Edge computing: When to outsource, when to DIY

Enterprises can choose on-premises edge computing options or hire public edge services, but the right choice depends on factors including budget, in-house expertise and regulatory requirements.

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The edge is being sold to enterprise customers from just about every part of the technology industry, and there’s not always a bright dividing line between “public” options – edge computing sold as a service, with a vendor handling operational data directly – and “private” ones, where a company implements an edge architecture by itself.

There are advantages and challenges to either option, and which is the right edge-computing choice for any particular organization depends on their individual needs, budgets and staffing, among other factors. Here are some considerations.

Challenges of in-house edge computing

The IT-centric approach to edge keeps ownership of edge devices in-house and is likely to appeal to businesses with either strict legal requirements about where their data can be at any given time – a healthcare provider would be a good example – or a low level of institutional comfort for putting that data in the hands of third parties, like utility and manufacturing companies.

Handling things in-house can be challenging, however. For one thing, according to Christian Renaud, IoT practice director for 451 Research, the fact of the matter is that many IT shops lack the requisite expertise to handle an edge deployment on their own.

“We run into a few use cases where the internal IT team can’t handle the edge infrastructure, so handing it off to a vendor makes a lot of sense,” he said. “The challenge is that, with production systems, that’s a whole different ballgame [than IT], so there’s a pretty strict set of requirements in terms of what the OT vendors will let run on other people’s networks.”

The lack of common standards in edge compute limits customers’ ability to build their edge infrastructure using multiple vendors. An organization might not be able to use one vendor’s sensors without also buying its edge compute modules or networking gear, since they’re all part of the same offering.

Forrester vice president and principal analyst Brian Hopkins contrasts edge to cloud computing, where interoperability, open frameworks and containerization makes these concerns all but irrelevant.

 “[Many cloud frameworks] don’t have to worry about platforms or standards or anything, but when you move to the edge, all that abstraction doesn’t exist,” he said. “So you have to worry about what server you’re running, what communication protocols you’re using … it’s hugely complicated.”

Still, single-vendor edge infrastructure can have feature advantages. For example, Cisco’s edge intelligence orchestration software, which runs on its networking equipment and is managed remotely by Cisco, can send only the data that Cisco needs to run the software, not the operational data itself, Renaud said that. Hence, a user could utilize the software to operate an automated factory, but never have specific data about its machines leave its own networks.

Edge services can lead to lock-in

This is the option that many vendors want to provide, since there’s more functionality to offer, and thus more that they can ask customers to pay for. Handing off an edge-compute deployment to a vendor has the advantages of predictable costs—just pay set installments for the service rather than budget for and implement a complex new computing system whose ultimate expense could grow unpredictably. Outsourcing can also simplify operational responsibility since it’s the vendor’s job to keep things running.

Ultimately it’s the direction in which a lot of companies are likely to go, according to Accenture North America networking lead Peters Suh.

“Like many other technology-related decisions, cost of ownership, sufficient technical resources and competencies, and whether there is a strategic value of owning the network-edge stack will factor in this decision process,” he said. “However, over the long haul, most enterprises will likely look for third-party support.”

Of course, this also means that vendor lock-in is very much in play. Take, for example, a connected factory using a third-party service to instrument and orchestrate its machinery. The provider deploys its own sensors, networking equipment, edge boxes for local control and fast analysis, and feeds everything to a back-end that the customer can view for deeper insights.

If the factory owner then wants to change even one piece of the puzzle—say, more efficient sensors with new capabilities—it could upset the entire ecosystem and necessitate either a wholesale switch to a new vendor or an awkward, complicated implementation process to guarantee compatibility between the new sensors and everything else.

According to Renaud, that’s changing, at least to some extent. Even quite recently, operational-technology vendors would largely dictate the terms of all their deployments. If customers wanted an edge deployment, they had to accept exactly what the vendor had to offer.

“So now it’s more 50/50, where everyone sits down at the table to decide where the data’s gonna go, what the security’s gonna be like, to get the desired OT outcome,” he said. “The challenge right now is that so much of the orchestration is dictated by the workload and the vendor in production environments.”

It’s hard to know what edge means

Given the constellation of different products and services billed as edge computing – and a pervasive lack of agreement on a vendor-independent definition of the term – it can be a chore just to nail down whether a given solution is “edge” at all, much less “in-house” or “edge as a service.”

One solution might use private 5G or LTE for the networking piece but keep data entirely on a customer’s servers. Another might use carrier connectivity to move data from a data center to private cloud or to a different provider’s cloud. Still others outsource the entire operational tech stack to a vendor that provides the sensors, edge hardware, networking and compute and offer customers a dashboard through which they can view all the information they need.

All of these involve very different technologies with a wide range of suitable use cases, yet all are sold as “edge computing.” According to carriers, the “edge” is the edge of the network. Per Hopkins, the carriers, for years, have mostly made their revenue selling simple connectivity of one sort or another, and view edge computing as a great way to introduce over-the-top services, like management for numerous kinds of edge infrastructure, as a value-add.

“So if you’re an advertiser or marketer, they’re saying, ‘If you want to install applications for routing ads to local customers, our infrastructure is a place to do that,’” Hopkins said.

Similarly, content-delivery networks like Fastly and Akamai are looking at their numerous global points-of-presence, traditionally use to stage in-demand data, and seeing them as an opportunity to branch out. Since one of edge computing’s hallmarks is providing services with very low latency, and that low latency has been the CDNs’ core selling point for years, the Akamais and Fastlys of the world are eager to sell themselves as POPs for the edge. If a customer can figure out the connectivity piece, data processing can be done nearby in one of those POPs as a service. For example, the advertiser in Hopkins’ example could use a CDN as a clearinghouse for location-dependent ad serving.

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