IoT driving computing power back out to the network edge

Thoughtworks’ ‘head of things’ on the growth of fog computing

According to Matt Henshall, the ‘head of things’ at global software development company Thoughtworks, the Internet of Things is reversing to some extent the trend of recent years of moving processing power to the cloud and instead distributing it at the edge.

“Corporates are only just getting used to the idea of having the cloud but now those of us ahead of developments are saying we need to distribute some of that power to the edge, and that is going to be an interesting challenge,” Henshall told Computerworld.

“As more devices are connected to the Internet there will be a shift to edge computing, sometimes called fog computing.” (Fog computing is a term invented by Cisco that is now gaining wide acceptance following the formation of the Open Fog Consortium, with the backing of a number of major vendors.)

Henshall took on the role of head of things with Thoughtworks based in San Francisco in February 2015 after three years as CTO of Australian smart home and environment IoT company, Environexus. He told Computerworld that his role was to bring a perspective on IoT to Thoughtworks and its clients.

New processors for edge computing

He said the move to edge computing was being accelerated by the development of new low cost, high power processors.

“The new Nvidia SoC has a massive parallel computing core and a very significant ARM based microcontroller at a very low power and low price that allows you to do things at the edge that you would expect to need to have a fully fledged computer or send it to the cloud to be processed,” Henshall said.

“I think things like image recognition and spatial interaction will be the initial drive to that much higher quality edge computing, and I think software will lag a bit behind that: how do we deal with massive quantities of data at the edge and either process that data or decide to offload it. Those techniques are going to come and there will be unlimited opportunities there.”

Computerworld spoke to Henshall on the day that Intel announced its new IoT processors, the Atom 3900 series, with significantly greater power than the previous Atom 3800 series. Ken Caviasca, general manager of Intel’s IoT platform engineering team, told a press briefing on the new processors that they had been designed both of smart things and for edge computing roles: video cameras with inbuilt image analysis capabilities, and real-time control of factory automation systems.

The real world mirrored in the digital

Henshall said the world was moving towards a situation where the physical world would be closely mirrored in the virtual world.

“Google calls it the physical web — the idea that everything around us also has a digital footprint in the virtual world, and that is where it is going,” he explained.

One implication of this trend that Thoughtworks has been exploring is the ability of IoT to give companies insights into customer behaviour in the physical world that matched the insights they can now easily gain from customers’ online interactions.

“Companies get amazing insights about their customers from their online experiences. Now you can use IoT to get the same level of insights from the physical environment,” Henshall said. “Every time a business has a physical interaction with a customer there are opportunities to get the same level of insights.”

As an example, Henshall cited a project Thoughtworks has undertaken for a conference company to gain delegate feedback on conference sessions. “They wanted to get the equivalent of a Facebook ‘like’ in a seamless way,” he said.

“They used to have just red and green pieces of paper as people left the room. Then they introduced a smartphone app but the participation rate went down from 90 per cent to something like 30 per cent. There was simply too much friction in the new system.

“So we created some custom hardware that allowed delegates to use their badges as they left the room and just swipe the badge. The advantage over the paper system was the organiser got the timing – whether someone had left at the start, in the middle or right at the end. And they also got ID so they could go back to people and ask them why they did not like something.”

He added: “It seems simple but it was remarkably difficult to do. We looked around and could not find anything so we decided to build it.”

Open source Bluetooth mesh

Thoughtworks developed portable readers and a Bluetooth mesh technology to communicate with them because, Henshall said, Wi-Fi is notoriously congested and unreliable in conferences venues.

“As a spinoff from that project we will be releasing that Bluetooth mesh technology as open source software in a couple of weeks,” he said.

According to Henshall, bespoke developments account for the bulk of Thoughtworks business, although it also has a software product development arm. The company employs about 4000 people globally and 400 in Australia. In Australia it has developed web-based and smartphone applications for, amongst other, RealEstate.com.au, IOOF, GetUp!, Target, Dominos and Woolworths.

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