It's always refreshing to hear a technology leader cut through the hype of the latest technology trend. Particularly when that leader is giving a keynote address at a conference on the technology trend in question. In this case, senior advisor and former CTO of Superbet, Finbarr Joy, took to the stage at Edge Computing Expo to throw some cold water on the edge computing hype - and said that a lot of organizations get too focused on technology, rather than figuring out how it can support their differentiation.
Edge computing is gaining dominance in the enterprise IT market, but its definition is still open to interpretation. The way I think of it is: as more devices and experiences become digitally connected, it makes sense for some of the processing and intelligence of those services to happen closer to where the experience/device is (the edge). This may seem like a shift back to pre-cloud computing days, but in reality a lot of the processing and management will still happen centrally in the cloud, it just means that more intelligent work can be distributed.
Joy agrees that the definition of edge computing still isn't entirely clear for many. He said:
Distributed is the common factor, but right now there is no metric for measuring what counts as edge computing or as simply running a cloud workload in a data center that happens to be geographically proximate to certain users. What if you're an on premise data center doing data processing to compliment operations in the public cloud? That could also be considered an example of edge computing, but it might also be interpreted as being the hybrid cloud. So one of the challenges from an enterprise perspective is, how do you even raise the topic for business consideration when it's so fuzzy?
This understanding of what constitutes ‘edge' has been helped somewhat by the COVID-19 pandemic, according to Joy, given that distributed work itself became commonplace and that there was increased need for automation in factories, stores and across supply chains. Joy explained:
This past year has seen industrial plants having to consider how they engage remote control in settings where lockdown or widespread illness mean staff can no longer attend. From factory automation, to predictive maintenance, across entire industrial plants, to real-time large scale logistic scheduling, It's clear that deploying edge computing to these environments tackled latency and security issues that would hinder what might otherwise be regular cloud deployments.
[Also] retail environments now have to justify their existence, provisioning a seamless omni-channel engagement that deploys digital signage, interactive kiosks, and more. To provide customized in-store experiences that beat the simple convenience of online, not to mention the promise of purely autonomous unstaffed stores.
Meanwhile, emerging capabilities in machine vision, sensors and robotics, will bring efficiencies to supply chain management. These opportunities are unlikely to be unlocked without edge computing. So while I'm a sceptic of many edge computing claims, I do think there is an immediate opportunity for retail.
Frenzied and unfocused
Joy said that because of the hype around edge computing in the market, this has resulted in a feeding frenzy amongst the IT supply ecosystem - hardware vendors, cloud vendors, software vendors - with all of them trying to claim their piece of the pie. However, this is serving to only confuse an already muddled and confused buyer.
Joy added that in his belief, by the time that edge computing proves to be materially advantageous for most businesses, the capability will largely be extracted away from the buyer - implying that the products and services currently on offer are very much in their infancy. He added:
This is at risk right now of being another example of ‘the next big thing'. So for many, especially those that haven't progressed cloud adoption - the cloud conversation then becomes the edge conversation, and then is a great distraction.
[Buyers will say] ‘we can rebrand our data centre to the edge, and suddenly we're cool again'. So many emergent patterns lead enterprises falling down the rabbit hole of consuming IT budgets to no material advantage. How do we orientate ourselves for the way ahead? How do we avoid falling off the edge?
Joy's principle point is that so many organizations still haven't got the basics right, let alone need to be worrying about how edge computing is going to be benefiting their company. Wanting to skip over cloud and head straight for edge is near impossible, and buyers should instead be focusing on their outcomes and customer needs. He said:
Most of what enterprises maintain internally now is commodity. If you draw down your standard infrastructure, your standard application infrastructure, an awful lot in there is already being provided on a commodity basis by the big cloud providers. Yet [for many] it's consuming possibly large amounts of the IT budget to maintain and build on top of those.
So, for all of the digital spend, where are we finding our material advantage to take things forward? Where are we genuinely opening out the business model opportunities that will make a difference? Recognising that when we reflect on the many waves of change, of which edge is just one, then we could spend all of our budget pursuing all these new technologies, and yet not derive any material advantage.
I would suggest that if you haven't offloaded that undifferentiated workload, if you haven't taken advantage of cloud, if you haven't identified your digital advantage, the edge is going to be, unfortunately, just another IT money pit.
Focus on the customer? Cutting through the hype? Understanding how technology aligns to your outcomes, rather than buying into the latest trend for the sake of it? We love to see it.