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Living on the edge

Image: Adobe Stock / sutlafk

Wendy Shearer, Director of Smart Cities & Ecosystems at Pulsant, explores how local infrastructure and edge computing can help supercharge regional businesses.

The UK has the largest data centre capacity in Europe and, until now, London and its surrounding areas have acted as the continent’s data centre hub. There are currently 456 data centres in the UK, 70 of which are located in London; in 2020, 70% of the UK’s commercial data centre market was clustered in and around the capital.

There are many reasons for this trend. The city has a ‘first-mover advantage’, an incredibly vibrant business ecosystem, and extensive and far-reaching fibre capacity. However, much of the data centre space around London is for wholesale, where contracts are typically large. UK-based hyperscale operators also tend to favour contracting for space within colocation facilities, rather than acquiring land to develop large campuses.

In the past, this has made it difficult for businesses outside of the capital to access the data infrastructure they need to keep up with the demands of the digital age. From an infrastructural standpoint, many regional businesses have been isolated from the biggest concentration of connectivity in the country.

How regional data centres are powering local tech ecosystems

Edge data centres are a move away from concentrating digital infrastructure in a specific area such as London, in favour of a more distributed model in which the data processing takes place near to the actual user.

Edge data centres therefore hold the potential to extend high-speed connectivity and networking benefits to more remote areas. Edge also provides many advantages in its ultra-low latency access to computing power – ideal in certain use cases such as IoT, AI and advanced applications.

Historically, many regions across the UK have lacked the connectivity required to enable edge data centres. However, the recent trend towards building edge infrastructure in these regions is finally providing businesses with the performance power they need. Edge data centres, simply put, can empower local businesses to unleash their full potential within emerging regional tech ecosystems.

Manchester leads by example

In 2022, the UK’s tech ecosystem was valued at $1 trillion – just the third country to hit this valuation after the US and China. Although much investment and infrastructure centre around London, there are a growing number of regions outside of the city with fast-growing tech hubs.

In recent years, Manchester has become a £5 billion digital powerhouse, with particular strengths in cybersecurity, e-commerce, AI, and fintech. The city is frequently described as one of the country’s leading tech hubs outside London, today hosting over 1,200 high-growth businesses.

The Greater Manchester council’s visionary digital strategy recognised that its tech industry must be underpinned by a robust digital infrastructure. By focusing on consolidating its strengths as a fast-growing tech hub, Manchester has entered an era of digital-led prosperity and improved quality of life for its people.

Naturally, other regions in the UK are keen to emulate Manchester’s success. Sunderland is blazing a trail in terms of its 20-year strategic plan to become one of the UK’s most advanced smart cities. The West Midlands scored highly for digital infrastructure in the 2022 Local Digital Capital Report, beating London in terms of 5G coverage.

In 2022, Bristol and Oxford ranked among the 20 top European hubs for start-up investment – the only UK cities named besides London. Leeds is now considered the UK’s health tech capital, and is also emerging as a promising tech ecosystem.

Industries supported by edge

The emergence of IoT, AI, and advanced analytics have ushered in new possibilities for organisations, many of which require significant amounts of data. To leverage this data most efficiently, businesses need access to relevant digital infrastructure.

In short, regional tech ecosystems require localised networks to bring data storage and processing closer to the devices and applications that are generating the information. Edge computing caters well to these requirements, offering additional benefits such as its low latency computing power.

Some examples of how edge can support specific industries include:

  1. Aviation

Due to its low latency and data processing at close proximity, edge computing can power a range of innovative solutions and applications within an aviation setting. Processing at the edge enables fast operational decision-making and rapid response times – both of which are crucial in an airport.

To take just one example, airline hardware issues can be diagnosed with sensors using a network that combines edge computing with mobile and IoT technologies. A maintenance team can then be automatically alerted; the technology can even make a live update to the flight’s departure timetable.

  1. Healthcare

Edge infrastructure is also driving advancements in the healthcare industry – for example using IoT sensors on patient equipment in hospitals. These sensors provide real-time collection, monitoring and analysis of data.

Advanced analytics can be applied to these data, offering hospitals actionable insights for more effective treatments and decision-making. With just 20% of NHS practices being ‘digitally mature’ according to NHS England, edge computing and analytics are expected to contribute hugely to the digital transformation of the organisation at large.

Of course, there are changes that are directly felt by the patient, too. In rural areas where access to healthcare may be limited, for example, patient wearables powered by edge computing can also quickly identify warning signs and improve patient outcomes.

  1. Manufacturing

Through the use of IoT sensors, manufacturing businesses can derive colossal volumes of data from connected machines and equipment. Appropriately harnessed, that data can form the basis of automated decision-making and diagnostics, enabling predictive and proactive maintenance as well as and improve safety and boost efficiency. All of this is progress towards improved productivity, reduced downtime, and optimised costs.

  1. Smart ports

With the UK government’s Maritime 2050 report intending to see smart ports “act as a part of an advanced supply chain… using data-driven and automated devices connected together within an ‘internet of things’”, edge technologies will be fundamental to their success.

Edge will enable the digital twin technologies that not only streamline day-to-day operations, but also improves decision-making, safety and efficiency. It will also act as the infrastructural foundation to connect the smart port to other elements of the supply chain.

Is this the demise of the in-house data centre?

According to the Uptime Institute’s annual Global Data Centre survey, less than half of workloads are now run on on-premise data centres owned and run by private companies. In 2018, Gartner analyst David Cappuccio predicted that 80% of businesses would divest their data centres by 2025.

Data centres are more important than ever, both for innovation and for everyday business to take place. But with so many cost pressures – security, sustainability, power, and the business cost of downtime – they require significant investment to keep up-to-date with industry-wide regulations and standards.

Instead, service providers are realising that it makes more sense to focus solely on delivering services to customers, rather than managing their own data centres. Edge computing ensures performance and costs can be managed, while still delivering for customers – and when combined with colocation, brings that connectivity into the regions that need it most.

There’s no doubt that there is rapidly growing demand for distributed computing at the edge. It allows businesses to effectively deliver digital transformation to their clients located across the UK without scrambling to upgrade a company-owned data centre. As our appetite for AI and IoT-powered solutions grows, digital infrastructure in regional areas is on track to become the gateway to local regeneration.

Wendy Shearer
Wendy Shearer
Director of Smart Cities & Ecosystems at Pulsant

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