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Managing the Edge: Edge vs Cloud


As a veteran of the building automation software market, I have sat through many conference presentations about the value of building data and how, in the future, it will all be connected to and managed in the cloud. I have also seen the widespread adoption of cloud-based monitoring, as the number and type of cloud applications available in the market multiplies.
At the same time, the range of low-cost wireless devices capable of collecting useful data about buildings and equipment has expanded. There are many companies offering services focussed on using such sensors to harvest data which is transmitted, via gateways, to cloud applications to enable businesses to better understand indoor air quality, space utilization and other aspects of building operation.

While this progress is good, as with any new “fashionable” topic or trend, I have encountered much over-hyping of the value of data being stored “in the cloud”. Although there is far too much data languishing on hard drives located on site, inaccessible for analysis, the solution is not just to send everything to the cloud! The solution is to establish open data formats that make the data fully portable, and use appropriate application software that can analyze it wherever is most appropriate; at the edge, the enterprise or in the cloud, in order to improve building performance and efficiency.

Not ALL data needs to be sent and logged in the cloud. Not only is it potentially expensive to do so, in terms of the cost of using the cloud services provider since they charge according to data volume, but it is unnecessary and inappropriate. Yes, if you want to compare the performance of equipment items or energy consumption between various buildings then you need to get data up to the cloud for such analysis. But if you want to identify whether a valve or damper is stuck, the analytics rule you will need to apply to identify will likely require data every few seconds and can be easily run in an edge device on site. It is unnecessary to send 10 second interval data up to the cloud to make such a diagnostic evaluation. Whilst I agree that sometimes remote management of devices could be simpler and most appropriate, the idea of running PID loop control of an AHU or even determining pump changeover routines from the cloud doesn’t.

Cloud vs Edge management– why not have both?

Since a building is an entity with boundaries and a set of equipment and devices necessary for its operation, it makes perfect sense for it to have its own management in terms of automation systems. I will call this the “Edge Manager”. The problem with buildings is that the Edge Manager has not been smart enough or easy enough to use (until now), and so many buildings are being run sub-optimally. Many automation systems currently installed in buildings were designed and installed before the age of ubiquitous computing, which means their software is not designed to enable integration of IoT devices. This is why new IoT providers have included so called “IoT gateways” in their proposition, so as to get the data off-site, in an entirely separate way from the remote connection used to manage the automation system. This doesn’t make sense; it is yet another example of how the market is siloed, with each application and vendor offering separate solutions that do not easily communicate.

It makes more sense to have an Edge Manager on-site capable of managing the automation system and handling the IoT data as well. Not only does this enable a single connection for all data transmission northbound to the cloud, it also enables data sharing to achieve building optimization locally and avoid unnecessary duplication of sensors.

One of the original drivers for sending data up to the cloud was that the cost of implementing edge analytics was prohibitively high due to the cost of processing power and memory. Over the last 10 years, however, the cost of the required electronics (both processors and memory) has fallen. It is now feasible to run even video tracking analytics, which is way more demanding than automation analytics, on something as inexpensive as a Raspberry Pi computer, which costs less than $35. We have reached a point where the cost of packaging the electronics and getting the box to site and installed is far more important than the cost of the electronics necessary to achieve a useful Edge management. It makes little sense to install multiple IoT gateways that are only capable of passing wireless sensor data up to a cloud app when you can install one Edge Manager that will handle all the sensors and the existing automation system functions. This easier, more efficient solution is only a few dollars more than a basic gateway.

Although the cost of the equipment is comparable to other solutions, the cost of on-site deployment is where proponents of cloud-based solutions have had a stronger argument. The expertise required to integrate multiple systems and devices is in short supply and sending such people to site is not usually cost-effective. Plus, the cost of maintaining the on-site management device is perceived as higher than if the application software is all run at cloud level. Imagine a world in which the Edge Manager can be fully configured remotely from anywhere, is automatically upgradeable from a cloud server, and if it fails the hardware platform can be simply unplugged and replaced, with a software back-up image automatically restored from a cloud server. In this world, Edge Management of buildings provides resilience since one is not dependent on cloud connectivity for the day to day control and optimization of the building. Only the data necessary for higher level analytics and reporting is sent northbound to the whichever cloud service being used.

J2_Cloud-vs-Edge-DiagramFIN Framework provides the software to power the Edge Manager products of the future that the market has needed for so long. FIN has been designed to support the latest IoT data standards and is able to run on low-cost hardware platforms. The software framework can integrate with and manage HVAC, lighting metering and other building systems, with simple wizard-based set-up, and easy and secure Edge2Cloud remote connectivity.

Chris Irwin

Chris is a J2 Innovations consultant who originally joined J2 in 2018 to develop sales in Europe, the Middle East and Asia. Chris comes with a wealth of experience in the building automation market and skills in strategic business development and marketing. Chris spent 12 years developing Tridium's open framework business in Europe, so he is excited to be now working with the next-generation product. Chris is passionate about simplicity, energy saving, renewable energy, and electric transport.

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Topics from this blog: IoT Smart Buildings Smart Equipment

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