Today, we find ourselves again somewhere in the middle. We still have the large distributors in music, but there are now these individual musicians that create high-quality music and distribute on their own with the advent of the internet and the rise of affordable home recording equipment.

Now that we have a good understanding of the three different models, let’s bring it back to what the democratization of the Edge means.

Key Ingredients for a Democratized Edge

Let’s first identify the three key ingredients for a democratized edge:

Easy to Set Up and Troubleshoot

For those closest to operations to be able to set up and configure the edge on their own, it needs to be easy to set up and easy to troubleshoot. The ease of setup allows engineers to get to the edge devices, machine connectivity, IIoT, etc. up and deployed quickly, and the ease of troubleshooting allows engineers to quickly figure out why something is wrong, and address those issues rapidly and without needing support.

Scalable Centralized Control and Security

Decentralization of the edge and self-service deployments often comes with fears around leaked information or exposure to potential security breaches, so an edge that can stay secure as the organization grows is key. Democratization allows organizations to enforce which devices and protocols can be used and how, while giving those setting them up flexibility in where the edge is deployed.

Support Various Tool Experimentations

Finally, a good edge should support various tool experimentations. Effective experimentation relies on rapid iterations and measurable results. By allowing engineers to set up edge devices, sensors, interfaces, etc, collect and view data, and then readjust the edge on their own, organizations are enabling them the freedom to find optimal solutions.

What to Look for When Choosing an Edge Device

Now let’s take a look at the five criteria to consider when choosing an Edge device.

First is flexibility. Organizations need to be able to solve a variety of different problems, so the Edge needs to be flexible enough to support that.

Second is the openness to allow for true democratization and for anyone to start creating and deploying solutions that work best for the applications. This means flexibility in choosing the right IIoT devices, tools, protocols, etc. This gives room for people to share their own solutions and learn from others, fostering creativity and innovation.

The third is an all-encompassing ecosystem that allows users to connect all kinds of different tools, devices, and systems. This extends the solutions so that the edge can collect and interact with data from third-party systems such as ERPs, shipping data, etc.

The fourth is cost-effectiveness. In order for edge devices to be scalable, they must be at the price point that isn’t prohibitive for experimentation and rapid expansion.

And the last is performance. This is ultimately the biggest reason why anyone seeks edge computing — because it allows the edge to be performant even in the event of a service interruption from a centralized cloud.

Now that we know what to look for, how do we actually democratize the Edge?

Here are the four steps to getting there:

Seek flexibility and freedom of movement for operational agility

We live in an ever-changing world. If users need or want to change things, the freedom of flexibility can give them the confidence to build any solution, test, and make changes for the new configuration — quickly and on their own.

Favor tools that allow for you to iterate and deploy remotely

The first deployment of any solution will most likely have problems. Therefore, the goal should really be to learn from those problems and iterate quickly. The remote deployment capability helps expedite that process even faster and in a cost-effective manner.

Start small and expand gradually

Focusing on all-or-nothing deployment can increase deployment risks and upfront costs and delay value. Instead, starting small and expanding gradually allows for an organization to have an iterative mindset, and get to that initial value much faster. From there, the expansion will come easy.

Give space for failures and encourage curiosity and creativity

This one is the most important one of all. Companies should provide an open and nurturing environment for team members to fail, and to do so often. This will make them feel supported, and in turn, give them the freedom to explore their creativity and to stay curious.

Final Thoughts

At Tulip, we talk about the democratization of technology and the edge is no exception. This is the way that the world is moving and there are clear benefits for this approach that takes the best from centralization and decentralization. In order to take advantage of democratization and the operational transformation that it can provide, organizations need to shift their mindset and their solution requirements.

Companies across manufacturing and frontline operations are rethinking the edge in the age of democratization. Learn how your business can take advantage of these next-gen technologies today!

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Learn why companies are embracing next-gen edge technology and what steps you can follow when implementing machine connectivity, IIoT, and computer vision in your operations.

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