I’m willing to bet my membership in Futurists Anonymous that at least one of your technology executives—CISO, CIO or CTO—has uttered the words “edge computing” in your executive staff meetings or presentations to your board. Honestly, I’m not risking much with that bet: Edge computing is a big deal, and it’s already making a big impact on how organizations collect, analyze, synthesize and use data way beyond the physical and virtual boundaries of the data center and your backbone network.
How big a deal is edge computing? Well, the business of edge computing is already a multi-billion-dollar industry, growing by anywhere from 12% to 24% annually over the next five years. Forrester Research has said, “Every company needs edge computing on its technology road map starting in 2019,” and Gartner pointed out that edge computing—combined with artificial intelligence—“can raise innovation capabilities, operational excellence and customer engagement.”
Wow. Who wouldn’t want that?
Yes, I know that it’s easy to get swept up in the market euphoria of a potentially transformational technology like edge computing, particularly when linked to other catalytic forces like AI and 5G networking. But is it really all that?
What Is Edge Computing?
Without getting deep into the weeds, it’s important to start with a simple definition of edge computing in order to understand why it should be on your organization’s radar screen. Edge computing is capturing the massive, seemingly endless array of data being created far, far outside the data center and traditional computers. It’s about combining the Internet of Things, RFID, analytics, cloud computing, mobility and embedded sensors to create a new paradigm centered on data living at the edge of the vast physical and virtual global network we’re all using at work, at home and on the road.
While there are some exciting, early-stage deployments of edge computing in industrial IoT workloads, commercial applications for edge computing are at the early stage of conception and ideation.
There’s a lot of chatter and buzz around edge, but people are still doing their homework in most cases. I’ve met lots of executives around the world—and not just in our organization’s market of employee benefits—who are trying to figure out how to exploit the notion that they can and should leverage all that data out at the edge and turn it into cash (and other kinds of business benefits).
The truth is…it’s complicated. It needs lot of investment, not just in terms of Capex and Opex costs but also in devoting really smart people to understand use cases, intended outcomes and metrics for edge.
Edge computing touches upon every aspect of your organization’s technology and business process ecosystem. Data storage. Big data tools. Massively parallel processing. Abstraction layers. Aggregation. Wearable computers. And, of course, cybersecurity.
Our organization has real-world experience with edge computing, and I can tell you that the investment can have a huge payoff. When we initially implemented our edge solution back in 2010, it was not because we were trying to be innovative or cutting “edge.” (Pun intended.) It was because we were collecting petabytes of wearable and biometric data and the delivery, processing and storage of this data became too expensive and latent to ship and translate into usable real-time analytics.
With the need to reduce network latency, bandwidth requirements and cost, it made sense to process this data closer, or at the edge, of our wide-area network. By doing so, we were able to improve our response time by over 50%, reduce our data transport and storage requirements by over 80% and consume 65% less bandwidth—all while increasing security and compliance by no longer shipping data across multiple availability zones.
What Edge Computing Can Do for You
OK, what’s in edge computing for you? A few very important things, to start, and more to come:
- Potentially dramatic cost savings and efficiencies for your cloud computing initiatives. As organizations put more data, applications and workloads in the cloud, it becomes very expensive to transfer all that data to and from public clouds. Cloud storage is getting very affordable, but the latency issue—how long it takes to actually access data—is still an issue.
- It can provide substantially higher bandwidth, particularly when used with the new breed of 5G networks, than legacy on-premises data centers for a much cheaper price.
- More and more data can be stored on an edge device, allowing users to have a much richer and fulfilling experience in accessing data from and with their devices. And, edge devices are being engineered with native security, addressing one of the biggest concerns many of you undoubtedly still hold to be true when it comes to computing that takes place outside of the long-cherished data center.
While we’re on that subject, let’s talk about security. Privacy is obviously a big issue in IoT, and so it is—rightfully so—with edge computing. But in edge computing, you’re executing encryption, biometrics and multi-factor authentication without having to go through the cloud service provider. Data no longer needs to be geographically dispersed, and users no longer have to think about things like security updates, which are going to be done automatically for the user. Edge devices will be secured like smartphones are today—usually in the background, without impacting work schedules or production environments.
Of course, you should not assume all the edge devices are going to be fully secure from the start, with all kinds of data traffic going in and out. You’ll probably need even more visibility into the type of data traffic accessed, created and stored by edge devices. For instance, you’re likely to be integrating new vendors into the mix, such as gateway providers. Remember that when it comes to edge computing and security, don’t assume anything.
But, as important as security is, don’t get scared away. Soon, you’ll have “edgy” web-based applications with localized AI functionality built in, done on the device itself. Your smartphone, wearable computer, sensor-based inventory bay, car or household appliance will be doing this with your data according to business rules and policies, and you won’t even know it.
Pop Quiz: Questions Executives Should Ask
Now, when your technology leadership talks to you about edge, you won’t think they’re talking about The Edge, U2’s prolific lead guitarist. You’ll know it can and should be a central element in your quest for digital transformation to achieve what Michael Porter taught us all about sustainable competitive advantage.
Still, you’ll want to ask probing, high-value questions, such as:
- What’s the business goal edge computing can help us achieve? Customer experience? Competitive analysis? Distribution channel efficiency? Inventory turn optimization?
- What happens to our infrastructure requirements as we continue to capture and use more data? Are we going to have to start increasing the IT infrastructure Capex budgets again, and how will we integrate this into our cloud strategy?
- How broad should our vision be, and how focused should our initial implementations be?
- How will we know it’s working?
- What role should business stakeholders play in making edge computing successful?
- Is edge computing making our data more or less secure? How will we know, and what will we do in terms of ensuring security, compliance and data governance when so much of it is outside the view of the central IT team and the SOC analysts?
Don’t shy from these questions: They are vital to ask and require frank discussion. But the biggest reasons why these questions must be asked is because edge computing represents the next wave in harnessing data to build new products, to serve your customers better and to achieve more audacious goals.
And that’s no hype.
Ryan Fay is executive vice president for strategy and global chief information officer at ACI Specialty Benefits, a leading global provider of employee benefits.