Edge computing and the Internet of Things are powerful utilities for a modern business. If you need to monitor and gather information from off-site systems, such as a factory, farm or branch outlet, edge and IoT solve many problems. It can range from the mundane – someone left a display fridge door open, thawing the ice cream – to major – real-time scheduling adjustments to an assembly line.
Through data from their remote sites, companies can achieve and improve gains with automation, analytics and digital orchestration. The IoT sensors collect data, and edge computing systems refine that data before sending it to the company’s central concentration of systems, likely in the cloud or a datacentre. Though IoT devices are used for the collection and transmission of data, they are not able to process data. This is where Edge systems are deployed, allowing processed IoT data to transmit out, as well as feeding the results back into the local environment.
The obvious benefits are faster decision-making, as there isn’t lag from travelling over long distances, or attempting to place powerful cloud services on site. It’s also safer from a security vantage: encrypting and transmitting only the necessary data between sites, thus reducing cybercriminals’ opportunities to attack.
“Edge computing is about giving more intelligence to the end-point devices that sit on the periphery of the IoT environment,” explains Brian Timperley, CEO of Turrito Networks. “By doing this, you give these devices the ability to do more themselves, so they are less reliant on your communication’s uptime. This approach not only enables increased automation but when coupled with IoT, allows an organisation to save money on labour costs while improving efficiencies – machines are more reliable and less prone to mistakes – and ultimately enables the consistent monitoring of those remote sites where humans simply cannot be all the time.”
The edge has a problem
Sounds fantastic, right? Where do you sign up? But such potential has been slower to adoption than many anticipated because they are often quite complex and costly. It’s not efficient or always feasible to put a local server or regular PC tower into a remote site, yet most of the edge gateway systems available are incredibly bespoke and technically demanding. They can be expensive from a cost and skills vantage, and cause difficulties realising a return on investment.
Compounding this problem is the nature of IoT and data-driven deployments. For these systems to perform, they need alignment with processes, and often those processes need to evolve to reap the benefits. What is the point of real-time data if reporting is still manual? When a company adopts the edge, it needs space to take stock, make changes, and be resilient to interruption – pretty daunting when your edge systems are very complicated or too simplistic.
But that was before the mini PC. As the name suggests, this is a PC in a very compact form factor. It reflects the size of a typical edge gateway device – roughly the equivalent to a small media centre – yet packs the punch of a fully–featured desktop computer.
“This is a common problem: someone wants to create an edge computing footprint, but then realise thin computing systems are very limiting to work with and a regular PC is too cumbersome and ill-suited for the space,” says Timperley. “Mini PCs close the gap. They bring commodity technologies to the edge: powerful standalone operating systems, enough RAM and storage, but solid-state and energy-efficient enough to deploy on mass, especially for remote locations.”
Edge excellence comes in small packages
A high-quality mini PC’s specification resembles those of full desktops: Windows and Linux support, 8GB RAM, 256GB solid-state storage, gigabit ethernet, wifi, Bluetooth, support for multiple screens – the list goes on. Best of breed mini PC solutions go even further, offering extensive cloud integration such as with Azure, AWS, or private clouds. They provide 24/7 support, remote access for technicians, and easy replacement.
“You can compare a mini PC with a desktop PC, but there are 3 major differences – a mini PC is easier to replace, affordable to purchase, and incredibly energy efficient,” says Timperley. “You can pre-configure a number of mini PCs and keep them on the site. When one fails, just plug in a new one and send the old one back to the service provider for repair or replacement. You could just throw it into a regular courier bag. Try doing that with a desktop system!”
It’s worth re-emphasising that these devices can work remotely and offline, else the whole edge value proposition would be moot. A system that has to call home constantly is slower to respond, and will suffer if there are network failures. Part of the edge’s purpose is to help operations continue even if there is a break with the company’s central systems. This further distinguishes mini PCs from thin clients, which are wholly reliant on an active network connection.
Simply put, mini PCs remove a major barrier for most IoT/edge projects. They provide cost-effective, commoditised PC systems that behave like the big boys but are as efficient as tiny gateways. With the doors now open to more companies, Timperley encourages people to explore their options.
“Mini PCs offer numerous advantages over other types of end-point devices. But if you choose to invest in one as an edge device, you must do your research, because IoT edge solutions are very specific to the scenario you are trying to apply them to. For example, one used in for agricultural purposes – which is likely a relatively dry and safe environment – would have different requirements to one used in a manufacturing or mining environment, where high temperatures, dust and depth must all be considered.”