By Perry Krug, Director, Shared Services at Couchbase
Digital transformation is by no means a new phenomenon, but the past 18 months have been anything but business as usual. Organisations were largely unequipped to deal with the disruption of the pandemic, and the mundane reality is that many are still struggling to get new digital projects off the drawing board.
One innovation set to shake open the door to growth and post-pandemic recovery is edge computing. Yet many organisations are reluctant to take their first steps into edge due to skills shortages, complexity, and legacy database technology. Getting over this hurdle requires a return to prominence for IT architects, who kept the wheels in motion during the pandemic, and are key to making edge computing a reality. When architects are supported by edge-ready database tools that underpin rapidly evolving developer demands, edge computing can be accessible for every organisation.
If the pandemic has shown us anything, it’s that end users and customers require unique digital experiences that help foster loyalty and drive profits – and this is where digital transformation steps in. Digital transformation requires cloud computing, and the low-cost, on-demand, highly scalable compute power that it provides to developer teams. However, as customers are spending more and more time online, this is wreaking havoc with organisations’ digital transformation plans. As the number of websites, applications, online services, and IoT devices grows, the volume of data grows with it. According to PwC, the global market for edge datacentres is expected to nearly triple to $13.5 billion by 2024 – largely owing to the increase in demand for storage to support the growth in global data traffic.
This sheer volume of data is causing serious issues for organisations that are struggling to carry it back and forth between the cloud and physical datacentres. Passing this data to and from the edge and the core is causing skyrocketing bandwidth costs, problems arising with network availability and latency, as well as security and compliance challenges from transporting and storing this data.
However, the answer lies in edge computing. Edge computing is a distributed computing model, where data processing and storage is carried out on the outer edge of the network, closer to where it’s really needed. This reduces bandwidth usage and latency, as it minimises the need to send it back and forth to a centralised server or cloud.
Critically, edge computing allows for more complex data handling without the need to transfer it across the entire network, aiding much faster decision making. With time-sensitive technology, this makes all the difference. Take self-driving cars, for example. If a self-driving car relied on cloud computing alone, it would need to send data up to the cloud or server and wait for the decision to be sent back down, regardless of whether the data was time-sensitive or not. With edge computing, the car can act on urgent items locally, so if a hazard were detected, the car can immediately make the decision to stop – without having to wait for data or instructions to come back from the central server.
Edge can also bring immense benefit to organisations with very large data demands. As one of the world’s biggest airlines, Ryanair handles the data demands of over three million users via its mobile app. Embracing edge computing allowed it to cut network bandwidth from its cloud provider by as much as 80 percent after implementing edge-enabled database technology. Plus, it also saw a large cut in its operating expenses, since it had to pay for each byte transferred to and from the cloud.
The benefits of edge don’t stop there – it can also help businesses avoid the threat of IT outages. Although centralised computing networks may not be to blame for outages, they do make addressing them more difficult. When the entire network relies on the ‘core’ to function, any downtime will be felt across the entire organisation. With edge computing, the outage is usually limited to the device in question, leaving the rest of the network to continue business as usual.
Over the past decade, IT systems have undergone a huge architectural change. As infrastructure moved to the cloud, many saw this as a breaking point for the traditional IT architect. However, architects are very much back in demand. Edge computing forces a rethink of the old architectural assumptions around cloud computing, and organisations require the skills to manage the movement of data from the centre to the edge.
Unlocking value from retail to healthcare
When you look at some of the companies already using edge computing, its benefits are clear. Across sectors from retail to healthcare, edge is helping to unlock value.
In retail, UK delivery service Doddle uses edge computing to offer offline capabilities. More than 80 of its locations around the country suffered from patchy mobile coverage at peak times when customers saturated the network. With edge computing, Doddle could ensure that its customers and employees always have access to its app – even in peak times.
Over in healthcare, Becton Dickinson tapped the power of edge to improve the treatment for Type-2 diabetes patients. Medical devices and a patient app automatically collect real-time data on a patients’ insulin and glucose levels, activities, meals, and location, and then provide them with customised alerts and recommendations. Once again, the value of edge is in offering offline capabilities, to ensure the consistency of collected data, with secure synchronisation offered once connectivity is available again.
Another healthcare example is SyncThink: a neuro-technology firm that uses eye-tracking metrics and devices to help improve medical assessments of traumatic brain injuries. SyncThink required an offline mode for its field service, such as sporting stadiums where doctors need to conduct medical assessments of athletes. However, in this environment, bandwidth is often patchy due to heavy mobile usage by fans. Edge computing supported by a mobile-ready NoSQL database enabled the firm to offer offline capabilities and then seamlessly sync with the Azure cloud when sufficient bandwidth becomes available.
Life on the edge
Clearly, these benefits of edge computing are not going unnoticed. According to our research, half of architects say they are either already using edge computing or will be doing so within a year, compared with just 15 percent back in 2018. The use cases speak for themselves – edge has already brought a huge amount of value to firms across all sectors. IT architects now have a critical role in helping the C-suite to recognise how edge computing can unlock value in their organisation – and ultimately reach their ambitions.