Angie McMillin, Vice President and General Manager of IT Systems at Vertiv, explores the shifting sands within the world of edge computing.
For the past five years or so, the dominant storyline in the data center industry is the increasingly distributed nature of computing and the proliferation of the edge of the network. Demand for compute closer to the end user is driving the migration to the edge, and while the fundamentals of these edge sites have been fairly consistent, the details always depend on the applications the site is supporting.
Today’s edge is more mission critical, powerful and secure than traditional remote computing deployments, such as the old IT closet, and designed to deliver on-site computing and network connectivity for everything from in-store retail to banking to K-12 and higher education and healthcare facilities. The IT and infrastructure solutions and configurations deployed depend on a combination of specific performance requirements, including latency, availability, scalability and security, as well as the need to integrate with existing or legacy applications, equipment and data centers. Despite differences in challenges, the objectives are consistent – availability, security and flexibility.
Until recently, all of this seemed to be proceeding along relatively predictable paths, but life in the age of a global pandemic is anything but predictable. In the span of weeks, our way of life has changed dramatically, with millions of people and businesses around the world adjusting to social distancing requirements. Employers and employees, teachers and students, churches and their congregations all are transitioning to remote communications and videoconferencing to maintain contact and productivity. Retailers are shuttering stores and ramping up their ecommerce capabilities. A massive portion of our global workforce is suddenly working from home.
That picture of the edge that seemed to be coming into focus is becoming fuzzy again as our demands for edge computing adjust to the new reality. Eventually, stores will open and students will return to classrooms, but certain habits and expectations will have formed. Employees will return to their workplaces, but perhaps not in pre-pandemic numbers. Things may eventually return to normal, but they will not be the same. The computing infrastructure that is evolving in real time to support our current needs will be changed as well, faster and more dramatically than expected, but it will improve our ability to adapt to future digital transformation.
The Edge Abides
It’s important to remember the proliferation of the edge is a result of demand, not a strategic choice of network owners. Like a plant seeks the sun, the network is drawn to work, and increasingly that work is happening remotely. The profile of that work is changing to support the sudden work-from-home economy. The technology to support a largely remote workforce already exists, so tech is neither an obstacle nor a driver. Sure, some VPNs have been stretched beyond their capabilities, but the data center, IT and telecommunications industries are prepared for this moment.
Some adjustments will be necessary, however. Security is the biggest and most immediate concern, with the potential for a flood of out-of-band activity creating opportunities for bad actors and headaches for IT managers. Organizations should audit their security processes, procedures and technologies and make the adjustments necessary to ensure no lapse in information security and share security best practices and requirements for employees. For example, home router security should be checked and verified to ensure password integrity.
Every remote workstation is a potential point of network access and should be managed accordingly, with secure technologies embedded in the data center or in the aggregation layer between worker and data center. Serial consoles can provide secure in-band and out-of-band remote access for users and network administrators, and secure KVM switches ensure safe access and management of data across multiple servers and applications. It should be noted again, however, that equipment is just one piece of the puzzle. Security starts with adherence to best practices related to network access.
Bottom line: The suddenness of the pandemic and associated impacts on our way of life were shocks to everyone, and most businesses have been in triage mode as they try to figure out their paths forward.
The move to home offices also introduces external complications, such as potentially unreliable utility power. Most organizations will tolerate the occasional power outage impacting some employees, but there are likely to be critical personnel who require headquarters-like power protection from their homes. In those cases, a desktop uninterruptible power supply (UPS) system to allow for safe shutdown may be warranted.
Of course, work-from-home isn’t the only change happening at the edge. The ongoing deployment of 5G networks, which offer increased bandwidth and enable more advanced applications, was starting to change the profile of the work being done at the edge long before the pandemic. Now, those 5G networks are being used to meet our current challenges.
A few months ago, the primary 5G applications included the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence, virtual reality, high-definition streaming video, and even autonomous vehicles. The onset of the pandemic has shifted the focus to other 5G capabilities – supporting increased remote workload, video streaming and, more critically, healthcare systems and extensions, such as pop-up hospitals and systems to support first responders and telehealth resources.
Bottom line: The suddenness of the pandemic and associated impacts on our way of life were shocks to everyone, and most businesses have been in triage mode as they try to figure out their paths forward. Now, as they start to accept this new normal and even plan for a post-pandemic return to business, they are pivoting toward optimizing their networks and business practices for our current circumstances and whatever comes next. This likely will include increased attention to remote networks and work-from-home capabilities and security and an eye toward a 5G-enabled future.
Angie McMillin is Vice President and General Manager of IT Systems at Vertiv.