The term “Intelligent Edge” is used in many ways, but perhaps the best way to think of it is as a place. The edge is where the action is. It’s a manufacturing floor, a building, a campus, a city, your house, a crop field, a wind farm, a power plant, an oil rig, a telecommunications outpost, a sports arena, a battlefield, in your car, in the sky, or under the sea. It’s everywhere everything is, and it’s where the “things” are in the Internet of Things (IoT).

The edge is “intelligent” because now there’s technology in these places that’s smart, connected, computational, and controlling. Crucially, the Intelligent Edge provides analytics capabilities that were formerly confined to on-premises or cloud data centers. 

The 3 Cs of the Intelligent Edge

The usefulness of the Intelligent Edge is revealed when we unpack the three Cs:  

  • Connect: When devices, people, or things connect via networks, it facilitates data exchanges that promote new sources and quantities of data. 
  • Compute: Systems can then compute this data, provide access to applications, and reveal deep insights concerning the connected things, devices, and the surrounding environment. 
  • Control: These computed insights can then be used to take action, control the devices and things at the edge, or prompt other types of control actions associated with the business or enterprise to which the edge is connected.

The 3 Cs of the Intelligent Edge: Connectivity, connect and compute

The 3 Cs in action

A retail store connects cold drinks and digital price displays on its shelves to a network. Now the retailer can instantly track inventory and see how long it takes for each drink to sell. This information, combined with outside temperature and sales data from other locations, can be used to adjust and control drink prices in real time. In this IoT application, the drinks and price displays are “things” connected to the network. This connectivity allows the retailer to maximize sales and minimize shipping costs, while enabling new customer experiences. 

Now consider how an employee with a smartphone app entering a large office building or campus with wireless location services can find a conference room, printer, or people without asking directions. This immediate insight into where the employee resides in relation to these other connected things greatly enhances the experience in this smart building. It’s very similar to the retail shopping experience offered by many large retailers, where customers can access turn-by-turn directions on their phones to locate products, figure out what’s on sale, or find the restroom.

The media and telecom industries face growing distribution pressures from increased video resolution, new formats, expanding bandwidth, and the need for better security and reliability. As a result, telecom service providers are placing sophisticated compute and control systems in businesses and homes. These distributed intelligent edges make the services more competitive and improve customer experiences.

Intelligence at these various edges continues to improve, supported by emerging industry standards and software stacks similar to those formerly reserved for the data center. This distributed compute trend is driven by the need to deliver better services at the point of consumption, and to avoid the limitations imposed by remote data centers or clouds.

Different types of edges

There are three broad categories of Intelligent Edge: operational technology (OT) edges, IoT edges, and information technology (IT) edges. OT edges commonly contain intelligence and controls but have been traditionally limited in connectivity and compute power.

OT edge examples include power plants and offshore oil rigs. IT edges are common in the telecommunications and media industries for distributed data transfer and processing, as well as distributed computing in branch offices and campuses.

types of edges
The IoT edge is of great interest today, as the IoT has achieved celebrity status. In many instances, the IoT is a combination of OT and IT. When discussing the IoT, it’s instructive to first understand the generalized four-stage IoT solutions architecture depicted in Figure 3. “Things” are connected to sensors for data capture and actuators to control the things—either wired or wirelessly. These sensors and actuators connect to gateways, switches, and data acquisition systems in stage 2. Stage 3 is comprised of IT systems that are at the edge, and stage 4 is the remote data center or cloud. Not all IoT solutions include all four stages (e.g., some are sensor-to-cloud solutions), but a large portion of IoT solutions can be mapped into this architecture.
 
The 4 stage IoT solutions architecture
 
Industrial IoT (IIoT) solutions can generate significant business value when sensors are connected to rotating machinery such as turbines in an electric power plant. Physical data extracted from the turbines, such as temperature, moisture, and vibration, provides valuable insight into the machine’s health. Prognostic analytic programs process this data and provide immediate insight into the turbines’ health status. This affords better control over the maintenance routines and helps predict failure associated with brownouts or blackouts.