Edge computing: what it is and why you need it

United Airlines personnel at the departure gate, on the runway and in the plane have critical flight information at their fingertips. Medical professionals can use a virtual reality headset and tablet to assess and monitor brain impairment in athletes and soldiers using SyncThink’s EYE-SYNC platform. Soon, a fleet of autonomous vehicles will be able to share data on road and traffic conditions, and update their journeys accordingly.

Edge allows you to manage your connectivity and disperse processing closer to where the data actually is

The common thread in all these examples is edge computing. Defined by research firm Gartner as products that facilitate data processing at or near the source of data generation, Ed Fowler, vice president and head of digital engineering services in Europe, the Middle East and Africa at Virtusa, says businesses should care about the concept. Why? The speed of results from edge-compute applications is vastly higher than traditional architectures and this can result in revenue-making opportunities, cost efficiencies and better services.

Do C-suites really care about edge computing?

“A prime example of this is the UK smart grid, where a huge programme of work to install smart meters across the UK promises to deliver both real-time pricing, real-time usage analytics and opportunities for both power companies and consumers to react to micro-local conditions, and reduce outages, take advantage of pricing caused by low-level demand fluctuations and assure service through 24/7 automatic service status reporting,” he says.

“The benefits of the UK smart grid programme are subject to much debate, but there are benefits from reducing carbon emissions, lowering supply-side investment to support electric vehicles by £12 billion (30 per cent reduction) and reducing the inflationary impact of green technology on power costs by £20 billion (25 per cent reduction) by 2030.”

But do C-suite executives really care about edge computing? And is it really making its mark in business. According to a survey of 450 IT leaders, conducted this summer by Vanson Bourne and commissioned by Couchbase, edge computing is already being used or will be in the near future by 14 per cent of respondents. In fact, 10 per cent say they will use the technology within the next six months, nearly a quarter (24 per cent) say they will within a year and 31 per cent aim to adopt edge computing within five years.

Then there are those businesses that either believe their organisation is behind the curve or the technology isn’t yet mature enough, with 6 per cent saying they believe it will be used within ten years. There are sceptics too, with 15 per cent saying that it’s impossible to tell. While this doesn’t rule out the use of edge computing, it is clear that some IT leaders can’t see it in the immediate pipeline.

The three “laws” calling for edge computing

The Couchbase research echoes the prediction from Gartner of huge growth in edge computing. Earlier this year, Gartner said only 10 per cent of enterprise-generated data is created and processed outside a traditional centralised datacentre or cloud. By 2022, it predicts this figure will reach 75 per cent.

So what is so special about edge computing that it can spur such growth in a short time? According to Marco Argenti, vice president of IoT at Amazon Web Services (AWS), there are three “laws” which call for edge computing.

“One is the law of physics where sometimes you need latency which is short; for example, moving a robotic arm or triggering an alert and needing to react instantly and there is no physical time to go back to the cloud, and for that you need to be able to act on data locally,” he says.

The second law is of economics where it might not be economical to transfer all the data on the edge to the cloud and therefore it might be better to pre-process it locally.

The third is the “law of the land”, in which a business might have particular requirements whereby certain data needs to stay local, such as regulation.

Industries where edge is already making its mark

There are numerous examples of companies using edge computing already. Guitar maker Fender has used AWS products to align wood when it builds a guitar so that if the grain expands or contracts it doesn’t break the instrument. Japanese design and engineering firm Yanmar uses AWS Greengrass ML Inference for image recognition intelligence at the growth stage of plants inside greenhouses, so it can automatically react to dispense water or fertiliser at the right times.

Retail is another industry that could look to benefit from edge computing in a different way as businesses wouldn’t need to send all data back and forth between a store and datacentre. River Island head of architecture Charles Wilkinson explains there is an interest to use the technology to build out richer experiences in-store.

“There’s only so much you can do over a 1 megabit connection. With some of the challenges that apply to the retail estate, where you have quite a few systems running and stores that have flaky internet connections, there are some interesting things we can do,” he says.

How edge computing is helping healthcare

Healthcare is perhaps the most interesting area where edge computing could make a difference.

“Edge allows you to manage your connectivity and disperse processing closer to where the data actually is. In the blurring of what you need in your network, compute and application space, edge is a natural evolution as you’re trying to optimise one portion of your stack in the network by providing more localised services for your application or compute,” says GE Healthcare chief technology officer Aaron Thomann, adding that edge is definitely an area the company is focused on.

Richard Corbridge, chief information officer of Leeds Teaching Hospitals NHS Trust, believes that moving the initial analysis of clinical information to edge computing is crucial for healthcare organisations that truly want to benefit from going digital and is the answer to many digital healthcare problems.

“We have a basic pilot of edge compute underway; in the renal ward of our hospital we collect data from IoT devices that are monitoring patients, we transfer this information directly into the trust’s electronic health record (EHR) from bedside, with the authentication of clinical staff to the IoT devices through proximity cards, and then again at the ‘head of the bed’ EHR unit,” says Mr Corbridge.

“The edge element allows national early-warning scores (NEWS) for patient care to be analysed, compared to the information during the length of stay of the patient and, where necessary, alerts or tasks are created.”

How edge computing can work for social good

And this is having a positive impact; in 2018 the organisation had collected almost 1.6 million NEWS scores by the end of November and these created automatic actionable information for clinicians to act upon.

In the future, Mr Corbridge hopes the organisation will be able to use edge compute and machine-learning to consider environmental factors such as road traffic density, air quality, weather, school holidays and other open data sets. The compute power will apply these factors to the healthcare data collected at the point of admission, enabling a date to be set when the patient should expect to be discharged.

“This will enable the whole system to plan towards a date that is built from 15 years of experience, but continues to learn and apply new environmental factors,” he says.

Without doubt, there’s movement from businesses in all sectors to consider and use edge computing. It’s time for C-level executives to sit up and take notice, especially the 15 per cent who believe it’s impossible to tell when they’ll be using it.