Digital transformation and edge computing: 7 best practices

How and where can edge computing help enterprise IT leaders deliver on digital transformation goals? Think about all that data you're crunching, for starters. Experts share best practices
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Digital transformation and edge computing are not mutually exclusive approaches. Quite the contrary, say edge experts. Edge “is an enabler or accelerator technology” for digital transformation, says Vishnu Andhare, senior consultant with technology research and advisory firm ISG.

That’s especially true for Internet of Things (IoT) initiatives which are part of digital transformation efforts. The last mile of these projects ­– which are essentially distributed computing defined – used to be a bottleneck. However, when IT organizations apply edge approaches, IoT can be a real game changer. By distributing analytics and processing closer to where data is generated, enterprises can realize real-time use cases while minimizing communications costs.

[ Get a shareable primer: How to explain edge computing in plain English.] 

“The convergence of digital transformation in the enterprise and the development of edge-based digital technology has been happening for years, but the pace at which innovation is occurring continues to increase exponentially,” says George Burns III, senior consultant for cloud operations at SPR. “For many organizations, digital transformation will eventually lead to increased network traffic, higher utilization of computing and storage resources, and most importantly, increased user expectations.” That’s where edge capabilities can shine.

How edge computing  can aid digital transformation: 7 tips

Determining when, where, why, and how to implement edge-enabled transformation, however, can be tricky. Not every digital transformation initiative will necessarily benefit from edge capabilities. Consider these seven tips for deciding upon and deploying digital transformation initiatives with an edge computing component.

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

1. Innovate with the flow of technology, not against it

“The edge is the next opportunity center for performance, availability, and redundancy in network development, and many of your customers are already wondering when your next performance increase will become apparent to them,” says Burns. “Use the edge to do what it does best – bring content and connectivity endpoints closer to those consuming them.”

2. Consider edge a complement to hybrid cloud

"Organizations that can effectively use a combination of cloud and edge computing for large-scale digital transformations will be ahead of their competition."

Contrary to some assumptions, hybrid cloud computing and edge computing are not necessarily alternatives to one another. They can be important partners in digital initiatives. “Edge computing, in conjunction with cloud, can improve the effectiveness of digital transformation initiatives; however, considering edge implementations in isolation is putting the cart before the horse,” Andhare says. (Read also: Edge computing: 4 common misconceptions, explained.)

Instead, Andhare recommends IT leaders look at where cloud and edge can come together to support a particular digital transformation initiative, prove the value via a pilot project or point solution, and then scale the implementation if there is a clear link to important business outcomes. “Organizations that can effectively use a combination of cloud and edge computing for large-scale digital transformations will be ahead of their competition,” Andhare says.

3. Consider your data analysis situation and costs

Analyzing large amounts of data - in such a way that the organization can act on it quickly to improve customer experience - is often a key part of digital transformation work. The amount of data continues to grow, from the ever-increasing number of devices (including all those IoT sensors), applications, and people who continuously need to connect, says Rosa Guntrip, senior principal marketing manager, cloud platforms, Red Hat. That’s where edge comes in to help.

“If all data needs to go back to a central data center for processing, organizations could be faced with needing to scale up their data center infrastructure to meet rising demands, which impacts costs from both a CapEx and OpEx perspective,” Guntrip notes. “In addition, if all of that data needs to go back to a central site, organizations are also looking at the costs of backhauling data (i.e. cost of bandwidth).”

As more organizations experiment with and use large data sets in combination with AI and machine learning tools, the edge computing approach can “be the link that supercharges potential business outcomes,” as we recently reported.

[ Read also: Data Services for the open hybrid cloud deliver on the promise of cloud-native infrastructure. ]

4. Bring cloud-native approaches and Kubernetes to bear

"Kubernetes will continue to expand its footprint at the edge in industries such as retail, healthcare, and transportation."

Issues stemming from inconsistent development platforms, security frameworks, and management tools are amplified in a distributed computing environment. The good news: cloud-native approaches can apply (far) beyond public cloud datacenters. “As enterprises designed digital transformation solutions, they often employed cloud-native technologies,” says Dave McCarthy, research director within IDC’s worldwide infrastructure practice focusing on edge strategies. “It may sound counterintuitive, but as these solutions move to the edge, organizations plan to continue to use those cloud-native concepts.”

“It is possible to use containerized microservices and API-based automation to build comprehensive edge-to-cloud solutions that use consistent development, management, and security tools,” McCarthy says.

David Williams, managing principal at digital consultancy AHEAD, says  Kubernetes is the orchestrator of choice at the edge. “What was once a technology associated with larger data centers and hyper-scalers, Kubernetes will continue to expand its footprint at the edge in industries such as retail, healthcare, and transportation,” Williams says.

[ Get the free O'Reilly eBooks: Kubernetes Operators: Automating the Container Orchestration Platform and Kubernetes patterns for designing cloud-native apps. ]

5. Define the big picture with key partners

Most digital transformation projects are actually complex multi-disciplinary “systems” involving multiple applications, hardware and software components, networks, and infrastructure backend. That may mean cloud resources on one end and edge computing on the other. Adhare advises coming up with an end-to-end definition of edge-enabled transformation as well as a clear value stream for the digital transformation initiative.

“Establishing a common understanding of this landscape upfront, with participants from the enterprise’s business and technology organizations and partner ecosystem, is critical to calculate the optimized total cost of ownership and an overall definition of success,” Andhare says.

6. Handle edge monitoring with care

Watch for the blind spots that often exist between infrastructure and user.

“It will be important for vendors and their customer organizations to approach monitoring at the edge differently than they have in the data center or in the cloud,” says Williams of AHEAD. “Because of the rather volatile nature of edge technologies, organizations should shift from monitoring the health of devices or the applications they run to instead monitor the digital experience of their users.”

A more user-centric approach will take into account the various components that might impact user or customer experience, including the blind spots that often exist between infrastructure and user.

7. Connect people, not just technology

The convergence of edge capabilities and digital transformation often straddles IT and operational technology (OT) groups. When one or the other takes the lead on a digital project without the involvement of the other, there can be “unoptimized gaps,” warns Andhare.

“Traditionally, the operations technology (OT) team does not always have the IT expertise it needs to deploy and remotely manage edge applications across the globe at distributed scale and security. And a traditional IT team does not always have the domain know-how it needs to build, test, and innovate new apps to improve the business,” Andhare says. “IT leaders should ensure that OT personnel are considering edge technologies when planning greenfield or improving brownfield DT applications.”

[ Get exercises and approaches that make disparate teams stronger. Read the digital transformation ebook: Transformation Takes Practice. ]

Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.