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Is edge computing the key to a digital revolution?

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Edge computing is a very exciting topic for most of us. It is the promise that a whole new set of connected devices will deliver brand new services and customer experiences. In the modern, digital world in which we find ourselves, connectivity has to be excellent where people live, work, and interact with each other. 

The idea of edge computing is to partly move data storage and processing from large data centre facilities, closer to the edge of the local network and to the end-users. In the local network, the lowest latency is necessary for modern devices and apps to deliver their promises. If the latency is not adequate, the user experience disappoints and end customers get frustrated quickly. 

This could jeopardise the business fundamentals behind edge computing: investment in such a massive digital infrastructure is justified by the assumption that the number of users equipped with IoT compliant devices living, working and interacting in city centres will grow exponentially. 

What edge computing looks to do is to interconnect devices, horizontally. The more people you have in a given area, the more interconnections you can make, and the more distributed data storage and computing power are. I am not an engineer myself but an IT expert explained that the same social network app running on your phone would rely on the phones present around you to store and process the data necessary to your own phone. 

ESG and other challenges around traditional edge

Sharing and connecting – these are words that are very much at the core of ESG. 

Being fully ESG compliant is not a promise that owners and operators of large data centres outside the larger cities in the FLAP D markets – Frankfurt, London, Amsterdam, Paris, and Dublin – can always make. The intent to be ESG compliant is there, and companies in this current climate will be hard pressed to not ignore it. Companies have, so far, put in place lots of very good initiatives to be fully ESG compliant as soon as possible.

But they also have bigger fish to fry at the moment: for example, some governments or parliaments restrict access to the grid or force data centres and operators to be concentrated in specific geographical areas. Meanwhile, land is becoming a scarce resource, rooftop leases for the installation of masts are terminated at an increased rate by landlords, and the only valid alternative so far is to install 25m high monopoles in the streets, and 5G networks are implemented but the broadband capacity is still often lagging.

Building an edge network in the largest cities will take ever larger data centres to provide massive back up and computing power to support the local edge network, perfect connectivity through towers, masts and subterranean dark fibre networks, and a dedicated, reliable source of power. The building of a performant digital infrastructure in the FLAP D market is happening at a high pace, but we still have to overcome some serious and significant challenges to make this happen.

Medium edge

In the meantime, others have begun exploring different approaches to edge, with some choosing to bet on a middle ground: medium edge.

In Sweden, according to sources, a new data centre company is going to be announced soon with the business objective of becoming a regional edge data centre platform, connecting not only larger cities, but also the residents of middle-sized cities. 

That company aims to set a new benchmark in terms of ESG attributes. Its ambition is to become the most circular and ESG aligned data centre operator in Sweden by minimising its environmental footprint both during its construction phase and its operations, but also maximising the utility of its waste heat. 

From a social and community perspective, this project is presented as a catalyst of positive change by making the economically challenged area where it is based a place where low-income residents are offered free IT software, and where the municipality can attract businesses keen to take advantage of extreme connectivity. 

This project can be seen as an example of an alternative, yet complementary approach to edge computing where connectivity is exponentially increased inside major cities, with a sometimes debatable ESG footprint.

Conceptually, medium edge is quite aligned with the traditional concept. If you zoom out from the larger cities, a whole country or region becomes the geographical area where the horizontal connections can now be made, reducing the pressure on location for data centre infrastructure.  

Challenges around medium edge

Medium edge is an interesting idea on paper, but it will have to overcome some significant challenges as well. There may be more land available and potentially supportive local municipalities, however access to power might be problematic in more remote areas. 

Politically and socially, not unlike the debates which took place when wind turbines started to appear in the countryside, there are some loud voices raising against the data centre industry among the farming community. 

In the Netherlands, attracted by the convergence of European internet cables, temperate climates, and an abundance of green energy, some hyperscalers are attempting to establish large footprints in the countryside, but there is local resistance to these projects by impacted parties, such as farmers, at a time when they themselves are under increasing pressure to meet their own ESG targets.

Medium edge will have its own problems, undoubtedly, however for those people living and working on the edge of the edge, interconnections are crucial.

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