IoT Blog

Why Containers are the Edge Compute Strategy of the Future

AirLink, Routers, Edge Compute

Greg Dunn

Greg Dunn

Senior Product Manager

The introduction of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) highlighted the value of data in the industrial space. From sending small amounts of operational data for remote monitoring and diagnostics, the industry quickly grew to the centralization of huge amounts of asset and process data for analysis.

Suddenly, oil and gas companies could remotely monitor conditions throughout the production environment – despite the remoteness or conditions of their assets – and understand the operational state of equipment. Agricultural concerns could improve livestock management through better monitoring and reduce over-watering of crops by taking advantage of smart irrigation. Meanwhile, energy companies could connect all their energy assets via wireless technologies to create energy ecosystems that incorporate renewables, are more resilient and help reduce outages or blackouts.

In some traditional IIoT data streams, large amounts of data are collected from assets and communicated to a data center or cloud; then, some computational work is performed, and an action may be sent back to the assets. In addition to the huge amounts of data that must be sent and potentially stored in the cloud, this approach also leaves some IIoT solutions vulnerable to network outages.

With edge computing, by contrast, some of the computational work can be done locally near the machine where the data is generated – at “the edge”, as it were. This eliminates the need to send and store huge amounts of data in the cloud, tightens the feedback loop, and improves resilience against network downtime.

While edge computing has successfully powered an array of IIoT use cases for over a decade, it is poised to take a big step forward through the usage of containers, which will allow the IIoT to unlock an even greater array of possibilities.

Moving away from vendor lock-in

So, what’s so special about containers, and why do they matter when it comes to edge computing and the industrial IoT?

If you go back a decade or so, everything around edge compute was proprietary. Every vendor was using their own proprietary application framework. For devices like routers, customers were stuck with whatever language the vendor had chosen. For example, if a router was running on the Lua programming language, and a customer had developed their own IIoT application that was written in C programming language, they’d be out of luck – they’d have to go and rewrite their application in Lua.

There’s an echo here of Henry Ford, who famously told customers that they could have a car in any color they wanted, as long as it was black. Likewise, IIoT vendors were essentially telling customers that they were free to write applications in any language they wanted, as long as it was the one the vendor was already utilizing.

Effectively, this meant that as customers were choosing someone to build their IIoT solution with, they were locking themselves into that vendor for life, because rewriting applications in different languages or for different frameworks would be too time consuming.

Enter: containers. Containers help smash this paradigm and remove these limitations, which is why they are the edge compute strategy of the future.

Like virtualization – only better

Most people are familiar with virtualization, which allows you to run any operating system and associated applications you’d like on a server or PC by creating virtual machines that sit on top of the hardware and can tap into the memory, storage, and other hardware resources, including virtualized ones.

Containers offer a similar ability to effectively run multiple isolated applications on a single device. In addition, by limiting some of the flexibility of virtual machines they can run with a much smaller footprint. Because of the pervasive adoption of container support the net result is that a customer can easily package up an application, put it onto nearly any piece of hardware, and be assured that it will run. There’s no need to worry about having to rewrite the code for whatever framework and language the vendor is using.

This portability doesn’t just apply to customers who are creating a new IIoT application from scratch – it equally applies to customers with legacy applications that were written in a programming language that has fallen out of favor. If they can containerize that legacy application, they can continue to leverage it for years to come and move the application from an older piece of hardware to whatever the latest generation, state-of-the-art offering might be.

As containers have become widely used in the cloud and at the edge, the ecosystem has also developed. Many software vendors have packaged their applications into container images ready to be deployed into edge compute systems with little to no software development required. The net result is that a customer can often just download a solution as a container without the need to build anything.

An ideal solution that future proofs IIoT innovations

In this respect, the recently released Sierra Wireless AirLink® RX55 industrial router solution hits all the right marks.

Optimized for IIoT use cases with ultra-low power consumption and a rugged design for extreme conditions, the RX55 features advanced networking and – most importantly – industry standard container support capabilities.

Sierra Wireless’ AirLink Operating System underpins the RX55, as well as the XR80 and XR90 routers, and includes container support (currently in closed Beta) which means that customers can write their application using programming languages and libraries of their choice, or leverage a commercial off the shelf offering with ease. In this way, the AirLink routers provide a future-proof platform for innovation that will enable more edge applications than ever – for a variety of niche and bespoke use cases – across multiple industries.

The time has come for containers

For several years, there has been a growing chorus among IIoT customers for container support. It’s simply an idea whose time has come when it comes to IIoT – and Sierra Wireless is helping to make it a reality.

Start with Sierra by  contacting us directly to talk about your edge compute needs, enrolling in the Beta program, and to find out how the AirLink® RX55, XR80 and XR90 routers can help you take advantage of containers to create innovative IIoT solutions for today’s challenges as well as tomorrow’s.

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