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Do you live on the edge? If you don’t yet, you soon will be. As networks become more and more sophisticated and as consumers and companies embrace the internet of things (IoT), additional demands will be placed on IT architecture. In this new-look infrastructure, something more advanced than the cloud will be needed to ensure everything works smoothly: edge computing. So what is it? And what benefits and challenges does it bring?
“Edge computing refers to data processing power at the edge of a network instead of holding that processing power in a cloud or a central data warehouse,” said Chris Raphael, editor at RT Insights.
Rather than be centrally managed, edge computing sees computing power managed at exactly that - the ‘corner’ or ‘edge’ of a network. Let’s say a drone is in operation. In the edge computing model, the drone would not need to refer back to a central, cloud-based data centre to retrieve information. It would perform the task itself, by communicating with other devices also on the ‘edge’ of the network. Edge computing connects devices at the points where everything is happening.
Because technology is changing. Rapidly. The way we interact with devices is evolving. Increasingly, computing power and IP networks are being put into things we never thought they’d be put into - fridges, for example, or rubbish bins. Connectivity is now prevalent in cars, a whole range of appliances, electronics, industrial control mechanisms and city infrastructure.
And this connectivity is closer. An Internet of things device - whether a traffic light, piece of wearable tech or smart thermostat - is part of a vast network of objects that are all connected with each other. Connected devices have great potential, but they place significant strain on traditional data centres, which risk being overwhelmed by the demands they make and the data they provide.
Into this sphere steps edge computing - the ability to manage data locally. In doing so, less pressure is placed on the central data centre or cloud.
If adoption of connected devices is to continue, edge computing will be essential if they are to function properly. Without edge, connected devices would have to rely on cloud-based or central data centres. And if they can’t manage the demand, devices could stop functioning properly. While this might not be such a big deal if your fridge fails to order in some more lettuce, it could be a major problem if a smart city’s traffic lights stop working.
For businesses, edge computing offers efficiency and cost savings. “They have less data sent over their networks, which can improve performance and save on cloud computing costs,” said technology expert Sandeep Raut.
“It allows organisations to discard IoT data that is only valuable for a limited amount of time, reducing storage and infrastructure costs. Further, edge computing improves time to action and reduces response time down to milliseconds, while also conserving network resources.”
Edge computing is still in its infancy. Fully implemented and approved edge frameworks have not yet been fully developed.
There is also the issue of security and privacy. Despite concerns, cloud models and data centres are fairly well protected. Quite how locally managed nodes will be made safe from harm is not yet clear. “If alternative devices, such as switches, routers and base stations, need to be used as publicly accessible edge nodes a number of challenges will need to be addressed,” academics at Queen’s University Belfast say in a research paper.
“Firstly, the risk associated by public and private organisations that own these devices as well as those that will employ these devices will need to be articulated.
“Secondly, the intended purpose of the device, for example, a router managing internet traffic, cannot be compromised when used as an edge computing node. Thirdly, multi-tenancy on edge nodes will only be possible with technology that places security as a prime concern.”
While still in its development, edge computing represents something of a game-changer when it comes to managing our increasingly connected world. It’s where the cloud was 10 or so years ago - fairly primitive, but with a heck of a lot of potential.