The Air Force has been able to save almost $1 million a week in tanker refueling costs via edge and cloud computing.

Feb 28 2019

Edge Computing: Air Force and FEMA Take Advantage of the Intelligent Edge

Agencies can get access to insights faster thanks to edge computing solutions.

Federal agencies are adopting mobile solutions that allow workers in the field to achieve their missions. They are exploring and deploying Internet of Things technologies and are enabling users to get online and process data in far-flung locations, from Antarctica to war zones. 

Increasingly, more computing and data processing will be happening at the network edge, where devices and users are located. The federal government is gingerly entering the world of edge computing, which enables faster analysis of data and thus delivers insights in a more timely and relevant way.

Edge computing is defined by bringing compute capabilities to where the mission is taking place in the field, and means that data does not have to travel back to a data center to be processed. “In the military world, we call that the tip of the spear,” says Cameron Chehreh, COO and CTO of Dell EMC Federal.

The armed forces are using edge computing since so many of their users are deployed away from home bases and data centers. But edge computing is also relevant to civilian agencies like the Federal Emergency Management Agency, which also deploys users into the field to respond to disasters. Those users need to have low-latency data processing and communications, meaning that it takes a short time for them to get a response from the network. Edge computing enables that.

Dell and Microsoft are two of the leading-edge computing vendors in government right now, but there are other players as well. In late November, Nutanix announced the general availability of Xi IoT, a new edge computing service offered as part of the company’s Xi Cloud Services

Nutanix claims that Xi IoT eliminates complexity, accelerates the speed of deployment and allows developers to focus on the business logic powering IoT applications and services.


What Is Edge Computing?

Edge computing is about “getting smarter sensors, smarter data and that compute capacity closer to the data so you can get better insights as this data is traversing your network into what might ultimately be an enterprise cloud,” Chehreh says.

Natalia Mackevicius, director of program management for Microsoft Azure Stack, echoes that concept, and notes that the intelligent edge is the “continually expanding set of connected systems and devices that gather and analyze information close to the physical world where data resides, to deliver real-time insights and immersive experiences that are highly responsive and contextually aware.”

In practical terms, that means that these connected systems and devices will help agencies across “a huge array of mission goals,” Mackevicius says, such as tracking water quality, improving emergency management, speeding maintenance of vital equipment and bringing insight into complex real-world logistics problems.

“Enabling intelligent cloud and intelligent edge solutions requires a new class of distributed, connected applications and will ultimately deliver breakthrough outcomes across every aspect of citizen services, military operations, and overall mission impact,” Mackevicius says.

Cloud/edge applications are built as a single solution, yet run in a distributed manner, according to Mackevicius. They are optimized to take advantage of both robust cloud capabilities and edge locality. At the network edge, applications are contextually aware and can run in both connected and disconnected states.

“For agencies operating outside the continental United States, where the network may be unreliable or less secure, the option to transition between connected and disconnected states will dramatically expand options for using technology to address local problems,” Mackevicius says.

MORE-FROM-FEDTECH: Learn how embracing a cloud computing architecture can benefit your federal agency. 

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Edge Computing

Agencies are increasingly deploying cloud computing solutions, but now must deploy and manage devices and network assets all the way out to the network edge, Chehreh says.

It is very straightforward to manage assets if agencies have them in an enterprise data center, via a singular or cohesive pool of technology resources, he says. As agencies move out to the edge, those technology resources begin to diversify and fragment. However, with edge computing, agencies can manage devices at the network edge “as one common virtual enterprise,” Chehreh says, “because as long as I can touch the device, I can manage it.”

That adds in complexity in terms of cybersecurity and tampering, Chehreh says. “But you can unlock greater power of your data and your information and manage it in a more cohesive, virtual manner if you choose common platforms, both hardware and software, to build your ultimate solution from,” he adds.

As agencies deploy IoT devices, they may be running them in environments like on ships, in airplanes or in areas with less connectivity or network infrastructure than in the continental U.S. Dell is working with Microsoft to bring the tactical Azure Stack into airplanes to create the next generation of the country’s air defense network.

“It allows you to take the power of edge computing and tactical cloud into areas where you haven’t been able to take them before, so that you can produce great results from a mission perspective,” Chehreh says. “And then, when you can connect back to networks, you can harness further the data you have collected and the information you have analyzed already at the tactical edge, but now fuse it with your enterprise data to create a more holistic picture.”

Cameron Chehreh, COO and CTO, Dell EMC Federal
It allows you to take the power of edge computing and tactical cloud into areas where you haven’t been able to take them before, so that you can produce great results from a mission perspective.”

