Many would argue that the last really big development in computing infrastructure was the advent of the cloud. Distributed computing, which was developed as a concept in universities more than 20 years ago, has really come into its own in the last 5-10 years.
It has brought immeasurable benefits in cost, scalability and speed, but now there is a new kid on the block. Edge computing is all about bringing processing power and internet connectivity to – as the name suggests – the “edge”. In this case the edge means the new wave of devices that are coming into our lives.
The range of devices with internet connectivity has gradually grown since the inception of personal computing. In the beginning it was really only personal computers – big, heavy machines that sat on a desk. But then laptops came into play, then phones, then tablets, and before long, many others came along.
Now almost all TVs are “smart” – connected to the internet so that we can browse an almost infinite number of films and programs. So, too, are lots of cars. And watches, and fridges and washing machines and even clothing.
What that means is that where things are happening – processing and internet connectivity primarily – is no longer in concentrated spaces. The days of physically connected personal computers are, many would say, dying or dead. Instead, devices are everywhere and anywhere – spread across wherever there are people.
It’s the same in the data centre industry. Where once data centres or server farms would sit, associated with a single company’s network, now the “middle” is going, and we see the rise in hyperscale data centres, run by the likes of Amazon, Microsoft and Google for their own huge cloud computer operations, and at the other end of the scale we see edge data centres – tiny but numerous points of processing power, there to serve the many millions of internet connected “things” all around us.
The use of edge computing is hardly a secret, but is also not as ubiquitous and as spoken about as cloud computing. But a number of big technology companies have invested in the area, something which demonstrates its potential.
The latest to do so is Chinese giant Baidu – sometimes referred to as the “Google of China”. It has recently launched a product called OpenEdge, which, according to its GitHub page, aims to “extend cloud computing, data and service seamlessly to edge devices.”
That it is on GitHub, of course, indicates another aspect of the product that is heavily implied in its name; it is an open source edge computing platform – the first to come out of notoriously secretive China.
It is, according to its website, ‘open, scalable, safe and controllable’. Zun Wang, a Baidu spokesperson, told Business Insider that edge computing is “becoming more commonplace due to the rise of IoT devices. It brings different kinds of compute power, especially for AI processing, to the edges of your network, allowing close proximity of your data source with the cloud.”
The edge of tomorrow
That same Business Insider article ends by saying that it is “generally believed in the industry that developments in artificial intelligence, coupled with the rising demand for smart gadgets, self-driving cars, and industrial robotics, mean that edge computing will be the next big thing after cloud computing”.
We’ve noted that already, but what it does help us do is look to the future. French electronics giant Schneider Electric has produced a white paper looking in detail at the drivers for edge computing. One of the points that it notes is that there has, in recent years, been a shift in “availability expectations”.
“As the workforce ages and shifts towards a greater percentage of millennials, there is an expectation that follows”, the white paper says. “This generation was raised with an “always on, always connected mentality”, where IT devices and systems are expected to work, all the time.
“Tolerance for disruption in service is low.”
The paper goes into some considerable technical detail, but the upshot is clear. At work and at play, everybody in the future will expect near-constant availability and connectivity, wherever they are. That means that the edge, which gets up close and personal to the user, may well be a big part of the future.