Edge computing can enable everything from connected cars and smartwatches to glucose monitors and cashier-less retail. But not everyone understands why the average organization should care – leaving IT leaders with some explaining to do.
Edge has momentum right now as a trend: As George Burns III, senior consultant for cloud operations at SPR, says, “The edge is where the action is right now.” In a recent IDC survey, 73 percent of respondents viewed edge as a strategic investment, while another 17 percent said edge is required by business operations.
Red Hat chief technology strategist E.G. Nadhan offers a plain-terms way to start the conversation with colleagues or customers about why edge matters: “For edge devices to be smart, they need to process the data they collect, share timely insights, and if applicable, take appropriate action. Edge computing is the science of having the edge devices do this without the need for the data to be transported to another server environment.
“Put another way,” Nadhan continues, “edge computing brings the data and the compute closest to the point of interaction.”
[ Get a shareable primer: How to explain edge computing in plain English. ]
Enterprises have moved a lot of their workloads to the hybrid cloud model. However, as Shamik Mishra, CTO for connectivity at engineering firm Altran, part of the Capgemini Group, explains, “Some workloads that are latency sensitive or contain data that cannot leave the premises, or use cases that generate a massive amount of data, have not been migrated to cloud, mainly because of costs, performance, and security/privacy reasons.” Also, some IoT use cases require enterprise-wide connectivity to function best.
Enter edge, as a complement to hybrid cloud strategy. “Deploying edge computing using cloud-native concepts can increase business agility, making it easier and faster to react to changing business requirements,” says Dave McCarthy, research director within IDC’s worldwide infrastructure practice, focusing on edge strategies. Edge capabilities can have particular value for the enterprise in the areas of Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), and big data analytics.
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Why does edge matter? What's the value?
“Enterprises now can utilize cloud technologies for use cases that demand ‘proximity computing,’" Mishra says. This can improve their productivity, lower costs, and even generate new revenue models.
Why all the focus on edge computing right now? Limitations in centralized computing have become increasingly glaring, particularly during the COVID-19 era. “As distributed workforces grow, the productivity can be extended to meet the Doherty threshold of under 400-millisecond responses,” says PubNub CTO Stephen Blum. “This helps to keep distributed teams happy and productive.”
“It all comes down to one concept: quality of access,” says Burns. “People can use the edge to reduce latency between an end user and the application they are accessing by pushing compute, storage, and/or network resources to the network border. This decreases the physical distance that data travels between a user and the resources they are trying to access.”
In addition, network latency can ruin the performance and effectiveness of real-time applications, transferring large volumes of data can be expensive, and some industry and government regulations now dictate where data must be stored. “If any of those situations apply to you, then edge computing needs to be part of your overall IT strategy,” says IDC’s McCarthy.
Why is edge important? Common use cases
The benefits of moving infrastructure and workloads closer to where data is generated and consumed can be realized by all industries. “For asset-intensive industries like manufacturing and transportation, edge computing combined with IoT and AI can improve the uptime of critical equipment,” McCarthy says. “For interaction-intensive industries like retail and banking, edge computing is enabling new customer experiences.”
Common use cases include content delivery networks and media, video gaming, smart factories, logistics and warehousing, utilities, and transportation, says Mishra. “Industries that have high demand for low-latency, data-intensive operations like telemedicine, financial tech, and public safety are also seeing rapid adoption of edge computing.”
[ Read also: Edge computing: 5 examples of how enterprises are using it now. ]
Industries like manufacturing, retail, health, energy, and utilities plan to double down on their edge solution adoption, according to Yugal Joshi, vice president at management consultancy and research firm Everest Group.
In IoT applications, the edge approach can decrease the physical distance information has to travel along copper and fiber. Alternately, it can enable asynchronous computing, where sensors or gateways collect data offline, aggregate that data internally, and then synchronize it with corporate resources either at regular intervals or when connectivity becomes available.
“While many sectors and business models can benefit from edge optimization of their applications and infrastructure, there are a few applications that stand out,” says Burns of SPR. Edge solutions have been used for some time by enterprises with content delivery networks (CDNs).
“What’s new here is the addition of compute to the CDN,” says Blum at PubNub. A media company streamlining content over the top of the Internet can cache that content on the ISP network directly, placing it closer to consumption. “Here, when you queue up any of their media, you are now streaming from your ISP’s network directly to yours, without the need to traverse multiple Layer 2 networks or touch the Public Internet on Layer 3,” Burns says. “This provides a better experience for the user because their media will most likely stream at a higher quality to their device and be more performant. The ISP benefits as well because their network does not need to reach out to another network to obtain the content. This reduces latency for the end user and load on the ISP’s WAN network. “
Edge benefits and caveats
While edge adoption and interest are set to reach a fever pitch, there are a few important things to keep in mind. Chiefly, it’s important to remember that edge optimization is entirely dependent on connectivity. “Without sufficient connectivity, the increased availability of storage, computing, and networking resources around the globe will mean nothing to an end user with subpar connectivity,” Burns points out. “The benefits of providing remote workers with a better experience by utilizing edge caching or any other technology will be lost if the capacity of their Internet connectivity does not support the increased throughput needed.”
At the same time, there are new opportunities that edge computing can provide. “The value of the edge is changing,” Burns says. “If you are looking at just improving performance or access to your network and application, then you are doing yourself and your organization a disservice by not investigating how edge technologies can benefit your network and applications.”
IT leaders must research edge investments and deployments fully. “Make sure that all of the components of your network or application are capable of delivering the results that you believe to be necessary,” advises Burns.
In addition to the typical requirements of software, skills, and budget, enterprise IT needs to understand the longevity of the infrastructure hosting edge solutions, Joshi says. “Many times edge devices are located in extreme regions that are difficult to reach or manage." These regions, though few in numbers, may be critical to value creation from edge solutions.
Enterprise IT should also decide whether they want to adopt an “edge-first” strategy or take a use-case-based approach. “Generally a use-case-based approach drives more value as it incorporates stronger business ROI and value metrics,” Joshi says. “Enterprise IT needs to stress test whether business ROI takes IT metrics into account and whether an edge solution is feasible or not.”
Finally, there are security considerations. “The business logic running at the edge creates an opportunity to extend the security border further and closer to the end users,” says Blum of PubNub. “This isn’t for free, though, as we have to be careful extending the border allows for more opportunities to scale the walls.” As always, IT organizations should take care to ensure that existing security remains strong.
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