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The Edge: Where the Physical and Digital Worlds Collide

By Carrie MacGillivray

Where does the intelligence of the network really reside? It used to be an easy answer – at the core of the network. However, with the ubiquity of the Internet, intelligence is extending to the farthest reaches of the edge. Today, digital capabilities are popping up in everything from cars to parking meters to toothbrushes – the physical "things" we interact with daily in our work or personal lives.

Ask 20 people and you’ll get 20 different answers on how to define the Edge. Where there is adamant agreement, however, is the growing importance of the Edge and what happens there – be it compute, storage, or analytics. As organizations begin their digital transformation journey and connect more enterprise endpoints, it is critical for them to create a strategy on how they will manage the data that is generated, stored, and transported to/from these critical delivery points.

One of the segmentations defined in the Data Age 2025 study is the location of data creation: Core, Edge, or Endpoint. The ‘Core’ is basically the datacenter and the ‘Endpoint’ is synonymous with a phone or PC. The ‘Edge’ is neither, yet of the three, it is growing the fastest (over 40% per year through 2025). The cloud also has a play in this equation as the place where processing takes place. However, increasingly we are seeing some level of processing take place at the edge. According to IDC's Global IoT Decision Maker Survey, 43% of IoT data will be processed in whole or in part at the Edge.

Source: IDC, 2017

In the context of the Data Age 2025 study, the ‘Edge’ is defined as non-datacenter, enterprise hardened infrastructure. This includes data and content generated ac/ross a myriad of enterprise Edge devices like surveillance cameras, servers and embedded devices such as automotive intelligent systems, field sensors and RFID tags. Metadata also plays a sizeable role in data produced at the enterprise Edge as it provides much of the contextual information that enriches digital interactions on endpoints.

We'd be remiss not to mention that the "edge" can be a virtual and/or physical "thing". Essentially it is where information is aggregated from endpoints so it can take the form of a physical gateway or a virtual hub where information comes together. Keep in mind that the edge is a phenomenon can happen in any use case where information is gathered from endpoints. It is not limited to enterprise deployments. The edge plays an important role in many consumer use cases as well. Essentially it allows some level of processing and storage to take place closer to the end points – reducing the amount of latency or cost to transport the data back to the core. It allows for more real-time action on these physical endpoints.

Edge processing, compute and storage are rapidly increasing as data processing needs extend further and further away from an organization's core infrastructure. It's important to understand what is driving this shift to the Edge. Businesses are looking to provide more real-time data and analytics through more devices that are located outside the four walls of the enterprise. Many of these devices are in motion or in distant locations where latency is not tolerated; hence, data must be captured and processed closer to the site of data generation rather than the enterprise core. This real-time feedback not only allows for quicker decision making, but also creates the need for instantaneous feedback loops, which enable the merging of the digital with the physical. Providing that seamless experience requires that data be readily accessible to allow for interactive and spontaneous encounters with the physical endpoints that surround us.

The "Edge" phenomenon is quickly drawing the attention of IT departments as they wrestle with the complexities of connecting, securing, maintaining and enabling this infrastructure – which, in many cases, exists outside the corporate firewall. IT departments must demand low-latency in their infrastructure selections for transport of data but they also need to ensure there is analytics processing capabilities for some or all of data created on these Edge devices. It's a paradigm shift for IT departments to adjust to this new reality of having an organization’s data spread across a much broader landscape. Nevertheless, it is a reality that must be embraced sooner rather than later. Security, performance, speed, and manageability will be top of mind for IT as they come to terms with the move to the Edge.

Enterprise IT managers must prepare their core infrastructure for this evolution by investing in Edge solutions that provide the foundation to support the data creation, compute, and storage necessary to allow real-time processing and the immediacy needed to link our physical and digital worlds.