The Combine Harvester Metaphor for Edge Computing

Brenner combine harvester 1930s, CLAAS KGaA mbH

A metaphor that we use to explain edge computing is “finding the needle in the haystack.” Why move all the hay to the cloud to find the needle? Sort the hay at the source and just send the needles to the cloud. The metaphor is nice in its simplicity. However, it leaves the false impression that all the work is done at the edge and nothing happens in the cloud.

I want to provide a new metaphor of the combine harvester to explain edge computing. It is a bit longer to explain but it paints a more accurate picture of the role of the edge and the cloud.

The combine harvester is one of the greatest inventions in history. The harvester created a significant part of the remarkable efficiencies in farming that enabled us to feed a global population that grew from 2 billion to 7 billion during the past 100 years. In essence, a combine harvester cuts the stalks from a wheat field, removes the head of grains, removes the chaff from the wheat and deposits the wheat grains into a carrier. The wheat is then shipped to mills where it is turned into flour. From there the flour is made into bread and other food.

Imagine for a moment a world without combine harvesters. Imagine that if you wanted to make bread, someone sent you a bundle of wheat shafts, a bunch of stalks with wheat grains and chaff at the top. Think of all the wasted energy of shipping all the useless parts of the wheat plant from the field to your home. Think of all the work that is now on your plate. You will spend all your time removing the wheat from the chaff and grinding the wheat into flour before you ever get to the important part of baking bread.

What does this have to do with edge computing?

Think of the wheat field as the raw data from the internet of things. Edge computing is the combine harvester. It removes from the raw data the important parts needed for the cloud. It eliminates the inefficiency of shipping tons of data that is essentially useless and focuses the bandwidth on shipping only the useful data for further processing. The data still needs work in the cloud, just as the wheat still needs to be milled and baked.

The combine harvester made it possible to feed a growing global population. Edge computing will make it possible to feed a growing global demand of greater insight and efficiency through big data analysis and machine learning.

Edge computing separates the wheat from the chaff.