Exploring data at The Edge


In case you haven’t noticed, data has become much more “edgy”. That’s not a statement about its attitude, but rather a reflection on its source.

After 34 years in technology marketing I constantly wonder if certain hype curves are simply rehashed trends. Just as many people used to ask, “Can you explain this client-server thing one more time?” today friends and parents ask, “Exactly what is this Cloud thing?” Now “The Edge” is creeping into hype curves in many industries, and it carries all of the mystical aspects of modern computing, like Cloud and Blockchain.

I guess one could argue that “edges” predate the computer movement given that much of the data was always created on the periphery and eventually sent back to the center, by courier or Pony Express in earlier centuries.

But the exponential proliferation of the Internet of Things (IoT) has added a very different complexion to communications from — and especially between — these disparate yet associated edge devices.

Most experts emphasize that future thinking enterprises have as much data analysis done at the edge as they do at the center. As an example, the data exhaust being transmitted between a Fitbit and a diabetes monitor would be analyzed to the extent possible on or between those two devices.  After this information was digested and normalized, it would then move to an inner orbit away from the edge.

In many industries, these orbits could be closer to the originating periphery, like a regional processing center or warehouse, or deep inner orbits that are close to the “sun” or the central data center.

What makes this tricky is the coordination of feeds between devices orbiting the far edge, and the ability to determine when that data will break orbit and start moving toward the center of the computational solar system. At the risk of beating the analogy to death, data’s return to earth has its challenges, not the least of which is burning to a crisp because of heat shield problems.

In this case the protective covering is related to security and interoperability at various transmission points in the Edge’s solar system. Again, the high risk points can just as easily occur at the periphery as they can during movement toward the center. As with the children’s game of “telephone,” the more orbits the data must pass through to get to the center, the greater possibility of a garbled message.

This risk can increase dramatically when the inner orbit is controlled by a third party not directly associated with the enterprise. On the other hand, as with cloud deployments, having a third party control one of the orbits can be a huge advantage if the technical skills or resources are not available at the mother ship.

Here are four key challenges related to deploying a data on The Edge strategy:

  • Most of the serious decisions related to cloud implementation apply to The Edge. This includes to what extent cloud data is private, hybrid, or public, or whether there will be a multi-cloud approach based on the edge layers. The road is littered with enterprises that underestimated the complexity of even the most basic cloud deployment of migration. The same will be the case with The Edge, especially when considering the IoT aspects.
  • The key advantage to Edge computing is speed. By definition, the processing is done on the periphery which decreases the latency that typically results from communications with a central data center. In many cases the investment and strategic tradeoff to get a somewhat smaller increment in speed may not be worth the effort.
  • Related to speed is the principle that Edge reduces costs as it is less reliant on communication with expensive central data centers or intermediate data hubs that feed into the center. If the cost of data is not a consideration in your enterprise, migration to the Edge might not be a priority. However, if an increasing amount of computing is being done on devices at the edge as in healthcare and smart cities, Edge computing should surely be explored.
  • The security aspects can be complicated. While there is a diffusion of some of the security to the edge, those who have worked with connected devices know that intra-device security is a key issue especially when security-lax consumers are the major edge users.

So, while all the discussion about The Edge might seem like so much hype, I would argue that the arrival of technologies such as IoT have fundamentally changed the game and earned The Edge a strategic role that you will have to come to grips with.

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