What you need to know about fog computing

Simon Bramble

Friday 7 October 2016

Computing infrastructure is beginning to sound like a highly changeable weather report. Sunny-day networking scenarios involve good cloud cover with fog rolling in. Now we know what cloud computing is and the benefits it brings. But what of fog computing? Is this a buzz-term too far or a genuine innovation?

Perhaps it’s best to think of fog computing as an offshoot of the cloud. As the name implies, fog computing is a lower-lying set of processes that take place closer to the data source in a given network. It boils down to efficiency. Resources and application services are positioned where they need to be to cut down on the amount of data that needs to be transmitted to the cloud for processing and storage.

That means smart devices capable of doing their own processing being located near the outer reaches of any network, hence the alternative name sometimes given to fog infrastructure: edge computing. And this decentralised approach to networking is on the rise because of another trend referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT).

Where fizz stops and fog starts

A soft-drinks machine that allows a customer to create a personalised blend of flavours needs to be able to perform dedicated tasks quickly while obtaining, analysing and eventually transmitting data. As well as transmitting location data to customers via an app and actually blending a drink, the machine gathers a raft of information on customer preferences before sending it back to a centralised server. It does this near-instantly thanks to a localised edge server.

While this greatly reduced latency of data analysis and exchange is a happy convenience for fizzy drinks fans, it can be the difference between life and death. Fog computing systems are used in vehicle-to-vehicle communication systems found in cars as they become increasingly autonomous, while railway networks spanning many thousands of miles of track are reaping the benefits of an infrastructure that can process velocity data and real-time location information with 99.999 per cent reliability in extreme weather conditions.

Clean, manageable data

By processing the raw data gathered from smart devices in situ before sending it to the cloud, the bottleneck caused by lumps of information having to be ‘scrubbed’ centrally is greatly reduced.

Ryan LaMothe, research scientist at the Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, describes a hypothetical situation involving fog system-enabled drones investigating a disaster zone to Government Technology.

“They need to be able to figure out who is in their area and they need to understand the context of their mission, and then take that data and send it to the human in the field who needs that data right at that time,” LaMothe says. “It’s ultimately to make the human emergency response significantly more efficient.”

While some believe that centralised computing beats local, and that distributed systems can never be as efficient as pure cloud infrastructure, there’s no doubt fog computing is on a steep upward curve. As the IoT gets ever more connected, it’ll be fog computing powering its uptake.