Time to take it to the edge

Edge computing is growing and is dominating more conversations – so just what is the play here for the channel? Billy MacInnes investigates

Speaking at the recent Dell Technologies World event, CEO Michael Dell said data processed outside the datacentre was due to increase from 10% today to 75% by 2025, with edge computing generating much of that data. His prediction built on an earlier forecast by Gartner that more than 50% of enterprise-generated data will be created and processed outside the datacentre or cloud by next year.

Dell’s comments garnered a lot of attention, but his sentiments regarding edge computing were not exactly surprising or novel. Back in 2017, Canalys CEO Steve Brazier told attendees at the Canalys Channels Forum in Venice: “The next phase of the computing industry will be around the computer at the edge.”

At the same event, Martin Mayr, senior vice-president at German IT partner Cancom, remarked that there had been “very little talk about edge computing, but I think it’s like cloud seven years ago. It’s really a game-changer, it will really make a big difference.”

So assuming everyone is right about the impact of edge computing, what does the shift to the edge mean for channel partners? Is it good or bad news? Does it play to their strengths or expose their weaknesses? Where do they fit in the edge model? What opportunities does it present?

Rob Tomlin, vice-president UK channel at Dell Technologies, is unequivocal. “The shift to the edge provides a massive opportunity for channel partners,” he says. “Coming out of the pandemic, businesses will need to find innovative ways to meet the ever-increasing demand for quicker and more efficient data processing. The edge’s greater proximity and lower latency has the potential to provide the answer.”

In case anyone is in any doubt, Tomlin adds: “Edge is the future, and those that fail to embrace it now are likely to be left behind.”

The good news is that channel partners have a strong role to play by helping customers “to help fit the puzzle pieces together”, says Tomlin. “The opportunities for partners, if managed correctly, are exponential. Businesses will be looking to implement long-term solutions involving edge to make the ‘new normal’ a working reality into the future. It is the partners who can guide them smoothly through their respective transformation journeys.”

Jon Tyrell, technical architect at Lenovo UK’s Infrastructure Solutions Group (ISG), is another who believes the edge will be a boon for partners. “The shift to edge is great news for channel partners,” he says. “It gives them new tools and opens solution areas that traditional server solutions would not be equipped to handle. The main business advantage of the edge is that it moves computational and analytical power closer to where data is generated within the business.”

Tyrell believes that edge “opens up myriad opportunities” for partners in areas such as internet of things (IoT) data analytics, remote office resilient computing, smart city infrastructure and in locations that encounter environmental extremes. “Channel partners will lose out if they are not already thinking about edge use cases,” he says. “Competing partners will already be exploring this space, building new relationships with the same customers, and possibly switching some customer loyalty entirely away from incumbent partners if they are not able to service the full spectrum of their IT needs.”

Catch the next big wave

Alan Stewart-Brown, Europe, Middle East and Africa (EMEA) vice-president at Opengear, argues that while cloud-based computing and software-as-a-service (SaaS) have been the big push for many channel partners over the past eight years or so, they will need to be able to pivot to catch the next big wave “as edge computing grows at pace and the need for high-performance, low-latency computing increases”.

Stewart-Brown is in no doubt that “edge is the next really big opportunity”, and suggests that the move to edge computing “is arguably the biggest opportunity the channel has ever had in this space, as it encompasses so many different elements and these will steadily grow in complexity over the next decade”.

He lists some of the reasons for this: “Aside from the localised compute power and network requirements at edge sites, all of which is new, there is also the need for better localised storage, cyber security, network resilience and real-time data analytics solutions.”

He says the opportunity gets even bigger when you add in artificial intelligence, “which is fast evolving and is predicted to see widespread adoption within three to five years”.

Francis O’Haire, group technology director at DataSolutions, sees moving data processing to the edge as a positive for channel partners because the possibility of everything moving to the public cloud had “been a threat for many traditional resellers”. He adds: “Businesses often adopt cloud computing solutions without the help of a channel partner so, along with the prediction that hybrid/multicloud architectures will predominate, a greater adoption of edge computing will increase the need for specialist skills within the channel.”

O’Haire says the proliferation of edge computing will require “a greater need for networking, security and services skills to integrate this with existing datacentre and cloud systems”, adding: “Channel partners are well placed, both from a skills and geographical perspective, to help organisations implement, secure and integrate edge computing deployments.”

Kevin Bland, UK & Ireland director of partners and alliances at Red Hat, makes a similar point. “The dramatic shift to cloud computing has seen channel partners deliver less IT and more advisory and consultancy to help customers with cloud adoption,” he says. “The move to the edge has the potential to see partners capitalise once again on their historic strengths – solving their customers’ tangible technical and IT challenges.”

Bland sees a role for partners in consultancy and, in some instances, supply of IT equipment and infrastructure.

Scott Harrison, channel sales director at Vertiv, agrees that the edge is a big opportunity for channel businesses accustomed to taking a consultative approach. “These businesses will have a good understanding of edge use cases and the right technology mix to deliver exceptional functionality at the edge,” he says. “Those who are not used to taking a value-add approach could well be exposed, but the good news is that all channel businesses can build up skills fast when it comes to delivering consultancy around edge sites.”

