Why edge computing will move beyond hype in 2021

From remote working to autonomous trucking, edge computing can solve problems cloud can't.
11 January 2021
  • 2021 could prove to be the ‘real inflection’ for edge computing
  • Businesses can bolster their intelligence and data analytics, but will need to be wary of security issues
  • With remote working still rife, the need for increased speed, productivity, and collaboration could see edge-based solutions adopted more readily

Long heralded as “the next big lever for digital transformation”, edge computing holds much promise when it comes to overcoming the latency issues of cloud solutions.

Many of the web or productivity activities you carry out – as an individual or enterprise – currently send data to a cloud data center, the response of which can lead to some lag.

Despite new points of cloud presence emerging in great numbers, processing data within the device ‘at edge’ has been pedaled over the last few years as a revolutionary option for everyday business, bolstering speed, productivity, and collaboration.

Edge computing enables devices to quickly process, analyze, and act on the data they have collected. Potential use cases span anything where there are benefits to near-instant machine response. That could be in predictive maintenance, where IoT sensors monitor machine health with low latencies and perform analytics in real-time, or in in-hospital patient monitoring, where processing data locally could help to ensure patient privacy.

The technology will also be key to traffic management and autonomous driving, where ultra-low latency is not a nice-to-have, but essential.

Will 2021 be the year that the edge for business sees the hype turn to the happening?

Compatible with cloud

DC predicts that the edge computing market worldwide will grow to $250.6 billion by 2024. But this growth won’t come at the expense of cloud solutions. Edge computing and public cloud computing are not incompatible.

Keith Higgins, VP of digital transformation at Rockwell Automation, said that “integrating edge functionalities with existing cloud infrastructure” will mean “less worry about logistical IT considerations and, instead, more focus on rethinking what’s possible in a smart machine.”

Towards the back-end of 2020, there was evidence of more enterprise operational teams managing edge computing systems using centralized configurations and security profiles within public cloud providers.

We expect to see this trend continue in 2021. This is because edge architects are (or should be) aware that managing edge systems individually will lead to a tipping point, a systemic complexity that jeopardizes basic operations and security. The cloud comes in to centralize the management of the edge-based systems, allowing for better machine learning and enterprise development of edge-capability over time.

The big three public clouds – AWS, Google Could Platform, and Microsoft Azure – are all starting to provide edge computing capabilities, recognizing the value of processing and analyzing data closer to the source. The overlap between cloud and edge computing is mutually beneficial. 2021 will see the interplay proliferate and thrive.

Towards the middle of the decade, we may see a more vigorous turn from businesses (especially SMEs) to new approaches within edge operations, incorporating limited need for larger cloud providers. For now, though, this level of independence and self-sufficient edge operation requires a whole heap of resources that not many businesses can take on or maintain.

Why 2021…

2021 could be a real inflection point for edge computing. As one of the numerous technologies whose uptake and interest has been accelerated by Covid-19, edge computing will continue to come into its own as remote working leans on the need for outstanding application performance. If business agility is the name of the game – and it certainly continues to be – then the availability of real-time data and a downturn in latency are getting the thumbs up from directors.

Take e-commerce for example. If the future of retail is incorporeal, then e-commerce will rely on content delivery networks and their edge services to provide better performance, reliability, and security for consumers. The powerful implications of edge computing on client/user experience are a big reason for its coming of age in the early 2020s.

Drilling down further, several trends and drivers could contribute to the increased uptake of edge computing this year:

Data center marketplaces are an emerging edge hosting option that unites smaller, local data centers and allows businesses to think globally and act locally. Microdata centers make sense to SMEs, fitting their capital expenditure and complying with their space constraints. These marketplaces will become a viable model for edge computing in 2021.

An increased focus on security and governance. While the edge distributes processing, storage, and applications across a wide range of devices and data centers (in theory making it difficult for any single disruption to take down the network) the use of edge computing remains well ahead of the use of edge computing security. As the use cases, flexibility, and compatibility of edge computing rise in 2021, so too will a focus on vamping up security.

Local, real-time data analysis. Edge computing helps organizations make faster data-driven decisions, using local computation to introduce higher levels of intelligence earlier in the data analytics process. Using solely the cloud, intelligence is less refined and typically applied later in the process, which can prove costly for businesses looking to streamline operations.

Less excess data. Businesses today are aware of the masses of data they are collecting and the expense of storage rising as a result. Edge computing can help by sending only useful information to the cloud, which in turn leads to savings in operation costs and decreased storage needs.

A push to the edge with private 5G. While the widespread adoption of public 5G is a somewhat distant vision, more immediate value for enterprises of all sizes may lie in private 5G. A network dedicated to a specific business or locale is a prospect for the here and now, and may well fuel edge computing in 2021. Business infrastructure (i.e., warehouse robots and factory machine tools) enabled by IoT need local processing and low-latency networks; edge computing and 5G serve these needs respectively.

Intelligence at edge. We expect to see machine learning start to happen more at the edge, rather than in the data center itself. With industries having to bridge the physical and digital worlds at increasing rates, intelligence at the edge will only serve to further bolster business processes.

Ultimately, the successful adoption of edge computing options requires companies to think – expansively but intelligently – beyond traditional workloads and network design.

For 2021 to become the inflection point it’s been tipped as, and to yield the most benefits from the edge, engineering teams will need architecture to address specific data processing, analytics, and workflow requirements. Just as importantly, the regulatory, security, and safety requirements need to be consulted. This holistic approach is vital to understanding where to locate edge computing infrastructure physically, amongst other design considerations.