It was back in 2004 when SAP’s Irfan Khan held a press briefing to explain how mobile applications should be built. These days, Khan is GM and Global Head of SAP’s Database and Data Management division, but back in 2004 he was Chief Technology Officer for Sybase. SAP famously acquired Sybase for its mobile capabilities, and the rest is history.  

“Developers should build mobile applications that obviously take advantage of connectivity because that’s what makes them mobile—but it’s important to always design and build as if the connectivity pipe is not there,” said Khan.

Prescient Prophesy of Life on the Edge

Khan’s prophetic words were not related to the Internet of Things (IoT), because the term didn’t enter our technology lexicon until much later. But his point was well made: Access to the network isn’t always going to be an option because connectivity drops sometimes and some locations (such as underground concrete bunkers, oil rigs, aircraft, etc.) may rarely, if ever, be in range.

Since Khan’s prescient musings and the birth of cloud computing a few years later, we have created a world where intelligent connected devices log in to networks and provide us with data analytics from a cloudy back end. While we may have solved some challenges with cloud computing, we’ve created another: The back end is a) not always available and b) sometimes takes too long to communicate with us if we want real-time performance, even if there is a connection. Welcome to edge computing.

What We Mean by Edge Computing

Edge computing (and edge services) describes the ability for devices to perform a degree of computational power locally. To be clearer, when we say locally, we mean on the device itself and within a defined perimeter of other networked devices and sensors. In technical terms, you could call this distributed peer-to-peer ad hoc networking. In a layperson’s terms, you could call this a group of devices, sensors, and machines in close proximity with enough intelligence to be able to talk to each other.

How close? We’re glad you asked. Analyst firm IDC defined edge computing as a, “mesh network of micro data centers that process or store critical data locally and push all received data to a centralized data center or cloud storage repository, in a footprint of less than 100 square feet.”

The Latency Factor

In real terms, edge computing often comes into play in financial services or manufacturing scenarios where device-to-data center (and back again) latency means a computing system will fail, even when that latency factor is only milliseconds. Why all this clarification? Because SAP is adding SAP Edge Services for connected assets and smart key performance indicators (KPIs).

During its appearance at Internet of Things World in Santa Clara this month, SAP explained how customers can use SAP Edge Services with the SAP Asset Intelligent Network to overcome workflow disruptions due to intermittent or slow connectivity. The SAP Asset Intelligence Network is designed to bring machine operators, engineering services providers, and manufacturers together into a collaborative cloud-based group to optimize the performance of operational equipment. It’s what SAP calls “uninterrupted processing in disconnected high-latency scenarios.” Or, if you prefer, it’s edge computing.

Flexibility to be On or Off

Mala Anand, President of SAP Leonardo and Analytics, has pointed to this software’s suitability for disconnected environments such as offshore oil rigs, mining, aeronautics, and defense deployments. She explains that SAP Edge Services allows customers to replenish materials and supplies, execute maintenance work, maintain project visibility, and perform other functions even when offline—and are still able to synchronize with their core systems when connectivity is restored.

Paradise by the Dashboard

SAP has also provided what it claims are easy-to-configure dashboards for users to design edge services management portals. According to this technology’s product release notes, the SAP Smart Business cockpit helps teams visualize and draw insights from key performance indicators (KPIs). It provides analytical drill-down views to complement the SAP IoT Application Enablement toolkit, without requiring additional coding.

“Using application templates, IoT developers can configure and embed visualizations into IoT applications by dragging and dropping them on the page. In addition to providing visualized performance insights, SAP Smart Business helps teams to manage by exception, with alerts when KPI thresholds are breached,” said SAP in a briefing statement.

Too Close to the Edge?

So, edge computing is an important part of the Internet of Things. People also use “fog computing” to describe the notion of the wider network activities that also occur near edge computing devices. But we won’t go down that road today.

Speaking to ASUG in May 2018 to update his comments on this subject, SAP’s Khan has explained that, “When designing mobile apps for edge-based processing, a fundamental design principle is to incorporate ‘occasionally connected’ persistence for the eventuality of poor coverage. Regardless of the hyperconnectivity available today, black spots are still resident in both cellular and Wi-Fi networks. Offline [data] persistence is what makes processing at the edge viable. Former Sybase technologies like SQL-Anywhere are widely used even today to provide offline, but full, relational database capabilities on a very small memory footprint, permitting both compute and storage independence.”

The Jury is Still Out on Security

Some practitioners argue that edge computing is more secure because less network traffic must ping back and forth across the connection pipe. Some practitioners argue that edge computing is less secure because edge devices are inherently smaller, lower power, less smart and therefore more easily penetrated. Which side of the coin is right? It depends.

SAP’s moves into the IoT space continues as the company continues to make substantial investments in this area, so it is no surprise to see them supporting edge computing in this way. It turns out the that sagaciously affable Mr. Khan was right after all.

Join one of our SAP Leonardo webcasts to hear from Mala Anand, President of SAP Leonardo and Analytics and others as you learn how you can implement your own IoT projects.