Over the last thirty years, internet access has become all but ubiquitous. According to US News and World Report, 95.7 percent of US households have access to broadband internet and 77 percent of Americans go online on a daily basis. Another 26 percent report being online “almost constantly.”
Of course, those big-picture numbers don’t quite tell the whole story. Having “access” to a service doesn’t mean that everyone will automatically have it. Pew Research has found, for instance, that only 65 percent of people actually have broadband service at home, and 20 percent of people primarily access the internet with their smartphones. And that’s not accounting for the challenges faced by rural communities, where nearly 25 percent of residents say that high-speed internet access is a “major problem.”
For companies that rely on fast, reliable internet connections to reach and serve their customers, connectivity issues such as latency are a serious concern. One of the biggest difficulties is navigating the often complicated layers of network connectivity to deliver data to end users. Fortunately, data centers are using cutting edge last mile technology to overcome these challenges.
Imagine you’re taking a trip to visit a friend who lives in a big city. You book your flight, sort out which bus or rail stations you need to use, and pack your bags for a lengthy stay. When the day arrives, you fly into the city’s airport and take a train to the metro station closest to your friend’s apartment building.
Except that apartment building is five blocks away, so after all that traveling, you still have to lug your bags the last stretch of the trip to reach your destination (also, it’s cold out).
This relatively simple example demonstrates how difficult it can be for a traveler to reach their final destination. Although there are extensive transportation options in the form of airports, trains, and buses, they can only take travelers close to where they want to be. Transportation experts refer to this challenge as the “last mile” problem, calling attention to the fact that the last mile of any journey is often the most complicated.
The same principle holds true for data traveling over telecommunication networks. Global telecommunication systems are not unlike a highway system, with high bandwidth lines forming the backbone of a network while thousands of smaller lines branch off to deliver data to end users. In an ideal world, these telecommunication lines could be laid down according to a well-conceived plan to deliver low latency service to people everywhere.
But much like transportation infrastructure, these networks were not all built at the same time and so use different materials. Some areas are serviced by state-of-the-art fiberoptic cable, but others have much slower copper lines, while still others are only reachable by wireless service. Getting data from point A to point B, then, can often involve a complex series of handoffs between different switches. These handoffs result in both signal loss and latency, which can be devastating for a business and frustrating for consumers.
Fortunately, data centers are helping companies to combat these challenges with the latest in last mile technology. The growing popularity of edge data centers is one of the most obvious examples. These smaller, more versatile facilities are located on the outer edges of networks where they can easily connect to internet of things (IoT) devices as part of a broader edge computing architecture. Keeping with the transportation example, incorporating an edge data center into a network is like building a new metro station in a neighborhood that didn’t have one previously. While data may still have to go through aging, less efficient cabling to reach end users, routing traffic through an edge data center ensures that the last mile will be as short as possible, resulting in faster overall service.
Edge computing strategies are especially important for streaming content providers because they deliver such high volumes of data and need to do so with minimal latency to provide users with a seamless experience. With edge data centers, high-demand streaming content can be stored nearer to end users, ensuring that the data doesn’t have to travel long distances and suffer from high latency as a result.
Data centers can also reduce last mile challenges by serving as a centralized connectivity hub. Companies with servers colocated in these facilities can avoid the last mile completely by plugging directly into cloud service providers over a single cross-connect or through external direct connections (like Microsoft’s Azure ExpressRoute service). With their robust connectivity options, data centers can help ISPs and managed service providers reach targeted markets faster and more efficiently.
For companies looking to connect end users more efficiently, edge data centers optimized with last mile technology make it easier to reduce latency and improve performance. While the development of 5G technology could revolutionize network speed in the future, the implementation of these services may still be several years away. Until then, edge data centers and edge computing architecture provide the very best way for companies to overcome the challenges of the last mile.