The edge may not be a specific place, but Mission Critical magazine and Panduit commissioned Clear Seas Research to conduct a survey to find out just how far away it is. Participants were asked questions that ranged from their current network deployment to familiarity with edge technology to who should be involved in the decision-making process. Mission Critical shared the findings with some of its technical advisory board members and other industry experts to gain more insight into what the numbers reveal.
What Is the Edge?
“We have an intrinsic problem in the industry to have vague titles that get abused and encompass too many things,” said Carrie Goetz, principal and CTO of StrategITcom. “Edge is not very well defined, and as such, I think it is confusing to folks. I would argue that even with the maturity of cloud technologies, you can have literally anything as a service these days leading to some of the cloudiness of the definition (pun intended).”
And, according to the survey, she’s right. One of the questions asked respondents how they would describe edge computing to someone new to the industry. While roughly half of them shared the same idea — something along the lines of bringing the compute closer to the end user in order to process more data faster — the other half replied with something vague like, “cutting-edge technology,” and some even admitted they simply didn’t know themselves.
“These results roughly match up with what I hear when I talk to clients,” said Keith Rutledge, director, Compass Edgepoint. “Edge computing has not yet become relevant to most businesses nor to most people. As it becomes more relevant and necessary, knowledge about it will become more widespread.”
The Road to Relevancy
Even though the cloud has been around for years, the survey revealed that 49% of respondents still currently utilize on-premises network infrastructure at their organizations, 41% have hybrid solutions, and only 9% are outsourced.
“Change is slow, especially for existing companies heavily invested in their current infrastructure,” said Dennis Cronin, CEO of DCIRN for the Americas. “The shift in the market percentages will be driven by new companies needing new services and by support vendors converting old services to run more efficiently.”
There are some companies that, for preference, legal, or other reasons, will always keep their stuff in house and on-site, according to Goetz.
However, Kevin Kealy, CISO at Scientific Games, thinks on-premises will start to phase out as hybrid continues to gain popularity.
“In as much as local workers require local infrastructure, there will always be LAN equipment in office buildings to support workstations, printers, Wi-Fi, and VoIP,” he said. “But the rest of the infrastructure will increasingly shift to a cloud or edge model. It is only a matter of time. That said, there will always need to be an element of ‘hybrid’ to support LAN needs or any third-party edge technology that needs to be on-premises for legal, compliance, or other reasons.”
Jack Pouchet, vice president of sales for Natron Energy, was surprised to see what he considered to be such a low number for on-premises infrastructure users.
“That says something about the market penetration and services available from fiber and wireless carriers,” he said. “With lessons we are learning from dealing with COVID-19 and mass, rapid deployment of work-from-home environments, we are likely to see this trend continue. And, to some degree — especially for the small- to medium-sized businesses and smaller local government and educational offices — the trend may accelerate to fully outsourced.”
The Inevitable Roadblocks
Like with any new technology, the edge comes with concerns. Survey respondents reported security, training/ease of use, and cost as the top three considerations to address when deciding whether or not to deploy edge infrastructure.
Security is always an issue — that goes for all systems, platforms, and infrastructure, Cronin said.
However, the edge itself has at least one unique security risk.
“When speaking of security concerns for edge applications, items No. 1, 2, and 3 to deal with are physical security,” Pouchet said.
And that’s because edge facilities — whether located at the bottom of a cellphone tower or some other inconspicuous location — still require service, he added. Anytime mission critical infrastructure and IT equipment is located in an area with public access, physical security must be escalated to the top priority.
“But that problem has known solutions,” Rutledge said, “like fences, locks, alarming, and surveillance cameras.”
It’s not surprising that only 20% of respondents deem themselves to be “very familiar” with edge technology, considering that’s the exact number that report having deployed edge infrastructure at their organizations. There are 58% who fall somewhere between “somewhat familiar” and “familiar,” but that leaves 22% who are not familiar at all.
“There’s always going to be a bit of fear of the unknown,” Goetz said. “Trade associations are a great place to start. Talk with your peers and find out how/if they are deploying edge technology and for what purpose.”
Additionally, there are several free education resources available online. Some vendors even have modular/prefab edge facilities available for demo purposes, Pouchet said.
As for cost, the return on investment really comes down to the nature of the business.
“Work with your application vendors to find out what edge needs exist,” Goetz said. “Do not deploy it just because it’s a new flavor and someone thought it was a good idea.”
Even if the business needs might be there, the question of cost still remains.
“It’s always a discussion about money, ease of use, and technology,” Kealy said. “If the money needed to make an edge or cloud deployment secure raises the cost to equal that of an on-premises deployment, then it’s likely to lead to CFO-CIO-CISO disagreement.”
But this is where good leadership comes in, according to Cronin.
“The network engineer and the data center manager have to sell it to the C-suite.”
Mapping It Out
“Edge computing — however you define it — is still relatively new, and because it is a specific submarket, its applications are limited,” Cronin said. “As more software is written around it, its acceptance and use will grow.”
But with such a fluid definition, what are edge facilities going to look like — and where will they be located?
“It only takes a few edge applications to become a small colocation facility,” Goetz said. “And I think we’ll start seeing more of that in markets that have been ignored.”
But for markets that haven’t, there is already a vast amount of colo space available.
“Why build additional facilities when infrastructure is already present in most markets?” Cronin asked. “That being said, the secondary markets are the ones that will offer opportunities for dedicated edge facilities. These will be a combination of small footprint sites buried in stick-built facilities as well as containerized/modular units perhaps located at the base of cell towers.”
In addition to the 20% who have already deployed edge infrastructure, 31% of survey respondents reported they have plans to implement the new technology in the next one to two years.
While Goetz said she expects to see the numbers increase for those who utilize both hybrid and fully outsourced network deployments, she reported the numbers seem right in line with what they should be.
“Really, it is just looking at the application first, which is something that should have happened years ago,” she said.
Exactly when will technology reach the future — the one that relies on edge infrastructure, complete with self-driving cars and smart buildings that communicate with each other to make up truly smart cities?
Well, that depends.
“For timelines, the edge is already here — it will just keep getting more pervasive as people find more use cases for it,” Kealy said. “For self-driving cars in a utopian smart city with enmeshed vehicle/building communication? Not in Gen Z’s lifetime, except perhaps for one or two petri dishes specifically designed that way — places like Dubai, for example.”
But that’s just one perspective. Others believe all of these things will absolutely happen.
“It’s a human temptation to look for — and wish for — simple and clean transitions, especially to new technologies,” Rutledge said. “What most often happens is that foundational technologies build incrementally, and new functions are layered incrementally onto those foundational technologies. The internet is a perfect example. It started out as a way to access mostly file-based resources. As new incremental technologies that exploited the fundamental capabilities were created, the internet evolved to be the vibrant ecosystem it is today.”
All in all, it appears the edge is right on track for where it should be today. And for those looking to get to the future faster, it seems the answer is more education.
“The fact is that people feel more secure when data is under their control,” said Cronin. “Unfortunately, this is seldom the case, as in-house security is always competing with other needs for in-house funds, and it would be unusual for an in-house operation to be up to speed on all the latest threats.”
“To reduce the fear of the unknown, it’s necessary simply to remind people that this is not magic or mystery,” Kealy said. “It’s simply ‘someone else’s computer,’ and you’re renting CPU (compute) and disc space (storage).”