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Living life on the edge: Edge computing explained

You might have only just got to grips with the cloud, but tech waits for no one. It’s time to sharpen your knowledge of ‘edge computing’.

Living life on the edge: Edge computing explained
Photo: lagareek/Depositphotos

It can sound complicated at first, but edge computing is actually rather straightforward.

In a nutshell, it involves the processing of data as near to the source of that data as possible, hence the name ‘the edge’. Rather than utilizing one centralized server or pinging information to and from the cloud, edge computing takes place right at the device, whether that be a mobile tower or the phone in your pocket.

That’s right. You’re likely utilizing edge computing even if you’ve never heard the term before. Which you probably haven’t.

“Most people don’t know what the edge is,” Mattias Fridström concedes.

As the ‘Chief Evangelist’ for Swedish telecom firm Telia Carrier, Fridström is at the cutting edge (excuse the pun) of computing. Telia is number one in the global internet backbone rankings, a position it has consistently held since 2017. In layman’s terms, that means it is currently the most important company for the internet and functions as a crucial backbone tying the world wide web together.

For a guy with such lofty tech credentials, Fridström chooses a surprisingly low-tech example to explain the edge: cows.

READ ALSO: The little-understood secret powering Swedish innovation

“Let’s say you’re a Swedish farmer who tends a large herd of cows. Each individual cow is outfitted with a transmitter that sends signals to your personal computer or mobile phone that calculates those signals for fairly simple computations. That’s the edge. The farmer’s computer or phone is making calculations that don’t need to be sent off to the cloud or a centralized server,” he says.

Fridström stresses that edge computing is less a replacement for the cloud than it is a complementary system.

“Some of the easier things can be done a lot closer to the end user. The simplest calculations can be done at the very edge of the network, while really complicated data will still need to go into the core where you have a lot more computation power,” he says. “There are certain functions that farmer will want to do with just a mobile phone there on the farm and those are the kinds of things that can be done at the edge.”

Of course, edge computing wasn’t developed solely with cows in mind.

It is already being utilized by a number of popular applications like Facebook and Pokemon Go. When it comes to the social media giant, Fridström says that Facebook stores all user photos in massive data centres but utilizes edge computing to store recent photos closer to the user while the user is most likely to share them. Smart, huh?

But the real potential of the edge lies within the internet of things (IoT). As more and more of our everyday objects become capable of sending and receiving data, that data needs to be processed closer to the objects themselves. In many cases, your phone will serve as an edge device as it processes information from your internet-connected refrigerator, home thermostat or what have you.

“With IoT, a lot of things that can be done on the mobile phone actually use edge computing so that the brain of the network is brought closer to where the users are,” Fridström explains. “With basic computing that is fairly easy to do, you move things closer to the edge so that things can happen very fast.”

READ ALSO: Swedish tech trendspotting: Predictions for 2018

From a user perspective, what matters is how quickly information can be processed and delivered. By doing certain computations at the edge, end users get what they need quicker than they would if the information was sent further off.

For public transport passengers in Sweden, that means being fed traffic and scheduling information, along with onboard infotainment, through edge devices located right in the busses and trains themselves, says Carina Berglund of Fältcom, a Umeå-based firm that monitors some 40,000 IoT devices worldwide. 

Would you travel on a train that's on the 'edge'? Photo: Ifeelstock/Depositphotos

Berglund says that Fältcom utilizes edge computing technology to serve both passengers and transport companies like Nobina and Skånetrafiken.

READ ALSO: Why Sweden is leading the cryptocurrency revolution

“There can be 20 different IT systems within a bus and these all used to work independently. But we’ve brought them all together into the same channel so that you no longer need 20 antennas, you just need one or two,” she says.

Passengers can watch traffic information or access news and entertainment that is stored locally in the bus, rather than on a central server or the cloud. This means that the service is always available.

“If the system breaks down, the passenger will never notice because that information is stored locally,” Berglund says.

That processing of information on devices that are closer to the end user is what the edge is all about, Fridström says.

“Ten years ago, everything had to go back and forth to a central location in a big city somewhere. Every company had its own server in the basement and everything was very local. When the large companies like Amazon came along and offered to build cheaper, better data centers in exchange for cloud connectivity, we went from a local system to a very centralized one,” Fridström says.

