What are Edge Servers?

Edge servers are powerful computers put at the “edge” of a given network where data computation needs to happen. They are physically close to the systems or applications that are creating the data being stored on, or used by, the server.

In this I/O Hub video, Product Manager Tasha Dickinson answers this question in more detail including how edge servers are solving today’s most challenging hardware problems. A summary of the video can also be found below. Click here to explore OnLogic’s line of edge servers.

Note, this video was created before the name Logic Supply was changed to OnLogic.

What is the history of edge servers?

Servers have been around for quite a bit of time. The creator of servers, Tim Berners-Lee, worked for CERN in Switzerland in 1989. He actually had a problem. Tim needed to get data from his scientists all over the world and all the CERN labs. And he wanted to make sure that he could access them no matter where he was.

For example, each different computer had different languages. Sometimes you had to know multiple different languages just to get data off of these different computers. As a result, he was able to have one repository that amassed all of this data. The result of this allowed him to push it out to all of his scientists. And so that’s actually where servers started really in this content caching type of an idea.

Tim quietly started this whole server history that we have to this day. He was even brought out during the Olympics, acknowledged by the queen, and knighted!

He tweeted at that time, “this is for everyone.” At OnLogic, we love the idea that somebody who started this has a really enriching history around servers.

Edge servers live on the “edge”

The traditional server is a computer that serves as a central source of information to give resources, distribute resources across the network. When people hear the word server, most think of a cold room in the back of a building or underground in cement bunkers. But that is the model of 10 years ago. That was before the proliferation of the cloud and rapid growth of the internet.

Edge servers are the next step. People are really looking at artificial intelligence, machine vision, and deep learning. As a result, what we’re finding that a lot of the analytics and things that need to happen are now happening farther out from the data centers. In addition, it’s important to think about those problems that are facing our software providers or the people who are inventing what’s happening next in these areas.

An edge server able to put out a lot of the computation that is needed right at the edge. Right where those things are happening in our everyday life. For example, in NEMA cabinets, custom cabinetry in the middle of the desert, a closet, warehouse, or on a desk. Or right in the middle of a welding studio. All of those locations are where people are having problems with data computation, that we’re trying to solve with edge servers.

Why use edge servers?

As technology has developed, decision making needs to happen quickly. If a decision can’t happen quickly, it may have big consequences – especially with the proliferation of artificial intelligence. Let’s say you have a robotic arm on a manufacturing line. And it needs to be able to react quickly because it’s too close to a person for safety reasons, or stop a line because it has identified a problem using its vision capability. It needs to be able to make that decision quickly. The system doesn’t have the time to send data to a large analytic center to make that decision. It needs to stop immediately.

Using edge servers to offset cloud computing costs

Cloud services and big data have been growing exponentially. There are more nodes and data collectors pushing data up to the cloud than ever before. People are realizing pushing unfiltered data to the cloud is expensive. You are charge for both the cost of storing the data, and transmitting it. You want a store only what you really need and only what you use. So making the computational decisions ahead of time before sending it up saves you money both on transfer fees as well as cloud fees.

It’s basically trimming fat at the source. So what’s being transmitted is leaner, more efficient. It’s a more cost-effective way of dealing with your data. Additionally, having extra data held there isn’t going to help. You want to find out what you need, quickly – this is where edge servers can help.

A lot of people realize they need this computation right there on the line. Right next to a robot, for example. But you can’t exactly roll a rack up to a robot and have it sit there. You need a specially built server to do that. Edge servers get that level of compute into a small and reliable form factor that can handle that robot.

Moving the data center to the edge

What we’re talking about is what was in a massive data center and making that small enough to go into a box, a box, or a robot enclosure – for example, in a small NEMA cabinet. That small server needs connectivity because once all that information gets generated, gets sorted, gets reacted upon, it has to be able to connect up to the cloud or intranet to be able to move that data around.

Most of the time data centers are highly connected, but they also have massive storage centers attached to them. So, being able to have that hybrid, have enough storage on-site, even with hot-swappable right there and be able to pull your data or be able to send it up to the cloud via Wi-Fi, 4G, or really fast internet is an important thing.

Those are the problems that our edge servers are solving. We’re providing high connectivity, high compute with some storage capacity or at least flexible storage capacity for those kinds of needs with the right level of processing power.

What does an edge server look like?

There is no typical looking edge server. An edge server fits the location you need it to. We have concentrated on multiple platforms. Being able to have powerful compute in a small box or in a rack and programming on one platform for all of it. This is where we start thinking about the form factor a little bit more. From fan-cooled boxes to fanless systems, to rackmount servers.

