Digital business initiatives often create data that is more efficiently processed when the computing power is close to the thing or person generating it. Edge computing solutions address this need for localized computing power. IT infrastructure and operations (I&O) leaders tasked with managing these solutions should understand the associated business value and risks.
Around 10% of enterprise-generated data is created and processed outside a traditional centralized data center or cloud. By 2025, Gartner predicts this figure will reach 75%
Gartner defines edge computing as solutions that facilitate data processing at or near the source of data generation. For example, in the context of the Internet of Things (IoT), the sources of data generation are usually things with sensors or embedded devices. Edge computing serves as the decentralized extension of the campus networks, cellular networks, data center networks or the cloud.
“Organizations that have embarked on a digital business journey have realized that a more decentralized approach is required to address digital business infrastructure requirements,” says Santhosh Rao, senior research director at Gartner. “As the volume and velocity of data increases, so too does the inefficiency of streaming all this information to a cloud or data center for processing.”
In these situations, there are benefits to decentralizing computing power, to placing it closer to the point where data is generated — in other words, to pursuing edge computing. Rapid deployment of IoT projects for a variety of business, consumer and government use cases such as smart cities, is driving this development.
“Currently, around 10% of enterprise-generated data is created and processed outside a traditional centralized data center or cloud,” says Rao. “By 2025, Gartner predicts this figure will reach 75%.”
Edge computing solutions can take many forms. They can be mobile in a vehicle or smartphone, for example. Alternatively, they can be static — such as when part of a building management solution, manufacturing plant or offshore oil rig. Or they can be a mixture of the two, such as in hospitals or other medical settings.
“A wearable health monitor is an example of a basic edge solution. It can locally analyze data like heart rate or sleep patterns and provide recommendations without a frequent need to connect to the cloud,” says Rao.
Edge servers can form clusters or micro data centers where more computing power is needed locally
More complex edge computing solutions can act as gateways. In a vehicle, for example, an edge solution may aggregate local data from traffic signals, GPS devices, other vehicles, proximity sensors and so on, and process this information locally to improve safety or navigation.
More complex still are edge servers, such as those that are currently being deployed in next-generation (5G) mobile communication networks. “Servers deployed in 5G cellular base stations will host applications and cache content for local subscribers, without having to send traffic through a congested backbone network,” says Rao.
He adds: “In especially complex applications, edge servers can form clusters or micro data centers where more computing power is needed locally.” Examples can be found in offshore oil rigs and retail outlets.
As with all rapidly evolving technologies, evaluating, deploying and operating edge computing solutions has its risks. And they come in many forms, but a key one relates to security.
“Extending your footprint using edge computing exponentially increases the surface area for attacks,” says Rao. “A nascent vendor landscape compounds this risk. Unsecure endpoints are already used in distributed denial-of-service attacks or as entry points to core networks.
Another concern is that the cost of deploying and managing an edge computing environment can easily exceed the project’s financial benefits. Moreover, projects can become victims of their own success — scalability can become a serious issue as new IoT endpoints proliferate.
“Edge computing has enormous potential to enable digital initiatives supported by IoT, but I&O leaders need to tread carefully,” Rao says.
This article has been updated from the original, published on October 18, 2017 to reflect new events, conditions or research.