Examining the Edge: What Does it Mean and How Do We Get There?

  • Post on November 15th, 2018

With the advent of the Internet of Things (IoT) and 5G, the demands for infrastructure capacity have surpassed anything the industry has yet experienced. Edge computing, while not an altogether new concept, has become the leading strategy for creating necessary capacity and optimal data processing. While the edge conjures up different approaches and interpretations for each company, the objectives that come from incorporating it are ultimately tantamount. Across the board, industry players are turning to the edge to facilitate high levels of efficiency, connectivity and agility while nurturing the integration of innovative technologies.

Andy Champagne, Vice President and Chief Technology Officer of Akamai Labs; Najam Ahmad, Vice President of Network Engineering at Facebook; Zachary Smith, Chief Executive Officer at Packet Host and moderator Jezzibell Gilmore, Senior Vice President of Business Development at PacketFabric, spoke on a panel at the NEDAS 2018 NYC Summit regarding the edge’s needs and how to deliver them.

Each panelist had a different definition of edge. To Ahmad of Facebook and Champagne of Akamai, the edge was simply where the humans are and where consumption happens with cell phones or IP set-top boxes, but to Smith, CEO of Packet Host, the edge is centered around enterprise opinions. Regardless of their differing interpretations, all members of the panel believed that the benefits of moving towards the edge are clear. The edge offers providers the opportunity to change users’ lives by pushing Artificial Intelligence (AI), machine learning or other innovative technologies right into their laps, allowing end users to do more than just like social media posts. Although, the means of achieving these end results are still up for discussion. The tens of megawatts of power needed to cater to the massive amounts of data being used and collected may mean shipping data to large central data centers and then back to the edge, or it could mean distributing the compute.

General versus specialized compute will also come into play, with applications needing to be designed for edge compute. While tailoring apps for edge compute may ease user experience, but the edge is large and distributed. Deploying specialized compute across the board is not feasible, so the industry will likely see a mix of generalized and specialized approaches.

Putting applications at the edge is also often an expensive endeavor that requires high amounts of expertise. In the contemporary industry, there is an abundance of opportunity for infrastructure services. However, in the edge era, the traditional data center structure is too cumbersome and expensive to deploy in the widespread, incremental way of the edge. The topology of the data center will likely change moving forward, and one novel way of taking advantage of the edge without breaking the bank is a new approach of renting edge infrastructure. Additionally, the adoption of cloud environments has facilitated this too by allowing companies to focus less on infrastructure and more on their products. Overall, an increased number of touchpoints with IP networks and more points of presence closer to end users, minimizing backhaul and maximizing fronthaul and more egress points to the internet will be the main developments enabling 5G and IoT.

Wireless will become increasingly important as the edge is strengthened, but the panelists agreed that wired technologies will always have a place in the industry. For instance, a wired approach allows for performant, reliable video on demand, non-synchronized live to enable everyone to watch what they want when they want. Wireless and 5G will make great strides for handsets, but much of the infrastructure we come in contact with today will remain wired. Even the fronthaul focus that is emerging will eventually need to backhaul into a wire somewhere. Although, the industry may see a shift towards interconnection being driven by wireless providers, with less emphasis on fixed carriers.

Embracing the edge, on the whole, means adopting a smaller, more agile and more widespread data center approach. Historically, locations like Northern Virginia have been powerhouses of the industry, but this leaves capacity out of touch with where populations are in the contemporary era. In second and third tier cities and in emerging markets, there is a huge area for expansion with room for countless new nodes. The tiered infrastructure of the future, with large central data centers, distributed centers close to the end user and edge nodes in Internet Service Provider networks will help companies put there services where they need it. Though there is no single right answer for how to deploy at the edge, optimized performance and revolutionary technology integrations await those who take the plunge.