Maybe you need a rackmount with multiple CPUs, storage, or connectivity. Thinking about that whole breadth of what our customers really need to solve their problems is kind of important as we craft our solutions. The edge servers here as we’ve been developing them have a wide range of form factors to meet the needs of different environments. So we have systems like Karbon 700, with Xeon processing and operates up to 70 degrees Celsius. We also just introduced a new line of very powerful AMD servers.

What features make up an edge server?

The idea of an edge server is the compute power with connectivity and being where it needs to be. Karbon 700 can handle up to a Xeon E 32176 processor that allows a lot of compute. But it also can handle expansion. You’ve got standard PoE and ModBays give you really fast expansion. We can also equip the server with Wi-Fi and 4G cellular. This connectivity at the edge enables the decision making. Being connected to the network or cloud is an important part of that.

Other options include our small but mighty system – the MC850. It’s an amazing box because for the size of it you’re getting a scalable Xeon processor. You can go up to 28 cores and 48 PCIe lanes for heavy computing, especially for AI. This is really built for AI right here. You have the ability to do expansion and add a GPU. It has tremendous power for such a small box. This is it could go on a desk, NEMA cabinet, or wherever you need.

We’ve part of the solution for everything from virtual reality to parking garages to analytics, to video analytics, intelligent NVRs and, and other types of applications. Things that require a lot visual processing. This embodies what an edge server is. And that is compute plus the connectivity in a small box that allows it to go anywhere.

Early iterations of edge server technology and design

A few years ago, Intel came to us and said, ‘Hey, listen, we have a lot of customers who are talking about needing more than server processing all the way in the back room. They’re needing processing right there on the edge.’ And this is how, how it kinda came to existence. I heard a story once about a guy who was in a meeting with a whole bunch of people and trying to explain both cloud computing and the fact that there’s cloud and all this data’s running around, it’s all over the place, but it’s starting to get a little dissipated a more and more. It’s starting to go out farther and the guy said, ‘Oh, so, so it’s kind of like not so much a cloud but like a fog.’ And that’s how we ended up with a fog box.

From fog boxes to edge servers

We learned that when this was deployed out, that we needed to think about not only compute but we also needed to think about connectivity and scalability. It needs to work with the nodes that you’ve got out there already deployed. And it also needs to grow a little bit across your entire organization. From that, we’ve started to grow the portfolio in terms of getting into 1U, 2U, and 4U servers to really scale to somebody’s operation to be able to understand from start to finish how that data path kind of lives.

Examples of edge server applications

Working with Intel and developing this reference design we learned that creating networks of computers pushes the ability of compute and connectivity closer to where it’s happening. This is where we see benefits in terms of speed and response time. Some examples of what edge servers might look like in action include a packing and separation plant where we have the MC850. It’s in a NEMA cabinet because it’s small enough to fit. The system is making decisions about the robotic arm that’s doing vision analysis. It’s able to make those decisions right there in the location in real-time. We also have 1U servers that are going into a custom cabinet that’s in the middle of a desert. It’s protecting its location and doing security and analysis right there on site.

There’s a lot of other amazing applications that are talking about decision making where a data center isn’t going to make sense. But there are also examples in security where data centers are part of the solution as well. That scalability allows innovators to handle real-time decision making, analytics, and processing onsite and remotely through a variety of deployment methods.

It’s like an extension of edge computing. But instead of using lightweight, smaller systems, you’re using a more powerful, more capable systems to do that. With edge servers, we’re putting that power all the way out to the edge. People are requiring it. However, the problems that they’re running into with processing and analysis on the edge is something we’ve been able to solve with our powerful solutions..

Using edge servers to solve problems

The smarter the industry gets, the more powerful computers are needed to actually do that and make things more intuitive. For example, with video analytics in security at a crowded event. The analytics can do detection of problematic people or problematic situations right there. We’re working with a solution provider right now doing video analysis preventing crime, theft, and other loss events. That’s just the first foray into what will be happening in the future. Obviously we know self-driving cars are really moving analytics to the edge in a very big way.

A lot of the solutions that we have, especially around the Karbon 700 is really moving that kind of edge computing out to the edge. It’s driving in a car, all the way to shipping ports, and we’re in all different kinds of warehouses and locations pretty much wherever you’re going. We love hearing that our computers are making a difference out on the edge.

Edge server solutions for innovators

Our customers are solving problems. Sometimes it’s through software and we’re able to make their vision a reality with our hardware. We’re the last bit that makes ideas come together.

This happens because we’re able to design hardened industrial boards and systems. In addition, we work with our suppliers all the time to do a long life cycle to have that solution people are dreaming of, in a solution that will last. We know that our hardware is going to make it possible on that platform.

Conclusion

Edge servers are not a one size fits all solution. There are different ways to solve problems using  different technologies, connectivity, processing, and form factors. We have products that solve those specific problems.

Note: This blog was originally published on December 11, 2019. It was updated for content on August 15, 2020.