Everyone is talking about the edge, this year’s hot spot that every vendor says customers need to be tackling right now. And yes, a goodly share of analysts are also saying much the same thing. It is an accusation to which I would plead guilty.
The trouble is, it is just the latest development within IT where it is easy to see the long-term benefits somewhere out in the future but the getting from here to there is something of a mystery.
So, more by happenstance than design, I recently had a chance to kick around some of the issues of The Edge with Morten Illum, the VP for the EMEA region at HP Aruba.
I would speculate that the real pressure for business users to move their IT planning and investment out toward the edge will come next year, so now is a good time to talk about it. Illum broadly agrees:
Customers are doing exactly what you’re doing. They’re starting to say, ok, we have great WIFI and we have a great network and we have heard about this ‘edge’ but how do I actually transform my business into getting some kind of value, some kind of number on it? What is the benefit?”
It is a question he has been conscious of growing for a little while now. Perhaps more importantly, he is also well aware that the edge is starting out life being swamped in discussions about the various technologies coming into play.
That is traditional as new market and applications areas open up. It started with the first realisation that the remark attributed to IBM CEO Thomas Watson that there might be a world market for five computer systems, was indeed nonsense. Ever since then there has been a many-a cry of 'Hey, we can do this if we use this new X, Y, or Z technology’. From the birth of the microprocessor chip and the personal computer it has been almost continuous.
The edge will have real value, once identified
But the real issue is, as Illum points out, addressing the question of value – the 'why the hell bother?' question – is the real stumbling block, not only for the users, but the vendors also. Moving much of IT out to the edge marks a significant change for every company. And that brings with it significant risks and well as significant benefits, a balance that the vendors need to understand first if they are to succeed by virtue of their customers succeeding, and wanting more.
I have written a lot about the physical impossibility for any vendor these days to address the individual needs of every possible customer they might now attract. There is a racing certainty that to achieve their own goals, such customers will have to work through skilled intermediaries, the channel partners of the primary tech vendors.
Their advantage to both vendor and customer is that of bridgehead - they can bring expertise in both the technology and the requirements of specific market sectors. The word 'can' is, however, important here, for the partners do need to know the technology side. And when it now encompasses an understanding of 5G comms, cloud computing, IoT, analytics, AI and ML, data management and data sciences (to name just some of the technologies involved in the edge), that is getting to be a feat in its own right.
For someone like Illum, with a foot firmly in both the big systems implementation business of HP and the networking and skills of its subsidiary, Aruba, one of the key challenges is to ensure that channel partners are up to speed on such details.
But, as he acknowledges, it goes further. If the channel partners and the customers are to work effectively together, the customers need to understand a great deal more about the edge themselves:
I think Aruba is a valid player in the market from a technology point of view. I think we’ve concluded that. Now what we need to do is to help customers get some value out of it. That is why I am seeing customers coming back and saying ‘you are the edge guys, how do we do it? Do you have examples from other customers? Can you help us?’.
The learning here for vendors is, he feels, that they have to understand the customer experience and mindset. If they don’t understand the customers they are talking to, and what the challenges of those customers are, it becomes very hard to argue that a tech vendor can come in and create a benefit for them. In addition, that benefit can be very different, and the technology options for providing a solution can vary greatly:
A hotel in London has a whole different set of challenges on what he wants out of the edge than a hospital in Manchester, or a university in Cambridge.
So this is a time of great learning, he argues. Vendors like Aruba have to understand at least the scope of many different use cases. He feels their job is to really try to understand what they can do in these broad use cases.
Vendors can’t do it all
There is also some learning to be had for the vendors themselves, for they cannot hope to have even cursory understanding of every use case or marketplace. That is why Aruba is targeting a limited number of market sectors, and then working to identify the specialist channel partners, in his case right across the EMEA region, with similar skillsets:
That way we are able to be a good partner for the customers in their transformation.
Two areas marked for special attention in the UK, for example, are the hospitality sector and education. This has the added advantage of allowing the company to focus attention not only on the needs of the partners but of the customers themselves, because for many of them the edge is strange new territory:
Sometimes customers don’t really understand what the edge is all about. There is definitely an educational task and Aruba has, for a long time, been pushing the discussion that the edge is more than just WIFI and as more and more devices move to the edge you need to move some of the intelligence to the edge, otherwise it’s an unmanageable feat.
I have written several times recently about the significant problem that many of the channel partners do not yet see the full potential of the edge to their own business, but Illum has noticed that this may be at last on the change. And it is educating the customers on the advantages of the edge that is having the best effect, agrees Illum:
I think the fact that customers are starting to say that is tricking the partners to get a little bit more understanding. And it’s giving more responsibility to us as a vendor to make sure that we can educate and help our partners to be able to handle that promise.
Today, the customers are expecting more. They are expecting services on top They say to the partner, ‘I would like this intelligent edge, but I don’t want to manage the WIFI, or manage the integration, or the security, can you manage that? That is where the gold mine is for the partners, because that is not connected necessarily to the vendor.