Sergey Nivens -

The time is now: Edge datacentres come of age

After years of hype and speculation, could the post-pandemic period see a resurgence in interest in the build-out of edge datacentres and compute environments as enterprises look to dust off projects that Covid-19 forced them to shelve?

The onset of the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic led to a surge in demand for edge datacentre capacity in some vertical markets, while also having a chilling effect on the adoption and deployment rates of distributed computing setups in others.

As enterprises across the world pivoted towards remote working during the early days of the pandemic, having a higher number of smaller data processing hubs located closer to users made a lot of sense.

These setups meant enterprises could provide their remote employees with low-latency connections to business applications, with (hopefully) little to no perceptible difference in performance when compared to using those same apps in the office.

It is a concept the music and movie streaming services embraced years before the pandemic struck by leaning on content delivery networks (CDNs) and points of presence (PoP) to host their content, rather than relying on huge, centralised datacentres in remote locations to serve up their content to users.

Having this content close to users reduces the risk of buffering and cuts down on loading times for streaming platforms, making their apps more responsive while also providing them with valuable, geographic-led usage data about who is consuming their content.

In the increasingly competitive world of streaming platforms, any performance issues or user experience blips that stop consumers getting access to the content they want in a timely way can affect the ability of these companies to recruit new users and retain existing ones.

Edge investments on hold

Beyond these use cases, wider adoption of edge datacentres and computing environments has taken a little bit longer than expected, with the pandemic forcing some firms to put their edge plans on ice, according to Roy Illsley, chief analyst at IT market watcher Omdia.

In a research project last year about edge computing, Omdia found that edge investments had been put on hold due to Covid-19.

“The retail market was really looking into edge in a big way, as were event spaces and stadiums, to improve customer service. Then Covid-19 hit and the stadiums and events and the shops all shut down, so there really wasn’t any point in them carrying on,” says Illsley.

As an example use case in the retail sector, Illsley points to the emerging experiential shopping experiences that some outlets are looking to cultivate as a means of boosting footfall in their bricks and mortar stores. One such idea is the development of “smart mirror” technology in clothing shops, which allow shoppers to see how they would look in a certain outfit without having to step foot in a changing room.

“That’s going to require some quite intensive, low-latency data processing to work. Then you have other retailers looking to build out edge environments so they can do video surveillance of ‘self-scanning’ tills to make sure shoppers aren’t skipping on scanning any items,” says Illsley.

These are the kinds of projects that are being revisited now the world has started opening up again.

Manufacturing and telcos leading on edge

At the other end of the scale is the manufacturing sector, which is one of the verticals “leading on edge” right now, says Illsley. But it’s the telecommunications market where the analyst and technology supplier community see the biggest potential for growth.

5G connectivity is becoming increasingly prevalent across the world and, in turn, makes it possible for user organisations to carry out their compute tasks in a much wider range of locations, which is one reason for this return to edge projects, he adds.

“5G is both an enabler and use case for edge, and we’re seeing lots of vendors partner with telcos and service providers, and coming up with specific telco-related edge products and solutions that meet those needs,” he says.

“5G is both an enabler and use case for edge, and we’re seeing lots of vendors partner with telcos and service providers to come up with specific telco-related edge products and solutions that meet those needs”
Roy Illsley, Omdia

“We know the manufacturing sector is trundling along [with edge buildouts], but telecoms is where we see the growth opportunity of edge. Meanwhile, other sectors are coming out the other side of Covid and dusting off their plans to deploy edge. And much of that activity is because 5G is going to be available for connectivity,” says Illsley.

“Uptake is still relatively low because it’s still a relatively new [concept] and there are still so many new things coming to market, but we are beginning to see much more interest in edge now,” he adds.

To this point, Illsley predicts that over the course of this year and into next, many more enterprises will start embarking on edge-related proof of concepts.

As a result, Omdia forecasts that 29% (5.6 million units) of all servers shipped in 2025 will be deployed in edge locations, up from 21% (2.8 million) in 2020.

Our view is that edge will represent a $72bn opportunity by 2024 because there’s so much opportunity for people to grow and deliver – it just needs the conditions to be right for people to expand and take their projects further forward,” he says.

Market maturation needed

Illsley acknowledges that the edge market still needs to do “a bit more maturing”, as a common stumbling block for many enterprises is not knowing where to turn to make their edge ambitions a reality.

He anticipates that, in time, the hardware underpinning edge environments will begin to standardise, but at the moment IT buyers are often faced with having to build their edge infrastructure stacks in a “piecemeal” way using kit from multiple suppliers.

