Smart city infrastructure is enabling efficiency, cost reduction and improved living for city occupants. But it needs edge networks to create these efficiencies.
Smart city initiatives have gained momentum in cities around the world.
These metropolitan agendas use technology to promote efficiency, better use of resources and better experiences for city occupants and visitors. Exploiting technologies including Internet of Things (IoT)-connected devices, cities can reduce costs, improve safety and alleviate problems associated with increasing city congestion, promote public-private partnerships and improve occupant experience. While smart city infrastructure enlists new technologies, it ultimately places priority on what makes sense for cities and residents.
There are real-world examples of smart city initiatives, including traffic optimization systems; water loss reduction systems; early-warning systems for emergency services; and waste removal services.
But ultimately, smart city infrastructure will run up against the limitations that other technologies face: The volume and velocity of data requires new networking architectures to accommodate the speed, volume and security of these data flows. They need new technologies such as edge computing, which bring the resources and computation of data closer to the users and devices that need them.
It’s fair to say that without edge networks, efficient IoT-based systems couldn’t be practically implemented at the scale required to serve city occupants, visitors and local businesses. And without edge computing, it would be impractical to offer the benefits of smart city data to local businesses.
It’s not surprising, then, that a lot of effort is currently being invested in designing edge and fog computing architectures specifically for deployment in smart city implementations. Some implementations are largely academic, some are technology- and methodology-specific. And some are ready for prime time.
These solutions specifically address the disparity between cloud- and edge-based solutions for smart city applications: it’s about IoT-to-cloud latency, which greatly diminishes the performance of dynamic data and network management systems, and the increased security risks of centralized processing resources for such widely distributed data sources.
This sort of edge networks deployment scenario differs significantly from the standard enterprise deployment in several ways:
1. Standalone edge networks. An edge network may be conceptually standalone, a peer-to-peer configuration of autonomous resources; apps hosted in the network could be independent of any host cloud.
2. Cloud-connected networks. Nodes in an edge network may be connected to multiple clouds, in different verticals; an independent edge network could be loosely coupled to a range of cloud-based systems.
3. API-connected networks. Nodes in an edge network may be accessible to private business systems via application programming interfaces (APIs), providing real-time information with no cloud middleman; they could become publicly sourced extensions of enterprise systems, improving efficiency and performance on both sides.
The challenge in an independent edge network is that it requires independent administration, maintenance and security. In a conventional enterprise deployment, edge resources are simply servers in a private, cloud-centric network that exist beyond the enterprise firewall; in a municipal deployment, the edge resources would not be child nodes of a specific parent cloud, but nonhierarchical peers, deeply interconnected (making such a network ideal for blockchain solutions as well).
An autonomous municipal edge network can be particularly cost-effective.
A peer-to-peer network of fog nodes, explicitly designed to scale and support a mixture of public and private clouds (and host standalone apps), isn’t cheap.
But in a scenario where a smart city offers private-sector access to such a network, private enterprise can share some of the cost, which can alleviate the budgetary strain of providing services. Certain APIs and other data access mechanisms in a municipal network will be free (when the data is owned by the public), but many could be fee based, or accessible via lease agreements (as in the case of data supporting automated supply chain and logistics operations, as it’s often done in the private sector).
Moreover, the design and deployment of such networks in smart city infrastructure, city by city, give IT service providers an opportunity. Because a standalone edge network of this size requires budget and management, there is opportunity for network design and manufacturing businesses to provide scaled offerings and long-term support contracts to cities that embrace smart city infrastructure, over and above the IT companies currently providing and supporting IoT devices and applications. Sharing the burden between cities and the private sector may also address cities’ lack of in-house expertise and supplement their expertise.
The end result for all this trouble, however, is potentially beneficial for municipalities and their functional departments, private business and IT departments, with new opportunities emerging to bring this new connected, fast and data-rich landscape into being.
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Scott Robinson is director of business intelligence at Lucina Health in Louisville, Ky.