Cloud computing entered the IT and business conversation more than a decade ago, and since then, consumption models and offerings have continued to grow and evolve.
But today many companies are treating the cloud as the end goal instead of as one of many critical components of their overall digitization strategy, adopting mantras like “cloud only” or “cloud first.” This over-rotation has left a gap in how they optimize workloads and decide where data should be processed.
As part of that, there has been a shift away from prioritizing what happens at the “edge” of the network -- the end points where devices interact with the world around them. This is the place where business actually happens: It’s where your customers are, and it’s becoming more important every day.
As the pendulum swings
While it’s clear the cloud will remain pivotal in terms of overall IT strategy, we are seeing the pendulum swing back toward the edge. But why?
Trends fueling this massive shift include cybersecurity, analytics, advancements in business software and, most notably, the internet of things (IoT). Devices of all varieties are coming online at an increasingly rapid rate. By the end of 2017, Gartner forecasts that 8.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide, up 31% from 2016, and will reach more than 20 billion by 2020.
In a retail store, IoT at the edge could be everything from security cameras to customers’ phones to shopping carts. In a factory, it could be a robot on the plant floor, the flow sensor on a water line or devices that communicate with an employee driving a forklift.
Compiling and analyzing the data generated by those devices is creating a huge new advantage for businesses. Note that it’s not happening in the cloud: According to IDC, by 2019 40% of IoT-created data will be stored, processed, analyzed and acted upon at the network edge.
The key to unlocking value from the network edge is understanding what workloads need to happen where. There are three major scenarios for which companies should prioritize the edge: when bandwidth is limited, when data has a short shelf life, or when speed is critical.
Limited bandwidth can be crippling to a data-based organization or process. Here edge processing solves a big problem: If data can be handled where it is received, decisions can be made faster and with a greater difference on business impact. In many instances, decision-makers cannot afford for their data to make the round trip to the cloud and back.
This principle can be crucial for companies with operations in remote locations. A typical offshore oil rig, for example, generates 500-plus GB of data every week. Sensors on the rig can monitor equipment to predict maintenance needed to avoid costly shutdowns or anticipate environmental conditions that might threaten worker safety. In either case, processing must be carried out as close to the sensors as possible to capture critical data and avoid dire consequences.
Another scenario where processing data on the edge provides an advantage is when the data has a short shelf life. Think of a retail customer walking past a store and receiving real-time offers and coupons. She’s there one second, gone the next. The company only has an instant to make the offer.
Companies like Westfield Corporation are already using real-time insights and analytics to transform the way they interact with customers. The cloud is still useful for gathering and analyzing information about customer behavior and shopping patterns to make long-term changes, but computing on the edge is making laser-focused, instantly targeted marketing a reality.
The third scenario is where speed is absolutely critical. For example, imagine you are in a self-driving car and a pedestrian walks in front of you at a crosswalk. Or imagine you are the pedestrian. Would you want that car to make its decision in the cloud? No. That decision must be made at the edge, in subseconds, with no margin for error.
Striking a balance
As sensors and IoT devices proliferate -- and as phones, robots, watches, HVAC systems and security cameras continue to gather more information every second -- it’s inevitable that companies will need to define their edge strategy. Businesses investing in edge agility can create new customer experiences, enhance safety and security, generate more revenue, and create new efficiencies.
Ultimately, companies will be more productive, safer and better at engaging their customers by combining the best of the cloud and the best of the edge. That means knowing where along the network to process, compute and perform analytics and other critical functions.
At the end of the day, it’s about finding the right balance.
Alison Gleeson is the senior vice president of the Americas organization at Cisco. With 20-plus years in the technology industry, Alison is a highly regarded international speaker about the drivers for digital disruption across all industries, the role of technology in enabling digital transformation, and empowering women in technology.