Forget the 'cloud', soon we'll be on the 'edge' when it comes to smart tech
Time travel to the UK in 2025: Harry is a teenager with a smartphone and Pauline is a senior citizen with Alzheimer's who relies on smart glasses for independent living. Harry is frustrated his favourite online game is slow, and Pauline is anxious since her healthcare app is unresponsive.
Forbes predicts that by 2025 more than 80 billion devices, from wearables and smartphones, to factory and smart-city sensors, will be connected to the internet. Something like 180 trillion gigabytes of data will be generated that year.
Currently almost all data we generate is sent to and processed in distant clouds. The cloud is a facility that provides virtually unlimited computer power and storage space over the internet. This mechanism is already becoming impractical, but by the time billions more devices are connected, delays due to congested networks will be significant. Harry and Pauline's frustrations will be the norm as apps communicate with distant clouds over a busy internet, becoming slower and less responsive.
After all, seconds matter. Harry will have a poor gaming experience if there is a 50 millisecond delay on his smartphone. Even a 10 millisecond lag between the movement of Pauline's head and the appearance of processed information on the smart glasses will cause motion sickness.
To imagine another futuristic scenario, a delay of one-tenth of a second could prove disastrous for an autonomous car driving at 70 miles per hour. It is not inconceivable therefore, that limitations in current cloud provisions could lead to life-or-death scenarios for users. For cloud users to operate in real-time, experiencing delays of no more than one millisecond – assuming networks worldwide can transmit data at the speed of light – data will need to be processed less than 93 miles from the user.
Edge computing is a disruptive new technology, still in its infancy, which offers a solution. Delays will be reduced by processing data geographically closer to the devices where it is needed, that is, at the edge of the network, instead of in a distant cloud. For example, smartphone data could be processed on a home router, and navigation guidance information on smart glasses could be obtained from a mobile base station instead of the cloud.
Will this really happen?
The value of edge computing is to make applications highly responsive by minimising delays. This compelling proposition has attracted significant investment from major companies, including Cisco, Dell and Arm, all of whom have a major global footprint. The market is headed towards embracing the edge, and researchers across universities are closely examining and developing this new technology.
Cost-effective application will require the edge to do a lot of data pre-processing before it is sent to the cloud. Proof-of-concept in evidence from pilot projects demonstrates that a variety of applications benefit from using the edge including online games, health care apps, military applications and autonomous cars.
A number of alliances, such as the OpenEdge and OpenFog consortia are developing standards for using the edge. Even major cloud providers, including Amazon and Microsoft Azure, have developed software systems for using the edge. The market is estimated to be valued between US$6-10 bn over the next five years.
Will the cloud become obsolete?
Cloud data centres are facilities concentrated with processing and storage capabilities across the globe. They are one of the central planks of modern economies. Today they are required as critical infrastructure because very little processing can be done between the user device and the cloud; but once processing is done at the edge, the central role of the cloud will change.
The massive storage and scalable resources available in the cloud will obviously not be accessible at the edge with its limited computing and storage capabilities, but the edge will become central for real-time processing. The edge will not have an existence of its own without the backing of the cloud, but the cloud will become a slightly more passive technology since resources required for processing and/or storage will be decentralised along the cloud/edge continuum.
Jason Bourne always managed to outsmart his assailants by blending in with a large rioting crowd or a busy marketplace. Thousands of cloud data breaches affecting billions of people were reported in 2017. A home router is a needle in a haystack of devices at the edge – which, even if compromised, would not give access to billions of users' data. So that alone is a huge plus, as mass breaches can be avoided.
Processing a user's data on servers located on a home router without leaving a data footprint outside the home network is more secure than leaving the entire data on the cloud. More public edge devices, such as internet gateways or mobile base stations, will have the data footprint of many users. So the systems required to fully protect the edge are still a major investigative focus.
Questions remain to be answered throughout the adoption process, but the inevitable conclusion is clear: the edge will change not only the cloud's future, but also those of us – like Harry and Pauline – who depend on it every day.