From a hardware procurement standpoint, one way round that could be to engage the services of a systems integrator, but even then enterprises will still need to find a way to manage all these smaller, disparate and multiple computing environments without breaking the bank, he adds.

“There isn’t really a lot of recognition [from users] at the moment that there are vendors with edge management solutions out there,” says Illsley. “We tend to see them trying to find ways to use existing solutions that they can stretch for the edge or find some other DIY solution and making that work for edge environments.”

On a related point, it’s worth noting that several public cloud giants – notably Microsoft, Amazon and Google – have brought to market hybrid and multicloud-enabling products that could be used to extend the reach of their cloud platforms to edge environments. These include Microsoft Azure Stack, Amazon Web Services (AWS) Outposts and Google Anthos, respectively.

And where the software part of the edge computing stack is concerned, that part of the equation is already well defined, says Illsley. “We seem to have got the software stack side of thing tied down better, because it seems to be broadly accepted that it is going to be based on Kubernetes clusters,” he adds, which will enable enterprises to run containerised apps in edge environments.  

Securing the edge

Something else that IT buyers will need to bear in mind when building out their edge environments is how to physically secure the hardware contained in them. In a traditional, centralised, large-scale datacentre setup, the site – and the IT kit it contains – will be protected by biometric devices, mantraps, onsite security personnel and bomb-proof perimeter fencing, for example.

It will be difficult to match that level of protection in an edge environment, says Illsley, but some suppliers, such as Schneider Electric, are trying to address this through the deployment of sensors and security cameras that can alert organisations to any attempt to tamper with their edge environment.

“There will be an increased focus [looking ahead] on the physical security of these edge devices, in terms of where they are and how they’re protected, as well as the software security of the edge,” he continues. “Because when you put workloads and data out in these locations, you’re going to need to protect them, you’re going to need to ensure that what you’ve got out there is secure and the data is fully encrypted.”

There also need to be failover options available so that if an edge environment experiences a downtime event in one location, another one nearby has capacity to pick up the slack.

“You really don’t want any point failures, and discussions on all those matters are evolving, with lots and lots of technologies being developed and coming into the market,” says Illsley.  

“As edge datacentres proliferate, their sustainability profile is likely to be scrutinised. Negative publicity may slow demand. To avoid this scenario, [there] will need to [be] a focus on sustainability”
Uptime Institute

Factor in sustainability

Another area that enterprises will need to be mindful of when investing in edge datacentre builds is the environmental impact of their facilities, cautions datacentre resiliency think tank the Uptime Institute in its May 2021 Demand and speculation fuel edge buildout report.

So much so, the enterprises in question could face a backlash and be subject to negative publicity if they do not factor in sustainability when embarking on edge builds, the report warns.

“As edge datacentres proliferate over time, their sustainability profile is likely to be scrutinised. Negative publicity may slow demand. To avoid this scenario, edge datacentre owners/operators and suppliers will need to make a focus on sustainability of designs and approaches to standard practice,” states the Uptime Institute report.

To this end, enterprises should ensure their sites are renewably powered, with on-site solar or wind power sources, and kitted out with energy-efficient IT and cooling technologies, the report adds.

It also suggests that enterprises look for ways to re-use the heat generated by their edge facilities to make their sites more sustainable. This is a concept that, in the context of edge datacentres, has been discussed for several years now, and is also one that open source championing not-for-profit OpenUK has been banging the drum for more recently, following the publication of its carbon-negative datacentre blueprint at the COP26 climate change conference.

The blueprint features a recommendation to convert derelict high street retail sites and office spaces into 5G-connected edge datacentres, whose heat can be re-used in the local community to heat homes or nearby businesses.

With retail one of the markets tipped for resurgence in interest in edge buildouts, this idea could also provide an answer as to where in the local community these edge sites should be built for maximum impact.

“It just so happens that refurbishing buildings, whether that’s retail spaces or abandoned offices, is also an environmentally friendly thing to do from an embodied carbon perspective,” says Cristian Parrino, OpenUK’s chief sustainability officer.

“If you look at the foundation, shell and structural parts of building a new datacentre, that’s a lot of embodied carbon you remove from the equation as soon as you opt to refurbish an existing site rather than build one from scratch,” he tells Computer Weekly.

“5G and the demand it creates for smaller [data processing hubs] closer to users opens up huge opportunities to refurbish existing sites, while creating opportunities to serve the surrounding communities a lot better and become even more circular.”

All things considered, it seems conditions are ripe for enterprises in all verticals to pick up the pace of their edge datacentre buildouts. Use cases are emerging within multiple verticals, and some of the barriers to adoption – around management and sustainability – are being worked through now, meaning enterprises can invest in proof of concepts with confidence.

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