The cloud lives up there, in the abstract ether of digital information. And because of that, it has a certain magical quality to it. It can turn a low-power device into a brilliant machine. Its super-brain can harness the power of thousands of computers toprocess huge amounts of data, lightning-fast. It can serve as a technological Esperanto, offering a common tongue for all devices and people to communicate and collaborate in meaningful ways never seen before.

But for all that magic, the cloud still lives up there, far from the ground where all the action’s happening. For the Industrial Internet, a bustling metropolis of sensor-outfitted equipment and big data analytics, the cloud is a vital backbone. But for many critical applications, the distance to the cloud might be too great.

“I won’t call the current cloud model inadequate, it is just not broad enough to deal with the incredible amount of data that is coming from the Industrial Internet,” says Jaishree Subramania, Director, Internet of Things, WW Products & Solutions Marketing for Cisco, one of the founding organizations behind the Industrial Internet Consortium. “In roughly 2,000 years of recorded history, humans created 2 exabytes (two million terabytes) of data. We now generate over 2.5 exabytes of data every day.”

Managing that amount of data is a challenge. But Subramania offers an interesting solution. Bring the cloud to the ground. Enter: Fog.

Fog computing is a paradigm that extends Cloud Computing and services to the edge of the network. Similar to cloud, Fog provides data, compute, storage, and application services to end-users. The distinguishing characteristics of Fog are its proximity to end-users, its dense geographical distribution, and its support for mobility.”

The Fog extends what would typically be cloud-based services to the places they’re actually being used. That could be the network edge, or end devices, or local access points. The idea is to reduce distance, remove latency, and improve quality of service.

If the idea of a foggy Industrial Internet seems like a throwback to the days of local data centers and high infrastructure costs, worry not. While the Fog leverages the capabilities of ground-level devices, it doesn’t place a heavy computational burden on them unless it is demanded. According to Subramania:

“If you think about it, a distributed computing model similar to Fog is already in use by wearables and smartphones. Fitness gear like smart watches communicates locally (via technologies like Bluetooth) to a user’s smartphone to enable quick data processing via a smartphone’s cloud-based app, instead of connecting directly to a cloud-based app. The smartphone provides that bit of local, distributed computing the user needs.”

Extended to the Industrial Internet, smart assets/sensors would play the part of the wearables, and local network infrastructure would act like the smartphone, interfacing with the cloud while providing local processing power and services.

“Distributed intelligence (much like real estate) is all about location. You need local/near communication methods and protocols to make decisions in real time. Unless you plan to have a smartphone or a tablet located close to every one of these sensors – which would require 2x the bandwidth and put those tablets in harsh industrial environments - you need local processing for much of your data – thus, you need a Fog model.”

Processing data efficiently is key to driving better outcomes through the Industrial Internet. Trains become self-maintaining when sensors across components, like ball bearings, can send an automatic alert to train operators so that worn out components can be fixed when the train pulls into the next station – before they become an issue.

Similarly, energy distribution becomes smart when applications can manage which energy source is used based on energy demand, availability, and the lowest price and take advantage of solar and wind energies. It’s all part of getting to no unplanned downtime, optimized profitability, and asset performance management. It’s time to get our heads out of the clouds and start playing in the Fog.

About the author

Suhas Sreedhar

Strategic Writer at GT Nexus