IoT infrastructure is more than just an edge and the cloud. In fact, the emerging architectures will be very different from the traditional architectures based on the use case, location, and even the industry involved. It’s so confusing, we’re throwing around terms like “the skinny edge” to refer to sensors and “constrained connected devices” and “fat edge” to refer to a bunch of high-powered servers on a factory floor.
We also toss around terms like “IT” and “OT” and debate the value of proprietary wireless networking technology vs. cellular or unlicensed. We know we need to “lock everything down” and/or build for a “zero-trust” world while realizing that doing so is expensive and in fact, basically impossible. In other words, everything is still in flux, which makes it really tough for companies that are trying to buy equipment to support IoT or AI efforts in their organizations.
The combination of information technology and operations technology has been underway for the last decade, but at the dawn of the 20s, it’s getting a better name. Forrester issued a report late last year that covers the technological underpinnings of infrastructure and operations, or what it calls “I&O.” As Chris Gardner, principal analyst at Forrester, explains, the concept is that as the IT and OT disciplines meld connected machines, buildings, and equipment, the two have things to learn from one another.
In a conversation with Gardner, we talked about how the I&O infrastructure will evolve. For now, the key concept people talk about is edge computing. The definition of edge computing is still really flexible, as it can refer to a cluster of sensors, the gateway those sensors talk to, a device performing analytics on the data, or even a cluster of servers sitting inside a data center. But the Forrester report goes to great lengths to explain that while the edge is an essential ingredient for the new IT architecture, the cloud isn’t going away.
But the addition of the edge leads to new challenges and opportunities. Key challenges include figuring out how to secure edge devices and bring information from them to the cloud while ensuring that information is both accurate and trusted. Other challenges include figuring out how to manage applications across a variety of devices, from sensors to the cloud.
Gardner said that what the I&O needs is an abstraction layer that can enforce and propagate policies and compliance as code. (Kubernetes is gunning for the role of providing that layer, as are startups such as Zededa and Balena, formerly known as Resin.io). The need to automatically configure and enforce policy is essential for the edge, because it’s going to include millions of devices. One of the defining features of the edge is that will include a wide-ranging number of devices that humans won’t be able to manage.
The IT sector will have a lot to teach the OT folks about creating that level of abstraction, but in doing so they will need to understand — and respect — the limits associated with operations technology. For example, OT devices must be rugged, able to handle extreme temperatures, vibration, and other harsh operating environments. So far, Gardner says the IT organization is “winning” at this clash of civilizations, but he doesn’t think IT should be given carte blanche over the OT resources without truly understanding what’s at stake.
In many cases, edge computing jobs are essential; they also need to be both reliable and resilient in ways that IT organizations may not understand. Some OT functions are critical for life and safety, so glitches or even four-nines reliability aren’t acceptable. The OT teams need to educate IT staff about their needs and their infrastructure while also ensuring the data from that infrastructure doesn’t get locked away in silos.
Future organizations need to be able to build flexible, automated infrastructure that spans the edge and the cloud while realizing that devices and their infrastructure could be compromised at any time. We don’t know how to do that yet, but with I&O we’re getting closer to the type of organization that can carry out that mandate.