Why 2022 could be the year edge computing finally delivers on its promise

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Priya Rajagopal is the director of product management at Couchbase.

In modern organisations, innovation is happening at the edge. To deliver premium customer experiences, low latency, high performance, and cost-effective infrastructure is essential for cutting-edge applications. In addition, there are data privacy and sovereignty requirements to be satisfied.

To achieve these goals, data processing capabilities must be closer to the application. Edge computing promises much in this regard. But historically, it’s been held back by the need to connect back to a central cloud server, required investments in resources and skills, and a lack of awareness among IT decision makers on the full benefits of edge use cases.

Now, things are changing. As we enter a new year, there’s hope that technological capabilities are finally catching up to the aspirations of edge computing evangelists. We are approaching a new era of truly decentralised decision making, which will enhance productivity and cost efficiencies, and unlock a range of new use cases.

A simple premise

Edge computing comes from a simple idea: that compute and storage capabilities are pushed out to the network edge, so data is in close proximity to devices, applications, and users that generate and consume the data. In this regard, it’s very much riding the same wave as 5G, which will accelerate demand for such capabilities as they herald a new generation of low latency, bandwidth-intensive applications, including: Augmented Reality (AR) and Virtual Reality (VR) capabilities across industries, such as gaming and retail; autonomous driving; and smart cities, factories, hospitals, etc. As organisations race to create innovative and engaging customer experiences, edge computing could in a few years become nearly ubiquitous around the globe.

Yet as simple as the headline concept is, the reality is somewhat more complex. In fact, edge computing is emerging in many different forms. IDC describes three: “regional and metro edge” hubs deployed at cloud provider sites; multi-access edge compute (MEC), which is effectively cloud platforms embedded in mobile phone base stations; and on-premises/colocation solutions. Together, they’re helping to drive a market predicted to grow at a CAGR of 27% over the next five years to reach $18bn by 2026.

Problems and solutions

The challenge with “first generation” edge computing is that despite the promise of a more decentralised model, the reality is most tasks must be carried out by a centralised cloud server. That means that true edge can only stretch so far. Fortunately, this is changing.

Thanks to the huge advances in distributed cloud infrastructure made by hyperscaler cloud providers such as AWS (with AWS Outposts, Wavelength and Local Zones), Google (with Google Distributed Cloud), and Azure (with Azure Edge Zones and Private MECs), delivering managed infrastructure from the cloud to the edge is now a reality. Edge devices and new embedded database capabilities are powerful and allow for processing and analysing data locally without the need for a central cloud server. That means organisations can seamlessly spin up new business-critical edge deployments that are even capable of working offline. If a server is required, it can be located much closer to these devices, at the network edge. When the bulk of computing is carried out at the edge, data can then be shaped, filtered, and synced back to centralised servers. Organisations can then carry out analysis at an aggregate level and retain the data they want to keep while only paying for what they need, when they need it.

It is the promise of these capabilities that can drive true innovation in edge computing, by finally realising the huge potential in the technology. 

Unlocking value across verticals

To make this a reality, organisations must plan their edge computing strategy carefully. Data is foundational to building compelling applications, so ensuring investment in the right kind of data platform technology, which can be deployed in cloud or edge data centres, and finally within the edge devices, is critical. These edge devices must also have the capability to locally process data and deliver real-time insights offline, if necessary. Finally, data must be seamlessly synchronised in a secure and resilient manner across these tiers as connectivity permits. 

This kind of technology is already adding value for organisations in countless sectors, across healthcare, retail, travel and hospitality, utilities, and more. Consider mobile healthcare provider BackpackEMR, which seeks to improve the medical experience in rural communities of the developing world. Frequently without an internet connection, these clinics can’t use traditional cloud services. But they can share patient data seamlessly across their devices at the edge. Arthrex, a leading provider of interconnected surgical devices for hospital operating rooms, uses embedded database technology to provide local storage and processing for Arthrex devices, which sync with the hospital data centre and to the cloud, enabling better patient outcomes at the edge

On the retail side, PepsiCo was able to architect a 5G-compatible, offline-available solution to continue enabling field sales reps at the edge in their stores. Because many of its sales team members operate in environments where reliable internet is difficult to secure, it was important for the company to provide a good frontline sales application that automatically synced all of its data onto a database when a more reliable internet connection became available. 

This is just the beginning. Edge networks will represent more than 60% of all deployed cloud infrastructures by 2023, according to IDC. Decentralising data processing in this way means greater reliability, lower costs and support for high bandwidth, and low latency applications that otherwise would not be possible. The impact on productivity, innovation, and user experience could be profound. And it will be edge and next-gen mobile database technology that gets us there.

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