When COVID-19 arrived in early 2020, enterprises’ first priority was to patch together a communications and information-sharing infrastructure that could sustain operations until work could return to normal. A year later, returns are on hold, and enterprises are rethinking their visions of “normal.” They’re reimagining their workplaces and their business practices – embracing more flexible models that take advantage of the benefits of edge technologies.
Edge computing is defined loosely as a model that brings computational, data storage, and connectivity resources closer to the locations where they’re needed, saving bandwidth and accelerating response times. Edge technologies power millions of IoT applications in industrial, retail, healthcare, and smart cities environments, and, prior to 2020, analysts expected an additional bump from virtual reality and 5G in the coming years.
Then the pandemic hit, and the need for edge technologies suddenly accelerated. As millions of workers shifted out of enterprise hubs into more remote locations, they put a strain on networks, creating increased latency and a greater need for computer power, capacity, and storage closer to the new network edge.
It’s not just workers connecting on Zoom occupying this new edge. Video editors working from home are transmitting huge files, schools are engaging thousands of students in online classes, and physicians are conducting remote health visits where high-res images are posted and circulated. Investing in edge solutions that process data locally and enable more seamless connections avoids having to slog through increasingly overburdened public networks.
The result: a boom in edge-related hardware, software, and applications. Analysts are predicting a major growth spurt at the edge, rocketing up 30 percent a year to $44.0 billion by 2030.
As enterprises accelerate investments in digital transformation projects, edge technologies will open up new opportunities to succeed in the marketplace. Here are a few areas where they’ll play prominent roles.
Customers, of course, can be demanding. They want choices, information, intuitive purchasing options, respect for their privacy, and, at times, a little coddling. Businesses can respond better in transactional situations if they can have information and insights available in the moment. This plays right to the strengths of edge applications.
Retailers, for instance, can use edge devices with web caching functions to replicate online customer experiences in the physical world. They can capture customer information, apply insights from shopping patterns, process connections in real time and be ready to serve the customer better at key points of the buying journey.
Outside the store, changeable digital displays can broadcast pop-up sales to attract customers inside. As customers enter, the network connects to their personal devices and access their purchase history. Customers then can request customized coupons or connect to personalized shopper assistance. Inside the store, strategically positioned kiosks and screens display customized promotional offers based on each shopper’s buying patterns.
Sales associates can use digital assistant devices to check updated inventory levels or gather insider product information. Easy-to-use product finder displays can steer customers to the right products based on individual, self-selected preferences.
The proliferation of edge computing applications has significant – and seemingly contradictory – ramifications for security.
On the one hand, adding more nodes opens up more places vulnerable to attack. This will force IT security leaders to bolster their defenses to ensure that information and applications stored at the edge match the strength their applying inside the data center itself.
At the same time, edge computing’s decentralized nature brings some security benefits. If an edge device is breached, security teams can easily wall off the endpoint, so the attack doesn't spread to the whole network. They can also configure their edge models to keep more data at the endpoints and limit the amount of information that gets sent back to a home office. That adds an extra layer of security, keeping threats away from the data center, where more mission-critical resources are stored.
To optimize the security of an edge-enabled system, organizations will need to establish strong governance programs to control the data that's being generated, processed, and transferred from individual sites.
Plus, since IoT devices are tough to secure, it’s important that the edge computing deployment emphasizes proper management of the devices themselves. They’ll need to establish policy-driven configuration enforcement and security for computing and storage, paying special attention to encryption of data at rest and in flight.
While edge security isn’t a new concept, the scale of the challenge has grown with the expansion of remote work and on-site IoT-related applications. Solving these edge security issues will be a top priority in 2021 and beyond.
Gartner identified democratization as one of its top ten strategic technology trends for the enterprise in 2020. While the projection focuses mainly on a broader sharing of technical and business domain expertise, it can be extended to include an increase in democratization of commerce itself – enabled by the growth of edge technologies.
The edge's ability to aggregate, process, and analyze data locally opens up new opportunities for entrepreneurial ventures outside major hubs of commerce. Data will be cheaper to manage, and it will be available to larger pools of talent. Startup and operational costs will be lower, creating a budding market for new ventures in new and existing industries.
The democratization will be driven, in part, by society’s move to remote work. Home-based businesses will create their own individual edge outlets, and organizations will establish regional edge hubs to serve growing numbers of remote employees and contractors. And, telecommunications providers will shore up edge hubs and leverage faster 5G to lighten the traffic loads that are bogging down today’s suddenly overburdened networks.
Gartner’s trend prediction projects four key elements of democratization to accelerate through 2023. These include the democratization of data and analytics (tools targeting data scientists expanding to target the professional developer community), development (AI tools to leverage in custom-developed applications), design (expanding on the low-code, no-code phenomena with automation of additional application development functions to empower the citizen-developer) and knowledge (non-IT professionals gaining access to tools and expert systems that empower them to exploit and apply specialized skills beyond their own expertise and training).
Edge technologies will push commerce into the mix, starting in 2021.
Dave Russell is vice president of enterprise strategy at Veeam.
Rick Vanover is senior director of product strategy at Veeam.