This content is part of the Essential Guide: Cutting edge: IT's guide to edge data centers

Why some IT leaders aren't falling for edge data centers

Buzzword bingo games these days typically include 'edge data centers,' but how much real interest is there among users?

New data center terminology is always being tossed around, but IT pros often wonder if anyone's really doing anything...

with them in practice.

A study sheds new light on whether one of those concepts, edge data centers, is gaining traction and whether there are any benefits. In short, nearly 500 IT professionals expressed "a mild interest in edge data centers," -- but few have any current plan to use one.

The survey of 492 IT pros, with slightly more than a third from the executive level, found that 18% currently use an edge data center and 46% plan to add an edge data center within the next year. But more than half, 54%, "do not plan to add an edge data center." The survey was conducted by Wyoming-based service provider Green House Data.

Research firm Gartner Inc. suggests an even lower level of interest, estimating only about 5% of organizations are using edge data centers, mostly through cloud computing and cloud brokers, according to Rakesh Kumar, managing vice president of the infrastructure strategies team at Gartner.

Most enterprises are not in edge data centers -- but Kumar says global companies are starting to embrace it.

"It is going to happen in the next two years -- pretty fast, in my opinion," he said.

Edge data centers are part of a hub and spoke architecture that is built around the idea that everything will not be processed in one place. For example, a U.S. car manufacturer could route telemetry data from its cars worldwide to the U.S. for research and development, maintenance, and support, while other data could be sent to edge data centers closer to the cars for analytical processing. This reduces risk by eliminating lengthier transmission, which can be a greater security threat, Kumar said.

Edge data centers will be less about selecting the best hardware and more about the best way to process information passing between different sites -- a "mother ship" main data center surrounded by micro data centers that are closer to users or a set of applications, Kumar said.

"The mindset needs to be, 'Where's the best place to do the processing at the lowest cost and create the best information for my organization?'"

Lower bandwidth costs

The benefits of edge data centers start with lower bandwidth costs from shorter backbone transport -- 52% of those survey respondents listed that as a benefit from a list of five choices. Exactly half of the respondents identified advantages with cheaper colocation space away from expensive primary markets and access to more content providers and carriers. Nearly half of respondents (47%) see the possibility of lower latency for local markets.

Edge data centers are an evolving topic and still an ambiguous term, which, in part, led to the survey, noted Steven Dreher, director of solution architecture at Green House Data.

The mindset needs to be, 'Where's the best place to do the processing at the lowest cost and creates the best information for my organization?'
Rakesh Kumarmanaging vice president, infrastructure strategies team, Gartner Inc.

Green House defines the "edge" as the destination where data is going and where people are using it. This implies a boundary, "a physical proximity to something," according to Dreher. He sees one side of that boundary as data and other side as the consumers of data.

The survey sought to get a better handle on the business case for edge data centers as well as the challenges and pain points, plus to get an understanding of how data on the edge is being used.

Edge data centers are part of a revitalization of on-premises computing, according to Steven Carlini, senior director, data center global operations at Schneider Electric in Andover, Mass. Some of the newest uses for edge computing include facial recognition applications for retail companies, sporting events and tourist venues.

Future uses for edge data centers will come from industrial companies doing process automation; oil, gas and mining exploration; retail businesses seeking security and standardization for branch offices (often after a merger); and retail business preparing for augmented/virtual reality applications such as smart mirrors, smart shelves and smart kiosks, Carlini said.

"We are starting to see customers who are experiencing latency and doing more and more things on-site, but it is not as broad-based as it will be," he said.

As cloud computing architecture proliferates, there is increased need for local stacks on-site, noted Carlini, who has an electrical and electronics engineering degree. "It is a return to on-prem data services, even if it is cloud services."

Enterprises evaluating a move to an edge data center should start by looking at what the data is doing. For a financial services company, for example, a move to Wyoming to save money may not meet the company's performance requirements, Dreher said.

Put another way: What company would want to move further away from its customers?

Internet and WAN slowdowns at certain times -- such as when Adele's newest album 25 was released and when Star Wars: The Force Awakens tickets went on sale -- create poor performance for everyone, forcing some companies to rethink their data center strategy and explore other options. Increasingly this will include an edge data center, explained Carlini.

"Is having everything in the cloud, in a centralized data center somewhere, really where I want to be?" he asked.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyper-converged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him on Twitter @RBGatesTT or email him at [email protected].

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