What's the Deal With Fog Computing?

30 May 2014 by Datacenters.com Cloud

"Watch out, cloud computing - the fog is coming for you. While it's barely past being heralded as a landmark disruptive technology - maybe a little too disruptive - the cloud may already be superseded by the next generation of network- and communication-focused computing. The cloud originally arrived as an answer to managing growing application, hardware and data environments. With mounting reams of information that needed to be stored, shared and protected, it didn't make sense to keep it confined to a single computer, server or small network. It had to be available to people anywhere, and effectively transformed business computing practices.

But not even cloud computing's proponents may have prophesied about the explosion of mobile devices and mounting demands they've placed on wireless networks. While data may be available anywhere, the means of getting to it ""especially on a wireless network“ may be cutting into its productive use. Some industry analysts have recognized the rising disconnect between the cloud and its users, and have introduced fog computing as a means of reconfiguring cloud services at the network's edge. While it is still very much in a nascent stage, fog computing could have significant implications for data centers, network management, bandwidth support, mobile users and cloud investment decisions. But first, it's important to understand what fog computing aims to be.

Turning On the Fog Machine
Fog computing, of course, is a buzzword - but then again, so is cloud. It may not be a surprise that it was coined by the techno-linguistic minds at Cisco Systems, who also helped popularize the ""Internet of Things"" in the common IT vocabulary. The Wall Street Journal contributor Christopher Mims wrote that while the name ""makes you want to do a Liz Lemon eye roll,"" it's also a ""good visual metaphor"" for what fog computing actually intends to do, especially as it relates the cloud.

""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,"" Mims said. ""It consists not of powerful servers, but weaker and more dispersed computers of the sort that are making their way into appliances, factories, cars, street lights and every other piece of our material culture.""

The fog basically entails bringing some of the features of the cloud closer to the devices it supports and differentiates device data needs according to their environment - a smartphone user has more variable and likely more robust data support and wireless network needs than a streetlight, for instance. The rise of driverless cars and more large mobile devices that depend on computers and wireless connectivity also means that networks need to be instantaneous, highly available and, well, smarter. As the Web Host Industry Review contributor David Hamilton observed, the fog would enable users to leverage the basic method of cloud access and data sharing, but in a more granular way that offers faster connections.

""Fog computing can really be thought of as a way of providing services more immediately, but also as a way of bypassing the wider internet, whose speeds are largely dependent on carriers,"" Hamilton wrote.

From the Center to the Edge
So what does fog computing (aka the edge of the network) mean for the data center (aka the center of the network)? Data centers are the furthest removed from the ""real world,"" as there are several levels of support and network devices that data passes through as it moves from data center servers to PCs, for example. Mims noted that just as the cloud's physical presence is really multiple servers harnessed together, the fog relies on the multitude of computers that already exist everywhere. Increasing communication between these computers, instead of sending a software update through the cloud, for example, could speed things up.

However, the movement to the edge does not diminish the importance of the center. On the contrary, it means that the data center needs to be a stronger nucleus for expanding computing architecture than it ever has before. InformationWeek contributor Kevin Casey recently wrote that the cloud hasn't actually diminished server sales, as one might otherwise expect. While revenue has declined somewhat, shipments are up. Hybrid computing models, big data and the Internet of Things have all contributed to server requirements that may be shifting, but aren't really abating as some experts had predicted.

The IoT is a relevant bridge to some of the biggest issues dividing the cloud and the fog - bandwidth and wireless network capacity. Mims observed that 3G and 4G cellular networks just aren't capable of transmitting data between the cloud and devices at lightning speed, and the addition of potentially billions of new networked devices over the next few years will only clog networks further. While there has been some movement to develop 5G networks, any realistic implementation is still a ways off. This could lead to a hybrid fog-cloud model, as organizations seek to balance their enterprise-grade data center needs with support for increasing edge network growth."


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