This week I met a company called Lunera that’s embedding computing in LED light bulbs. Literally. Each LED bulb slots into a traditional enterprise or commercial lighting ballast and contains an ARM Cortex A7 quad-core processor that also has Wi-Fi and Bluetooth radios. Each lightbulb-turned-server also runs a variety of applications in Docker containers.
Is this crazy? The pendulum is clearly swinging back to local compute after years of singing the praises of the cloud. And while in reality a hybrid model will emerge that shunts appropriate jobs to the cloud and other jobs to computers located at the so-called edge, the hype for edge computing is hot and heavy at the moment.
For example, Liqid is a startup that makes software that turns clusters of GPU servers into what it calls “composable infrastructure.” The idea is that factories, manufacturing plants and other operations will need intense high-powered computing to handle real-time data analytics or even some video processing. Because the jobs may change over time, the folks at Liqid believe companies will want what is essentially reconfigurable computing, storage and networking to handle changing demands.
It’s not just startups eyeing edge computing as a source of new profits and IT sales. HP Enterprise has invested significant effort into building servers that can handle the physical environments on plant floors and pack more power than the typical IoT gateway. Having visited manufacturing facilities and seen the local server closets that handle everything from general computing to highly-specific industrial controllers, this vision makes a lot of sense.
However, Lunera is taking this idea out of manufacturing and bringing it to the enterprise. This is where the local computing story falls apart for me. On one hand, the vision of having computing embedded in everyday objects that can run applications locally makes sense. On the other hand, taking the computing that used to be an IT asset and putting it into something that facilities managers used to run puts unfamiliar equipment in the hands of an overburdened IT staff.
It effectively turns a facilities asset into an IT asset, which is actively happening anyhow as IoT invades building systems. So, the recognition of this feels prescient, but perhaps too early. Competitors building lighting “platforms” are designing apps that are designed to go to work with dashboards that building managers or even line managers can use.
These Lunera bulbs have another IT function. Because of the radios in each bulb, it offers a compelling platform for asset tracking and location-based services indoors. There are others doing this without putting a server inside a light bulb. Instead, companies like Mist use existing Wi-Fi access points to create virtual beacons and mesh Wi-Fi. Once again, we’re seeing a traditional IT asset embedded into a facilities asset.
Light bulbs, light switches and other building systems have an innate advantage when it comes to becoming servers or access points. They are everywhere. They have power. And they are mapped out in building plans that can be useful when trying to manage them as computing assets.
So as edge computing becomes a reality does our notion of what a server should look like change along with it? If it does, will we have to go through the inevitable lock-in that computing went through back in the 90s when it became a platform for huge swaths of business value? Or does the shape of computing stay the same? Literally. With ruggedized boxes sitting closer to the action in offices and on plant floors?
I don’t know the answer, but I’m watching startups like Lunera and Liqid to see what the future of edge computing actually looks like.