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Edge computing vs. the cloud: A false tech battle?

In the center ring, it’s the match-up we’ve all been waiting for. In one corner, the corporate champion, cloud computing, is ready to defend its tech title. And in the other corner, the up-and-comer, the augmented-reality favorite, edge computing prepares to steal the top spot.

It would appear the edge and the cloud are duking it out, with industry prestige and the lion’s share of the IT spend on the line. Both technologies promise to be the future for business, and marketers have pitted them against each other in a death match.

Such proclamations of all-out war are, however, unfounded and unrealistic. Rather than a Battle Royale between two heavyweights, we can expect complementary applications of edge and cloud that will drive digital transformation.

The Cloud Ascendant

The cloud has taken over the enterprise, with a 96 percent adoption rate according to one 2018 survey. It’s such a workhorse that most enterprises—81 percent—now rely on multi-cloud strategies to meet their needs.

With a range of service providers, turnkey options and private installations as well, the cloud has a lot going for it in terms of access, self-service, resource pooling, rapid elasticity and more.

One factor, however, is set to limit cloud solutions over the long-term: speed.

Many highly anticipated applications, including self-driving vehicles, smart cities, and augmented reality, require extremely low latencies, optimally less than 7 milliseconds in the case of AR. Unfortunately, fiber optic cable, as expensive as it is to install, can’t deliver signals fast enough.

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Light trails from network switches illuminate fiber optic cables, center, and copper Ethernet cables inside a communications room at an office in London, U.K., on Monday, May 21, 2018. The Department of Culture, Media and Sport will work with the Home Office to publish a white paper later this year setting out legislation, according to a statement, which will also seek to force tech giants to reveal how they target abusive and illegal online material posted by users. Photographer: Bloomberg/Bloomberg

For example, in a best case scenario, a packet travelling 122,000 miles per second over fiber from Northumberland to London and back would take nearly 5 milliseconds. This rough math doesn’t account for network switching and other sources of latency, either. In the real world, even such a short trip will exceed the 10 millisecond target and hamper our technological dreams.

Pushing IT to the Edge

The speed demands of tomorrow will require local compute, and this is where the edge makes its claim. Edge technologies leverage cheaper and cheaper processing power to affordably bring compute closer to the source of data. Or better said, sources—many, many sources.

As we approach 2025, the tech sphere is anticipating 75 billion connected devices—in our homes, on our factory lines, on the roadways, everywhere. Together they will generate 175 zettabytes of data. The sheer volume, if routed long distances across existing networks, would create huge bottlenecks that make rush hour in Los Angeles seem reasonable. An alternative is necessary.

Striking a Balance

The edge isn’t one technology—it’s layered, from fog computing to smart IoT devices. the same can be said of the cloud, in its public, private, and hybrid incarnations. It’s more complicated than a one-on-one duel.

In fact, are they fighting at all? If cloud implementations are about to reach their limits and edge remains an infrastructure and hardware-development challenge all its own, which one wins out?

Why not both?

Rather than wrangle for supremacy, the edge and the cloud are far more likely to interweave—and there’s evidence it’s already happening. Some of the first steps toward the edge are being led by cloud service providers, which are snatching up regional data centers to bring their capabilities closer to end-users.

And what’s next? Most experts are looking to the telcos to expand into edge once 5G rolls out. With micro-modular, edge-capable pods placed along wireless networks, the edge—at least some solutions—could look a lot like mobile, which has its own tightknit relationship with the cloud.

Thus the edge and the cloud are not oppositional forces. A better analogy might be coevolution, the biologic process by which two or more species affect each other’s development, often to each other’s benefit. The plot would go something like this:

  • Edge will pull compute workloads away from centralized clouds toward regional data centers, telco towers, manufacturing and other facilities, and increasingly powerful edge devices. Once foundational technologies are in place, the growth at the edge will be exponential.
  • At the same time, artificial intelligence and other applications will increase the value of each bit and byte of data produced around the world, drawing more aggregate information to the cloud for higher level processing. Storing and seeking insight from billions upon billions of data points will, in turn, compel the cloud to expand.

What does this mean for IT planning and investment? The forward-looking tech leader will not be enchanted by combat-driven narratives, as exciting as they may be. They will recognize the undeniable benefits of localized edge computing and unlock those advantages by deploying edge solutions in tandem with the cloud infrastructure already in place.

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