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Challenges at the edge

Alan Stewart-Brown

Alan Stewart-Brown

VP EMEA at Opengear
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Image credit: metamorworks / Shutterstock.com

The traditional data centre has been a mainstay of computing and connectivity networks for decades, with most processing transactions being carried out in a centralised core.

Although core networks are essentially the backbone of any network, mobility, technological advancements and user demands have increased the need to add edge elements to the core. Gradual but growing adoption of new generation data-rich applications and IoT technologies have increased the demand for deployment of IT infrastructure closer to the end-user.

The move to remote working that we have seen since the pandemic began has, in turn, helped boost the move to the edge. Edge computing is a distributed, open IT architecture that features decentralised processing power. Instead of transferring data to a data centre, IoT (Internet of Things) devices transfer it to a local connection point. The data is processed by a local computer, or server, at this edge location.

Nearer to the source

The advantages of this model are that since the edge is specifically designed to be located closer to the user, it can provide much faster services and minimises latency by enabling real-time processing of large quantities of data that then communicates across a much shorter distance. At these edge compute sites, the most commonly found devices are network switches, routers, security appliances, storage and local compute devices. Unlike origin or cloud servers, which are usually located far from the devices that are communicating with them, the edge is located closer to the user for optimal data processing and application or content delivery.

Edge computing brings data processing and information delivery functionality closer to the data’s source. It is the next generation of infrastructure for the internet and the cloud – and it is experiencing rapidly accelerated growth.  We’ve already seen a massive migration to the edge during the pandemic and it is now widely reported that by 2025, 75% of all data will be processed there.

With employees often now widely dispersed, edge data centres create a reliable ‘last mile’ of connectivity, bringing critical data ‘nearer’ to those needing to use it, increasing reliability of access, security and worker productivity.

Covid has boosted edge computing in other ways, of course. We have seen a boom in people moving away from shopping in big city high streets and prioritising convenience stores in their local area. We have seen the growth of video streaming, an increase and an ongoing rise in online gaming. And all this together has led to an increase in demand for compute power at the edge to drive these kinds of activities, which are increasingly happening in remote locations. 

Moreover, edge computing processes data locally which brings many benefits to a wide variety of industries. Financial institutions, for example, are adopting edge computing to better process data that is collected through mobile banking applications, ATMs and information kiosks. In the case of healthcare, edge computing allows organisations to access critical patient information in real-time rather than through an incomplete and slow database, while in retail, edge computing helps to improve customer experiences, increase operational efficiency, and strengthen security measures.

Finding a way forward

For all the reasons highlighted above, and more, we are seeing computing power transitioning to the edge, and edge data centres, in particular. But with this power comes an element of vulnerability. As consumers continue to demand faster, more efficient services and more IoT devices are added, a greater strain is put on the organisations distributed IT networks, thereby increasing the likelihood of outages.

To keep edge data centres up and running, there is a clear need for organisations and service providers to put in place proactive monitoring and alerting, to ensure they can remediate networks without the need to send an engineer on site.

For example, Smart Out-of-Band (OOB) management tools can be used to diagnose the problem and remediate it, even when the main network is congested due to a network disruption, or even if it is down completely. Failover to Cellular (F2C) provides continued internet connectivity for remote LANs and equipment over high-speed 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE), when the primary link is unavailable. 

Organisations are also using a combination of automation and network operations (NetOps) for zero touch provisioning, effectively getting the network provisioned and up and running, without having to do anything manually. Often, they will want to ‘zero touch provision’ their own devices. They will also want to use this technology for the orchestration of maintenance tasks and to automatically deliver remediation in the event of an equipment failure or other technical problem.

That effectively means that organisations can ship new or replacement equipment to site and, using Smart OOB, quickly bring the site up via a secure cellular connection allowing for the remote provisioning and configuration of the equipment in-situ without having to send a skilled network engineer to site. This can deliver huge cost savings for many companies implementing new edge deployments, especially those trying to do so at pace across multiple geographies. Then following deployment, if a problem develops that results in a loss of connectivity to the production network and one that cannot be resolved immediately, business continuity can be maintained with organisations continuing to pass any mission critical network traffic across the secure OOB LTE cellular connection.

Edge computing is poised to transform the data centre landscape and is already influencing network strategies. The concepts around the edge are not necessarily new but are increasingly relevant as IoT connected systems continue to scale. Organisations are realising that relying on centralised data centres for the large amounts of sensor and endpoint data that is being collected, simply isn’t realistic or cost effective.

What the future may bring

As cloud service offerings increase, content streaming grows and more IoT is integrated, organisations are challenged with diversifying their network initiatives. The more applications and devices that that use an edge network, the greater the strain. As companies and organisations move more and more of their compute load from large data centres to edge compute locations, they must adjust their network management processes to ensure they continue delivering the always-on uptime that customers expect.

To do this, they must use hybrid solutions that leverage internet and cloud-based connectivity, as well as physical infrastructure. A combination of NetOps and Smart Out-of-Band management ensures that organisations have always-on network access to deliver the network resilience needed for fast evolving edge computing.

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