Containerization, Automation, and Orchestration of Distributed IoT Systems, Inside and Outside the Four Walls


As the growth of IoT and Industrial IoT (IIoT) continues to surge unabated, Tridium this week hosted their annual Niagara Summit in Charlotte, North Carolina, bringing together hundreds of fans of the Niagara offering, which itself continues to grow and evolve.

Part of the excitement at the gathering of developers, system integrators, cloud, and network service providers, device manufacturers, and more across the IoT and IIoT ecosystem is around the upcoming major release of the Niagara Framework, a comprehensive software infrastructure that addresses the challenges of creating device-to-enterprise applications. Niagara “serves as a central console for connecting real-time operational data to the people and systems that manage workflows in smart buildings, data centers, industrial processes, smart cities and other aspects of business enterprises,” according to the company’s website.

“Niagara provides the critical, cyber-secure device connectivity and data normalization capabilities needed to acquire and unlock operational data from device-level and equipment-level silos,” Tridium goes on to say. “The control engine at the core of Niagara enables users to not just monitor data flows but to create logic sequences that effect controls programming based on data observation. Systems integrators use the data management and user presentation applications built into Niagara to manage histories, schedules, and alarms. They can create custom user interfaces for end-users with the tools built into Niagara or purchase graphical UI templates and components from the many Niagara partners that specialize in graphics and dashboarding.”

Today, there are almost one million instances of Niagara at work in hundreds of thousands of projects worldwide covering a range of applications and is used by developers and integrators to support different controls and environmental monitoring sub-systems necessary to support operations.

The week has been rich with both high-level, visionary presentations by Niagara leaders and partners, as well as highly technical workshops designed to educate and train the developers in this tight-knit community.

One of the hottest topics at the event was the emergence of the use of edge containers, which decentralize computing resources located as close as possible to the end-user to reduce latency, save bandwidth, and enhance every digital experience.

In a hyper-digital world, remote and centralized cloud services are no longer enough to support everything from autonomous systems to HD-streaming of video. Most users run time-sensitive applications, and lag diminishes the quality of the user experience. Edge computing was developed to bring data processing closer to the user and solve network-related performance issues and is becoming even more powerful as 5G super-fast and agile networking comes online.

Edge containers make it possible to shift intelligence to the edge, which has an important added benefit: cost savings as private, wireless networks, whether local mesh or 5G, drives costs down – while improving response times.

Edge containers are easy-to-deploy software packages, and containerized applications are all software provisioned and managed and can be deployed in parallel to geographically-diverse points of presence which dramatically improves resilience compared to more traditional cloud containers that achieve higher levels of availability when compared to a traditional cloud container.

One panel focused on edge container benefits, as “Connected Intelligent Edge, Portability and Containerization” brought together five industry experts to explore the new third party platform options available to the community using Niagara Edge, Portability and Containerization strategies.

Moderated by Mike Smith, Sr. Product Manager, Tridium, the panelist included Ali Dioury, Global Account Director, Intel; Marc Petock, Chief Marketing & Communications Officer, Lynxspring; Ged Tyrrell, CEO, Tyrrell Building Technologies Group; Roger Woodward, Member of the Supervisory Board, iSMA Controlli; and Joseph Warner, Director Customer Program Management, Veea Inc.

We caught up with Joseph Warner, who took the audience through an example of an integration between Veea’s edge computing, communications, and security offerings, including their VeeaHub universal devices designed to reduce complexity at the edge by working with nearly every software and network protocol, and the Niagara Framework.

“Two to three weeks,” Warner said, “was all the time it took to complete a very successful integration between our two offerings like many other partners we onboard. Containerization was key. The time-to-market using containers is just days or weeks, with predictable performance and powerful provisioning, monitoring, and management which make for a seamless experience and single-pane-of-glass view.”

“Typically,” Warner said, “We run through an onboarding with our partners to train on our Veea Platform Development. The development portal provides example applications and guided instruction to port your own applications. When things get tough, there is a contact by which premium partners like Tridium may seek assistance from our support resources to streamline their applications into the Veea Platform. After running the Veea Hub Toolkit Docker operations, the applications are sideloaded with a license to run on the development Veea Hub and test. Their apps are then wrapped and signed with a partner certificate and our secure element to place it as a subscription service in select accounts. This is far more efficient than we’ve seen historically.”

“Using Docker container technology, together with Niagara, we bring to service providers and operators benefits including load balancing, support of multiple locations at once, designed and managed with familiar Docker tools, and of course super-fast networking whether over a mesh network or connected to 4G/5G wireless networks,” Warner also said. “This changes everything, not only building management automation but the automation and orchestration of any connected system across many use cases: smart cities, smart campuses, smart factories, farms, and public venues.”

There are challenges being addressed in this new world of edge container implementations, among them complexity for larger systems.

“Having multiple containers spread among many locations requires careful planning and ongoing maintenance, which is why system integrators and managed service providers are so important,” Warner said. “Cybersecurity can be another risk if not taken into account in the design – because there are more devices, it is crucial to not ignore the fact that the attack surface is expanded. With the right approach and the solid configuration of secure network and edge computing policies, we can orchestrate the edge with zero-trust in mind.”

“There are many good reasons why developers are huge fans of edge containers,” Warner said. “They give developers much more freedom to choose the best language and framework depending on the use case, while also reducing the total cost of development and ownership with a lot less overhead and a lot more agility.”

Warner reiterated several times that 5G networks set the stage for the containerized, intelligent edge. “These ultra-fast networks support a plethora of devices, from smartphones to smart appliances, smart TVs, connected and autonomous vehicles, cameras, HVAC systems, lighting, humidity, moisture, and more. What is so exciting about this moment is the massive number of use cases and the inherent virtualization of 5G operating systems. Today we can run private multiple logical networks on top of a common shared physical infrastructure with the help of virtual machines and containers, which drives unheard of value and efficiency.”

Warner pointed out the essential nature of containers in harmony with virtual machines as, when orchestrated, they allow traditional monolithic structures of the network elements to be broken down into customizable microservices elements.

“Today – with the right technologies and ecosystem partnerships, like the ones we are celebrating this week at the Niagara Summit, we can spin up edge computing 5G enterprise networks as easily as we can spin up machines,” Warner concluded. “By chaining together VMs and containers, we have the unprecedented ability to meet every detailed requirement needed to optimize the potential of fast, resilient, and secure automated systems. Seeing so many examples of how so many members of the Niagara Community have worked together to create value has been inspiring.”

Arti Loftus is an experienced Information Technology specialist with a demonstrated history of working in the research, writing, and editing industry with many published articles under her belt.

Edited by Maurice Nagle
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