Where is the edge?

Amazon, Microsoft and HP Enterprise are all investing billions of dollars in products and services for edge computing. All those edge compute services need to be housed somewhere, and the result is data center providers large and small are increasingly talking about expanding to the “edge.” All of which leads to the challenge of defining where vendors are actually participating in the market.

“Where is the edge?” was a common refrain at conferences and online forums throughout 2018. The answers vary widely, and often depend on the perspective of what kind of service or product the respondent offers. There have been a number of groups seeking to answer those questions, including the OpenFog Consortium and OpenStack Foundation. A new group consisting of Vapor IO, Packet, Ericsson Edge Gravity, ARM and Rafay Systems formed to work on defining the different layers of the edge in the inaugural State of the Edge report. (In the interest of disclosure, I was a co-author on the report).

Focusing on the end-user perspective

One of the areas the report focuses on is defining terms, and then extending the implications of those definitions into the market. (The report glossary is now an open source project under the stewardship of The Linux Foundation).

Defining a view of what edge computing is, the report states:

Edge Computing: The delivery of computing capabilities to the logical extremes of a network in order to improve the performance, operating cost and reliability of applications and services.

This definition allows for edge services to exist at different layers that extend from the ‘core’ or ‘central’ cloud. A few key terms from the study:

  • The device edge refers to edge computing resources on the downstream or device side of the last mile network. These include laptops, tablets and smartphones as well as connected automobiles, environmental sensors and traffic lights.
  • The infrastructure edge refers to IT resources which are positioned on the network operator or service provider side of the last mile network.
  • The access edge is the part of the infrastructure edge closest to the end user and their devices. Edge data centers will be placed in regular intervals in urban and suburban environments such as at a cable or telco headend or the base of a cell tower. They will be the primary building blocks of the infrastructure edge.
  • The aggregation edge refers to a portion of the edge infrastructure which functions as a point of aggregation (located in regional data centers, in diagram above) for multiple edge data centers deployed at the access edge sublayer. For example, a CDN can act as an aggregation layer by caching content and performing functions on requests before core delivering requests to core cloud (or dedicated ‘origin’) infrastructure.
Jim Davis

Where is investment in edge?

The device edge area is getting a lot of attention. Topics like IoT for industry and Smart Cities and autonomous vehicles are interesting and accessible to mainstream audiences. But a lot of money is going into building facilities to support the edge compute services those applications will need.

In 2017, hyperscale cloud providers, including Amazon, Google, and Microsoft, invested $74 billion in capital expenditures on data centers and equipment, and they are on pace to spend even more this year. The natural progression is for further geographic expansion beyond the key large metro markets into smaller cities and beyond. The result is that the edge of the core cloud is expanding outward, even if it doesn’t bring their facilities all the way to edge of the last mile network, or access edge.

Meanwhile, venture investors and private equity firms are filling up coffers for companies at the access and aggregation edge. These access edge players like VaporIO, EdgeMicro and others, along with aggregation edge players like EdgeConnex, are seeing significant investment dollars flowing in. Some startups are already being acquired – Compass Datacenters acquired EdgePoint Systems in February of 2018, along with BitBox, a provider of software for management of edge data center facilities.

Ultimately, it will be useful for vendors themselves to begin using more descriptive terminology-whether it’s from the State of the Edge or elsewhere-to show investors and customers which part of the edge opportunity they are focusing on.