Cameron Chehreh COO and CTO, Dell EMC Federal

Nutanix notes that “remote sites require robust software platforms that can support specialized hardware and, more importantly, quickly and securely process data on-site, eliminating the challenges of transmitting vast amounts data back to a centralized cloud over unreliable network connections.”

Mackevicius says the government is “going through a technology transformation that is unlocking new mission scenarios for government agencies that were simply not possible before.”

Smart sensors and connected devices are changing the way agencies approach a variety of problems, she says “from equipment maintenance to measuring air quality, smart cities to military outposts, while new devices are increasingly cloud-connected by default —whether it’s a traffic light or a rescue vehicle.”

At the same time, Mackevicius says, hybrid cloud is evolving from being the integration of a data center with the public cloud to becoming units of computing available at even the world’s most remote destinations, working in concert with public cloud. “Now more than ever before, government can bring the power of cloud to missions around the globe,” she says.

“Bring these two technology trends together, with AI running across all systems, and we enter the era of the intelligent cloud and intelligent edge,” Mackevicius says. “And while we expect every industry to benefit as these technologies advance, the work of government in particular will be changed by the ability to plan further, gather information more efficiently, and deliver insight where it is needed most.”

MORE-FROM-FEDTECH: See how the Navy uses VR to train aircraft carrier crews.

How Is Edge Computing Being Used in Government?

Edge computing is being used in a variety of agencies. For example, Dell partners with Microsoft to deliver cloud capabilities to tactical environments for the Air Force’s air operations centers around the globe. These are essentially military versions of the Federal Aviation Administration that allow the Air Force to manage, control and protect all of its air assets. With Microsoft Azure Stack, the Air Force can build next-generation apps in the tactical cloud.

The Air Force has been able to save almost $1 million a week in tanker refueling costs via edge and cloud computing, Chehreh noted. Using the Dell Pivotal Cloud Foundry platform, the company helped train Air Force developers to build and deploy a tanker refueling application, he says. The software provides better predictive logistics, especially for refueling planes when they are in the air, he says.

The Marines and Special Forces are also using deployable, tactical clouds on missions, Chehreh says. That gives them improved command and control when they are out at the tactical edge. Soldiers are able to run more complex and sophisticated applications at the tactical edge that create situational awareness, according to Chehreh, such as 3D-rendering applications or geospatial apps. Soldiers can dynamically change the applications based on the changing mission on the ground.

For example, soldiers may be on a monitoring mission, but when they get to a specific area, something may have changed that turns the mission into an intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance mission. Edge computing allows them to reconfigure their edge devices and bring up apps that allow them to collect more information and perform better analysis on site, all while connected to or disconnected from the network.

Last September, Nutanix inked a $20 million deal with the Defense Department for the DOD to use Nutanix software to operate 15 remote sites running two different networks. 

DOD is using the Nutanix Enterprise Cloud Platform software for its reliability and resiliency even at the edge after its previous solution was crippled by power losses and complex operations, according to Nutanix. The power losses resulted in IT teams spending hours trying to get the previous solutions back to life to avoid data loss, to the detriment of operations near these sites.

In the civilian realm, FEMA also uses Dell edge computing solutions — both endpoints and tactical clouds — in its disaster response vehicles, both land-based and sea-based, in a very similar fashion, Chehreh says. FEMA staff can set up a portable tactical network that is satellite-based, and can use it to collect visual data from drones before they send human rescue attempts forward. FEMA can also use edge computing to do facial recognition onsite to collect information about disaster survivors.

The Agriculture Department uses edge computing as well, Chehreh says, for activities like heavier geological surveys. For example, they can use it to perform onsite soil sample analysis. “It really is a powerful solution set when you think of the edge, across any mission segment in the government, to include civilian,” he says. 

MORE-FROM-FEDTECH: Find out what digital twin technology is and how agencies can use it. 

The Future of Edge Computing in Government

Earlier this month, Microsoft and Dell announced the release of the Dell EMC Tactical Microsoft Azure Stack and the Azure Data Box family of products, which Mackevicius says will help agencies with remote operations have access to the full range of cloud data analytics. 

Chehreh says in the consumer world, the richer the data services are, the more consumers use data services. Such has been the case with the advent of smartphones and mobile apps like video streaming. That requires more compute, memory and storage in smartphones.

The same will be true in government, especially as artificial intelligence and advanced robotics become more widely deployed. Edge computing’s place within the enterprise is “going to grow significantly,” Chehreh says.

“As devices become smarter, they are going to require those enhanced compute and storage capabilities at the edge in order to deliver that richer human-to-machine experience that is the era we’re going into he says.

U.S. Air Force photo by Christopher Okula

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