In a distributed world cache is king. Why routers are becoming the new server.

Asus 80211ac router

Much like Amazon(a amzn) sparked a revolution in not just corporate IT but also in how companies build out their infrastructure (you could probably credit VMware’s virtualization software with a role in this as well), the rise in connected sensors and devices will rock the world of information technology again.

Cisco calls this architecture shift “fog”, while others (including me) are desperately trying to some up with something else to describe what’s happening and why. The short rationale for this shift is that, as we connect more devices at the edge, we need a highly distributed architecture that encompasses not just data centers but the edge nodes, with applications that can handle the distributed compute and the databases that such an architecture requires.

In the last few months, two companies have both hit upon a way to handle this shift — and they are doing it with the realization that in this brave new connected world the network is a potential bottleneck. Their solution involves turning the humble router into a way station for data, for content and for real-time processing that can’t afford to make the trip up to the cloud.

To paraphrase the old Sun ads, the router is becoming the computer.

Yesterday Cisco showed off its new architecture for a world with connected devices trying to communicate real-time data to the cloud. Designed for the “fog,” Cisco’s IOx architecture will be a Linux-based operating system that will be embedded in forthcoming industrial routers.

And unlike its previous box software, Cisco says it plans to open the IOx architecture up for others to run their own applications on, but that will remain to be seen. Cisco sums it up in its release like this:

To better monitor, manage and respond to the massive amount of data generated by IoT, IOx allows applications to run as close as possible to the data source and create automated responses that drive value.

Cisco isn’t alone. In the residential world, Qualcomm has a similar vision for the humble router, turning it into a content cache, and a computer set to manage a house full of connected devices, including running algorithms that govern which devices things can talk to and when they might have access to the internet. Late last year, Qualcomm introduced its internet processor chip to be the brains behind this router/computer combo, and at CES it showed off a content caching concept with Akamai. The idea here is similar to Cisco’s. That many connected things will need a local compute and cache of data and applications to function optimally.

That two companies that have strong ties in the networking world have settled on the router as the source for both computing and caching of content or even databases closer to the edge makes sense. Other ideas might involve hubs that can handle many radio protocols or plain old servers, but I think given the types of mesh networks and myriad sensors that our homes and manufacturing floors will soon have, conscripting the router to handle both networking and computing might make a lot of sense.

This is a major theme of our Structure conference in June, as we deal with the implications that sensors and connected devices will have on our IT architectures. We’ll have to rethink databases and possibly even our concept of the network stack to deal with a world where there are both more protocols at the physical and transport layer, as well as a variety of ways for devices to communicate instructions and state to each other.

It’s going to be awesome.

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