By Jeff Ready, CEO of Scale Computing
Industry watchers have signaled Edge Computing as one of the major IT trends to watch over the next decade. What many people don’t fully appreciate is that Edge Computing is not yet one more over-hyped, future-state technology, but rather something that is being embraced in a number of industries today. And perhaps most surprisingly, it’s being embraced in many staid ‘old-school’ industries such as steel manufacturing, brick-and-mortar retailers, and even container shipping that one might not typically associate with the bleeding-edge.
The term ‘Edge Computing’ simply refers to the paradigm of bringing computation and data storage closer to the location where it’s needed as a way to improve response times and mitigate bandwidth constraints. A new generation of Edge Computing platforms can literally be held in the palm of your hand, can be placed practically anywhere since they have no special cooling or power requirements, and can be easily scaled by simply connecting them into clusters to quickly bring more compute and storage resources online as needed.
Edge Computing represents another swing of the pendulum in the decades-long journey that has shaped the way IT resources are consumed and delivered - from the highly centralized mainframe computing paradigm to distributed models of client-server and the Cloud and now, we are seeing organizations shift the heavy lifting of compute and storage back on-site.
According to a September 2020 forecast report by IDC, the worldwide Edge computing market will reach $250.6 billion in 2024 while Gartner predicts that by 2025, three-quarters of enterprise-generated data will be created and processed at the edge – outside a traditional centralized data center or cloud (up from just 10% in 2018)
There are a number of reasons why we are seeing a renewed interest in moving IT systems closer to home base. Among the most salient benefits, Edge offers greater resiliency, flexibility, and simplified management. And as more businesses introduce new IoT devices and sensors into their environment that produce a high volume of data, the ability to process and feed this data back into local systems can be a major driver of innovation.
What follows are three use cases from the manufacturing, retail, and shipping industries that showcase how they are applying Edge Computing to not just simplify and improve the efficiency of the IT operations, but also show how Edge is enabling innovation.
1. Manufacturing at the Edge: Uniting Atoms and Bits in Real-Time
While the manufacturing industry has readily embraced automation and other technologies to boost productivity and improve efficiency, many manufacturers continue to struggle under the weight of having to manage complex and unwieldy systems. However, the extreme simplicity of a hyperconverged infrastructure makes it most beneficial in use cases where IT staff is limited – which is often the case for the tens of thousands of small and mid-sized manufacturing businesses operating across the U.S. And many are now investing in the Edge to optimize the performance of their plant machinery.
One needs to look no further than Harrison Steel, an Indiana-based manufacturer of engineered steel castings. Founded over a century ago, Harrison is an industrial manufacturer that operates several massive electric arc furnaces alongside other precision machinery across more than 650,000 square feet of its sprawling factory floor. Because their facility is so large, networking these machines together was cost prohibitive, forcing their IT staff to spend a good portion of their day transferring machine data back on USB drives for analysis. With a small cluster of hyperconverged machines, they were able to put a system in the middle of their shop floor and collect all of this machine data at regular intervals to keep their systems and machines fully calibrated.
2. Retail at the Edge: When Downtime is Not an Option
Traditional retailers across all categories are under increasing pressure to apply technology that improves the customer experience. Unfortunately, the legacy IT architecture typically found in brick-and-mortar – Point of Sale terminals, servers that collect transactions and track inventory -- is often rigid, convoluted, and slow.
Jerry’s Foods, a regional chain of 50 retail, grocery, liquor and hardware stores, is one example of how traditional retail is being transformed by the Edge. With 50 storefronts dispersed across three states and no IT staff available within their store locations, the complexity of their IT systems had become a source of persistent disruption that was negatively impacting their customer’s experience. With a centralized IT staff of five supporting all of their branch stores, the majority of their time was spent remotely troubleshooting issues. Implementing an Edge computing strategy has enabled them to deploy hyperconverged clusters within each store, improving the reliability of their existing systems, allowing them to be managed remotely, and in the event of a disruption, seamlessly failover to keep critical applications online.
3. The Edge at Sea: An Extreme Edge Scenario
The global shipping industry represents one of the most important links in the global supply chain, transporting roughly 90 percent of the world’s goods from port to port on a daily basis. While the ships themselves are towering husks of steel and diesel - IT and the specialized applications that they run, are the orchestration engine that make it all work.
Until only recently, once a ship left port, it was more or less isolated from communication with resources at shore. And since these ships are limited by connectivity and don’t typically have an IT expert aboard, when a pivotal IT component goes offline on a ship hundreds of miles from shore, redundancy and resiliency become all the more critical.
Telford Offshore, an international offshore service provider to the oil and gas industry, operates a fleet of vessels that require 24/7 availability -- and must do so in some of the world’s most extreme environments. Without reliable Internet connectivity, Telford’s IT leadership understood that significant cost and operational efficiencies would be realized by unifying their IT infrastructure into a single appliance and could be stationed on each individual vessel in its expanding fleet. Now if there is a system failure, they don’t need to spend tens of thousands of dollars to fly an IT support staff to swap out a simple part.
Technology innovations continue to make our world smaller, more connected, and consequently, more vulnerable to disruption when one of those links becomes disconnected. As demonstrated by some of the examples above, bringing converged infrastructure back to local operating environments where more and more data is being generated, and making it easier and more cost-effective to manage, is creating a wealth of new opportunities for innovation. And unlike so many other over-hyped technologies, it’s already here.