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Why Edge Computing is Vital to the Future of IoT

By: Ernest Sampera on March 7, 2019

Analysts and media outlets have been talking about the internet of things (IoT) for some time now, but it’s only been in the last few years that the concept of network-enabled devices has become a reality. More devices are being connected to the internet every day, with even mundane household objects like appliances and toilets boasting connectivity features.

More Devices Are Coming

The analyst firm Gartner predicts that the total number of “things” connected to the internet will reach 20.4 billion by 2020. While business IoT spending takes up the largest share of overall IoT spending, the majority of IoT applications will continue to be consumer-facing, with 63 percent of IoT units expected to be used by consumers. That’s a lot of devices that will need to operate in a network infrastructure that wasn’t originally designed to accommodate so much data traffic.

How much data traffic? A lot.

Cisco has estimated that more than 800 zettabytes of data will be generated by all people machines, and things by 2020 (for context, a zettabyte is roughly equal to a trillion gigabytes). That’s a lot of data coursing through networks, some of it traveling over long distances, which will ultimately result in greater latency. When autonomous vehicles, which in many ways are the ultimate IoT device, begin hitting the roads in greater numbers, the need for high-bandwidth, low-latency connections will be even more important.

Although 5G connectivity will solve some of the problems, it’s unlikely that the service will be widely available enough by 2020 to make a big difference or do much to alleviate IoT security concerns. Part of the challenge is that the biggest need for IoT connectivity will be in the very places where it’s most limited. Tier-1 markets generally provide enough coverage to accommodate additional devices and are continuously adding more capacity. But in rural areas and developing markets, connectivity options are more limited and latency becomes a bigger issue.

Edge Computing and IoT

Fortunately, edge computing can provide a solution to the connectivity problem. In many ways, it’s the network architecture that makes IoT possible in the first place. By pushing key processing functions to the network edge rather than forcing data to constantly travel to the core of the network and back, edge computing allows network-enabled devices to function even with a limited connection to a broader cloud computing network.

But IoT devices can’t do it all. For all their versatility and power, most of them lack the processing capabilities to function completely separated from the network over a long period of time. They need to check in and regularly hand off processing-intensive tasks that don’t need to be resolved immediately as well as receive updates and new data.

That’s why any good edge computing network should incorporate edge data centers into its architecture. Typically located in strategic growth markets, these facilities can provide IoT devices with the connectivity they need to deliver low-latency services to end users. They serve as relay stations for critical analytics data that needs to travel to the network core while also providing additional processing muscle for IoT devices that need computing support to deliver services effectively. They also provide an additional layer of IoT security to prevent compromised devices from communicating with the core of a cloud computing network.

Why Edge Data Centers Matter

Built for speed and equipped with routing capacity to handle the massive influx of data from surrounding networks, these facilities will play a crucial role in the future of the IoT industry. In a way, they could be viewed as a signal booster that extends the reach of an organization’s cloud computing network. If IoT devices are ever going to fulfill their potential, they will need to penetrate markets that do not offer robust connectivity options.

Most service providers operate out of massive hyperscale facilities, which are expensive to build and maintain. While the intense demand for cloud computing services is leading to the construction of more of these facilities every year, they’re not a viable solution for delivering faster services and better performance on the edge of a network. They aren’t optimized to deliver content and take in data from local users.

Edge data centers help these facilities do their job more effectively by caching popular content for faster delivery and screening data collected by IoT devices. In some ways, they operate much like an edge router in a conventional data center, directing traffic where it needs to go and providing some measure of security against compromised IoT devices. By processing a portion of that 800 zettabytes locally, edge data centers can relieve traffic pressure on facilities nearer to the core of the network, improving performance more broadly. An edge facility in Portland, then, might very well help a facility in a neighboring state deliver content and services more effectively to customers hundreds of miles away.

If the IoT market is going to mature to the lofty predictions set by analysts, edge computing architecture will need to become a major aspect of IT strategies. Identifying key edge data centers that can reduce network latency is every bit as important as designing the latest and greatest devices. By implementing edge architectures in random with new connectivity technology like 5G, companies can lay the foundation for faster, more efficient services that enhance existing and future IoT applications.

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