The Edge in a Post-Pandemic World

May 4th, 2020 by · Leave a Comment

This Industry Viewpoint was authored by Keith Rutledge, General Manager of Compass EdgePoint

This is the first in a two-part series about trends that are accelerating the adoption of edge infrastructure and broadening the use cases of edge computing. This column (Part 1) focused on how the COVID-19 pandemic is driving the need for edge computing in a way that I believe will continue for the months and years ahead. A subsequent column (Part 2 in this series) focuses on other important trends that are driving the need for edge infrastructure, including a number of consumer demands that will require ultra-low latency edge computing capabilities.

But let’s start with the way the health crisis is making edge computing more important than ever before. The COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on IT infrastructure that cannot be understated. We are seeing network infrastructures being pushed in ways that are unprecedented – driven by demands ranging from the dramatic increase in telehealth appointments, to the massive increase in virtual meetings by coworkers, to the massive increase in streaming entertainment for those sheltering in their homes. Each of these types of demands on data centers and networks was trending upward already, but the pandemic has taken them to heights that push infrastructure to the limits.

Let’s take consumer streaming of entertainment as an example. A recent article in Medium reported that our mandated couch-bound behavior has resulted in a 60% increase in the streamed content that we are consuming. That’s a heck of a lot of “Tiger King” and online gaming and streamed music and podcasts and cat videos. It’s also way more bandwidth usage than anyone involved in IT infrastructure anticipated for this year. As a testament to that, consider this: it’s estimated the major telecom companies architected their infrastructures based on the assumption that only 40-50% of people would access the internet working from home would be accessing the web at any one time. At the time, that kind of target was considered serious over-building of the network to leave plenty of room for spikes in demand. Flash forward to today and we’re seeing that even the most forward-thinking over-building of capacity is being put to the test.

In the short term, the solutions to these higher-than-projected bandwidth demands have varied. For example, the EU has asked streaming providers to reduce picture quality, and Facebook and Instagram have reduced bit ratios. That has eased some of the pressure on networks, but it is a short-term fix that won’t work for what I see as long-term impacts of the pandemic. 

I believe that this intense escalation of demand on network infrastructure will remain at high levels in the post-pandemic world – continuing to put these same stresses on infrastructure. Many experts are predicting that many employees will continue to work from home even after social distancing mandates are lifted. I believe working from home will become a permanent new normal for many companies and employees that will continue to put massive demands on network infrastructure, with the need for far lower latency infrastructure everywhere that employees live. Based on the commentary of healthcare experts, I also believe telemedicine has reached a critical mass because of the pandemic, and will become a widely accepted way for doctor-patient consultations to take place going forward. These virtual appointments will require highly-secure, low-latency connectivity at the local level where doctors’ offices and patients live.

Centralized data center infrastructure that relies on expensive data backhaul is far from the ideal way to support these kinds of applications. What is needed is an increase in edge computing assets across the country to reduce backhaul costs, deliver lower latency, and provide high-performance applications as close as possible to where employees, companies, patients, doctors, gamers and Netflix-watchers live and work.

From a telecom perspective, the primary driver catalyzing edge computing proliferation in the near to medium term will be cost. At per unit prices of $1 million or less, edge facilities, even when purchased in multiple, will be dwarfed by the cost of building a full-sized data center or adding additional switching facilities on the part of telecom providers. When that cost advantage is combined with the availability of existing real estate, power and connectivity at cell tower and conventional switching locations to support edge deployments, I foresee telecom companies accelerating their movement from the limited trial stage to larger edge deployments within the 18-24 months of the recession of virus.

In terms of industries such as gaming or applications like content delivery, the experience gathered during the prolonged period of self-isolation can also be expected to jumpstart their edge related planning and implementation. While the ability to accurately estimate future traffic patterns and usage volume may remain imprecise in a post-pandemic world, it is safe to say that they will not return to their pre-shelter-in-place levels. In fact, a “pandemic” factor may now become part of existing capacity planning algorithms moving forward. All of these elements will coalesce to create a boost in the need for expanding existing architectures closer to end user communities more rapidly than previously projected.

I should also talk about 5G because this intersects with everything I’ve discussed above. To a large extent, the growth of edge computing has been intrinsically linked to the rate of 5G accessibility by most market observers. While this relationship will remain intact post-COVID, it will be substantially weakened. The catalyzing role of 5G will be somewhat mediated by the recognition that, for many telecom and application providers, there is an immediate need for more rapid and extensive edge deployment to satisfy customer demand, to achieve desired levels of performance, and to provide  “bridging” until large scale 5G availability.

In part two of this series, I will discuss other major factors that are driving the need for broader, faster deployment of edge infrastructure.


About the Author

Keith Rutledge is the General Manager of Compass EdgePoint, which provides zero-touch edge datacenter solution at scale for a wide range of customers. Compass EdgePoint is part of Compass Datacenters, which provides custom, move-in ready data centers from edge deployments to core facilities serving hyperscale, cloud and enterprise customers. In a long career at IBM prior to this leadership role at Compass EdgePoint, Rutledge was a printed circuit board designer, a software developer, a product manager, and a sales executive. As a product manager, Keith wrote The Business Case for Java and edited The Business Case for eBusiness – which served as strategic touchstones for IBM’s business strategy. He ran Central Europe Middle East and Africa for IBM’s AS/400 product and was Worldwide Director of Sales for the AS/400. Keith also led a strategic outsourcing practice in China for IBM. Prior to IBM, Rutledge worked at Sirius, where he was responsible for partners and routes to market before becoming Director of Sales and General Manager for Sirius Southeast. He also had a long military career in Special Forces, retiring in 1999 as a Team Sergeant from 19th Special Forces Group.

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Categories: Datacenter · Industry Viewpoint

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