“Edge computing takes the data that is needed every day and stores it much closer so that it can be more conveniently accessed. The rest of the data is still stored in a central, more cost-effective place, such as a data center here in Sweden where we have fantastic connectivity and low cost of energy,” he explains.

The proximity and speed of the edge will soon expand into more customized content, the ‘chief evangelist’ predicts.

“A lot more things will happen closer to the user so that the delay between wanting to see something and seeing it will be a lot shorter. There will be a lot more things happening on your phone as you move throughout the city, as companies will take advantage of this technology to give you information where you are and when you want it,” he says.

An example could be specialized offers that come in on a user’s phone as they pass by a particular storefront. While that might sound appealing to some, Fridström acknowledges it could be a bit creepy to others.

READ ALSO: How Sweden helped build the internet

“It has to be at the user’s choice. The current Facebook discussions are bringing to light the fact that users should only get what they want, not everything someone else might believe they want,” he says.

But for those who do want the immediacy that the edge allows, he says the data will become much more relevant.

“Edge computing is simply about getting information when you need it and not 20 seconds later,” he sums up.

This article was produced by The Local Creative Studio and sponsored by Data Centers by Sweden.

 

VIKING

How a Viking king inspired one of our best-known modern technologies

A Swede and American tell the story of how they hatched the idea for the moniker 'Bluetooth' over beers.

A Danish 16th-century paining of Viking king Harald Bluetooth
A Danish 16th-century paining of Viking king Harald Bluetooth. Photo: Wikimedia Commons/Public domain

At the end of the 1990s, Sven Mattisson, a Swedish engineer working at telecom group Ericsson, and Jim Kardach, an American employed by Intel, were among those developing the revolutionary technology.

In 1998, at the dawn of the “wireless” era, the two men were part of an international consortium that created a universal standard for the technology first developed by Ericsson in 1994.

But prior to that, they had struggled to pitch their wireless products. Intel had its Biz-RF wireless programme, Ericsson had MC-Link, while Nokia had its Low Power RF. Kardach, Mattisson and others presented their ideas at a seminar in Toronto in late 1997.

“Jim and I said that people did not appreciate what we presented,” Mattisson, now 65 and winding down his career at Ericsson, recalled in a recent interview with AFP.

The engineer, who had travelled all the way to Canada from Sweden for the one-hour pitch, decided to hang out with Kardach for the evening before flying home.

“We received a lukewarm reception of our confusing proposal, and it was at this time I realised we needed a codename for the project which everyone could use,” Kardach explained in a long account on his webpage.

‘Chauvinistic story’

To drown their sorrows, the two men headed for a local Toronto bar and ended up talking about history, one of Kardach’s passions. “We had some beers… and Jim is interested in history so he asked me about Vikings, so we talked at length about that,” said Mattisson, admitting that his recollection of that historic night is now somewhat foggy.

Kardach said all he knew about Vikings was that they ran “around with horned helmets raiding and looting places, and that they were crazy chiefs.”

Mattisson recommended Kardach read a well-known Swedish historical novel about the Vikings, entitled “The Long Ships”.

Set in the 10th century – “a chauvinistic story” about a boy taken hostage by Vikings, says Mattisson – one name in the book caught Kardach’s attention: that of the king of Denmark, Harald “Bluetooth” Gormsson.

A Bluetooth adapter from 2004. Photo: Stefan Gustavsson/SvD/TT

Unification

An important historic figure in Scandinavia in the 10th century, the king of Denmark’s nickname is said to refer to a dead tooth, or, as other tales have it, to his liking for blueberries or even a simple translation error.

During his reign, Denmark turned its back on its pagan beliefs and Norse gods, gradually converting to Christianity.

But he is best known for having united Norway and Denmark in a union that lasted until 1814.

A king who unified Scandinavian rivals – the parallel delighted those seeking to unite the PC and cellular industries with a short-range wireless link.

And the reference to the king goes beyond the name: the Bluetooth logo, which at first glance resembles a geometric squiggle, is in fact a superimposition of the runes for the letters “H” and “B”, the king’s initials.

Low-cost and with low power consumption, Bluetooth was finally launched in May 1998, using technology allowing computer devices to communicate with each other in short range without fixed cables.

The first consumer device equipped with the technology hit the market in 1999, and its name, which was initially meant to be temporary until something better was devised, became permanent.

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