Adoption of edge computing inevitable

Harrison describes the adoption of edge computing as inevitable. “If channel partners do not adapt their infrastructure, as well as communicate the exciting convergence of new technologies accelerating digitisation, they will fall behind and lose out on important business opportunities,” he says. “Customers need a cohort of experts to make the automation of traditional manufacturing and industrial processes using smart technology a reality – as opposed to a futuristic ideal.”

A more cautionary note is sounded by Andrew Cochrane, chief technologist, datacentre at Softcat, who says that although technology leaders, market analysts and almost all hardware, software and cloud providers are drilling home the edge message, “it’s creating confusion between the hype and reality”.

Besides, “edge isn’t entirely new”, says Cochrane. “The concept of delivering a service close to the point of presence, user or data is not a new one, but what has changed is the sheer scale of data being created and how it’s changing our lives – at work and at home.”

Nevertheless, he acknowledges that edge gives partners “a great deal of potential to do even more for their customers, including in areas such cloud delivery, data management, connectivity, security and governance”.

Cochrane says that those who are closer to the applications that customers are looking to achieve with edge will be “higher up the value chain, helping them to deliver business change quickly through their adoption of this technology – but to fully take advantage of this potential, the partner ecosystem needs to adjust, broadening the diversity of its knowledge into new areas across edge services”.

Cloudian CTO Gary Ogasawara also has something to say about the hype currently associated with edge computing, which he likens to “cloud 10 years ago”. He says: “Broadly speaking, this is good news for channel partners, but before jumping on this trend, it’s important for them to take a step back and determine if and how edge processing can add value for their customers.”

Nevertheless, edge processing should play to the strengths of channel partners by allowing them to build on their existing skillset of combining specialised hardware and software, says Ogasawara. He cites the example of processing retail point-of-sale transactions, which typically involves the point-of-sale software, a database and analysis software.

Adding edge is a win-win

He says partners should also be well-positioned to integrate customers’ existing solutions. “For instance, they may already provide products and services for a core or cloud system. Adding an edge capability to that existing system brings more value to the full solution – a win-win for them and the customer.”

Opengear’s Stewart-Brown adds: “Edge computing is not a technology, it is an architecture and a new way of thinking about how organisations can deliver on their digital transformation goals. It will be no surprise to see some risers and fallers in the channel partner rankings as a direct result of the move to the edge over the next couple of years.”

If partners want to play a strong role in the future, a key way is to offer edge architecture as a competitive advance, he says. “Today, many companies offer pre-packaged cloud-based solutions that can quickly scale on demand. Some system integrators and MSPs will undoubtedly do very well if they can offer similar ‘packages’ that deliver scalable edge compute services.”

Ease of deployment will be another value-add the channel could offer, says Stewart-Brown. “This has the potential to be a big benefit for many user companies, as the adoption of edge compute sites will pose a significant challenge for those that don’t have skilled IT staff available in-house capable of carrying out multiple deployments at scale and pace.” 

Rodney Foreman, chief revenue officer at Megaport, says edge computing “promises exciting new revenue opportunities resulting from the delivery of new types of services to new types of customers, in both consumer and enterprise segments”. He cites industrial IoT, computer vision, augmented reality, retail, manufacturing, gaming and assisted driving as “compelling use cases”.

But he warns: “Partners could lose out if they’re not responding to the current market needs by simplifying the deployment of edge services and not taking into account the performance necessary to make edge-based applications a success.”

Andrew Corcoran, UK&I channel sales director at VMware, believes the channel ecosystem “is well-positioned to guide customers to success”, whether they require modernising applications to support the edge, the collection and analysis of data, or the migration to an infrastructure that can support the growth of edge deployments.

Corcoran says partners already have a key strength for edge computing, with the ability to provide managed services to manage and secure a distributed environment. He believes they have a role to play “at every stage of the lifecycle of the solution”.

The art of the possible

They can identify the vision of the customer and advise “on the art of the possible”, workshop and address feasibility through data collection and validation and help design the solution to deliver the outcome, he says. Partners can also “implement the distributed solution that many customers simply won’t have the resource to cover and manage and secure the resulting network and edge”.

Corcoran advises partners “to demonstrate a vertical experience in the solutions being proposed” because edge deployments often have a very specific vertical industry focus. He adds: “Building practices around the vertical segments will help to ensure the solution is tied to business value for the customer.”

John Brown, director of EMEA channels at Menlo Security, says edge computing can be great news or bad news for partners. “It can be great news for partners prepared to invest resources in adopting new and unique approaches to solve the problems posed by this shift that can demonstrate that what they’re proposing delivers tangible business benefit to their clients,” he says. “It’s bad news for partners that can’t (or won’t) change and evolve with this maturing market.”

Richard Blanford, CEO of Fordway, also sees mixed prospects for partners. “For organisations active in this area already, there is the potential for new revenue streams,” he says. “These will come to those who understand their customers, and the deeper the understanding, the more chance they have of offering truly useful edge computing solutions.”

Blanford says those not already in the market “may struggle, and trying to enter into it at this stage might not be a good move”. While edge is gaining ground, he argues that the absence of a universally accepted standard for interoperability could be a problem. “Each of the major players is looking to tie you into their ecosystem,” he says. “Until there is a universal standard, new entrants are playing a guessing game about the direction things might go in.”

Blanford adds: “Edge computing isn’t either good or bad news for resellers. Resellers need to look at what they do and work out if edge is a good fit for them. Only by understanding their own business model can they decide if edge brings value.”

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