Out of the Cloud and Into the Fog: Cisco, Fog Computing, and the Internet of Things

We have all heard the hype that the cloud is the way forward in the twenty-first century, and I am sure you have heard the claim from cloud advocates that at some point 100% of computing will reside in the cloud. This seems logical, based on current trends and a quick glance over the announcements of new products and services released each and every day. But in all honesty, these cloud-based products and services are designed to work best when there is high-speed connectivity between the end user and the cloud.

Now, here lies the conundrum. If we are not there yet, then in my opinion, it will not be long until devices such as tablets and smartphones outnumber the classic desktop and laptop computers that we all know and love. But let’s be honest: currently, modern 3G, 4G, and LTE cellular networks simply cannot compete with the speed and bandwidth that is available via non-cellular service from Wi-Fi, LAN, and WAN wired connections. As more and more devices come to rely on cellular services, the available bandwidth will become increasingly strained. Until we get to the point at which cellular service can match the speed and service of its non-cellular cousin, we will need to find another way to work around this shortcoming. How? By taking advantage of the advancements in mobile computing processing power within the devices themselves. This is the direction in which companies like Cisco Systems, Inc. and IBM are now starting to focus, and the marketers at Cisco have already come up with a name: “fog computing.”

I am not usually a person who fully embraces marketing definitions, but I have to admit that “fog computing” is, in my opinion, a pretty good term to describe this processing migration model. The model has been in the works for a while, and the term makes a good visual metaphor for this change. Think of it this way: whereas the cloud is “up there” in the sky somewhere, distant and remote and deliberately abstracted, the “fog” is close to the ground, right where things are getting done. It consists not of powerful servers, but weaker and more dispersed computers of the sort that are making their way into appliances, factories, cars, streetlights, and every other piece of our material culture.

If that definition doesn’t do it for you, then how about this one?:

“Fog computing, also known as fogging, is a model in which data, processing, and applications are concentrated in devices at the network edge rather than existing almost entirely in the cloud.”

That concentration means that data can be processed locally in smart devices rather than being sent to the cloud for processing. Fog computing is one approach to dealing with the demands of the ever-increasing number of Internet-connected devices sometimes referred to as the “Internet of Things.”

If you really think about it for a minute, doesn’t fog computing follow the virtualization mentality of using and taking advantage of all available resources? As smartphones and tablets continue to become more powerful with each and every new model, they present another set of resources that can be exploited for a better overall end user experience. Cisco cites the example of a jet engine, which, according to Cisco, can create ten terabytes (TB) of data about its performance and condition in half an hour. Transmitting all that data to the cloud and transmitting response data back puts a great deal of demand on bandwidth, requires a considerable amount of time, and can suffer from latency. In a fog computing environment, much of the processing would take place in a router, rather than needing to be transmitted.

If you’ve read my last couple of posts, here and here, you know that I have mentioned that Cisco is in the process of transforming its business model to one that is more cloud-centric. At the same time, it needs to find a way to transform its networking hardware line to keep it relevant and stay competitive with other networking equipment manufacturers. This push to expand the computing power of the cloud out to the edges could help revive Cisco’s lagging hardware sales, while at the same time marching Cisco’s cloud-centric roadmap out of the cloud and into the fog.

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