Life on the Edge: History Repeats Itself

Lance Crosby.

As we watch the pendulum swing between core and edge, where will you place your bets? Lance Crosby, CEO and Chairman of StackPath takes us on a historical journey and offers his perspective on this fundamental shift in the internet.

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We’re at the beginning of the next era in computing. It’s entirely new and entirely similar to what we’ve seen before.

The early 1950s through the late 1970s was the age of the mainframe. Led by IBM, “big iron” centralized computing and forced everyone to go to the well for processing and data.

As processing became cheaper and networking technologies became more powerful, workloads no longer needed to live on big iron. In the early 1980s, with the advent of the personal computing, computing became decentralized, with end users performing their work directly on their desktops with local software and client systems calling home to server systems when they needed heavy lifting.

Then, in 2005, the public clouds emerged bringing us back to a centralized computing model. Instead of running on large mainframes, workloads moved to centralized data centers with racks of commodity servers stuffed full of cores, RAM, and storage.  The shift enabled developers to consume data centers as a service, and accelerated development from months to weeks, days, and sometimes even hours or minutes.

The pendulum cycle continues. Today we see, again, the emergence of a new decentralized computing model. Starting somewhere in 2015, cloud computing capabilities began moving out from the giant compute and storage farms to the Internet Exchanges (IXs), cell towers, and past the last mile limit. Developers can now work closer to the end user than ever, pushing code that runs right in their customers’ homes, cars, and even the devices on their wrists.

How disruptive will the edge be? Is it just another buzzword? Will it entirely replace today’s cloud, complement it, or just closely resemble it? Does it need to provide developers the same basic Legos of compute and storage, just in smaller, more distributed chunks? What new technologies will it introduce?

Here are my 2¢ having been here, done that, got the T-shirt, and lessons that we should take from the previous cycles in the industry:

  • Centralized computing in public clouds isn’t going to disappear, at least not for a long while. At a bare minimum, the scale of commodity processing power in the central cloud is too large to displace quickly. The enormous gigawatt data centers out in the farmlands of eastern Washington, remote Iowa, and the Carolinas have more computing capacity in one facility than existed in the whole world just a decade ago.  Millions and millions of physical machines with hundreds of millions of virtual machines and, dare I say, billions of containers?
  • The edge isn’t just hype or a solution looking for a problem. Some argue it’s just a part of the cloud, and pretty much looks and feels just like the rest of it. That’s shortsighted. There are large shifts driving the need for developers to get closer to end users, and large innovations that let them do that—further defining and distinguishing this computing model from the traditional cloud.
  • If you want a glimpse of the future impact of edge computing, just look at what smartphones did to developers and the cloud. Smartphones gave consumers convenience. The world now expects total mobility and access. That has changed the way we build applications and use compute, and has driven much of the cloud revolution. But we’ve only seen the beginning of this change, as smartphone usage and expectations continue to grow and edge computing becomes part of the mix.
  • Placing workloads in IXs is already table stakes. Getting them into 5G C-RANs is the next front to conquer. Edge seekers aspire to sit at the bottom of the groupings of high-speed towers (up to 10Gbps per device), with massive endpoint capacity and line-of-site connections to deliver services like never before. If the 5G spec of 1ms is reality, the micro data center and edge compute companies will have to explode to keep up with demand.
  • Add low-earth orbit satellites (LEOS) and the story gets even more interesting.  There are currently 12 LEOS companies in a race to fill space with low earth orbit satellites. This isn’t the HughesNet 200ms satellite service from the old days floating 45,000 miles above the earth. These LEOS sit 1,000- 1,200 miles high and deliver internet access in the 30 to 40ms range. Respectable by any current performance metrics. The kicker? It only takes about 1,000 of these puppies to cover the globe with satellite internet access and give access to billions (that’s billions with a ‘B’) of people who don’t have access today. 
  • Developers salivate over the edge and what they can write, the industries they can disrupt, and the ultimate control they can have over the experiences they deliver, from autonomous cars, to smart cities, to smart homes, to smart everything. The benefits cover the entire B2B and B2C spectrum. You will be able to binge watch Netflix faster at higher def, play Fortnite with more friends at higher speeds, and consume whatever content you want anywhere, anytime, at speeds once talked about only in backbone connections. New categories will emerge, new verticals will be built, applications will bifurcate. Your lawn will probably seed, water, and mow itself soon without your intervention because edge computing will allow it to happen.

If you need evidence of its value, just consider that the edge revolution has begun in the IXs of the world, the most expensive real estate and power known in the industry. The cost of those resources have been considered worth it by edge seekers looking to lower the latency, decentralize the processes, geograph-ize (is that a word?) data, step right into users’ worlds, and be a few milliseconds away. 

There still are many questions about edge. Some of them we need to answer soon as partners, competitors, frenemies, and everything in between so that we can better manage the vector of this revolution. Other answers will just emerge, as our customers use their wallets to vote for what they do and don’t want.

We all know one thing for sure: The only constant in IT is change. We see from the past that the industry goes through a cycle of introducing centralized capabilities and then decentralizing them. Wash, rinse, repeat. I’ve placed my bets that the decentralization brought about by edge will be monumental, both as an extension of the current cloud computing model and as a model of its own. And I’m keeping an eye out for what’s past the edge.

Lance Crosby is CEO and Chairman of StackPath. Prior to StackPath, he was Chairman and CEO Softlayer, which became the foundation of IBM’s cloud. StackPath is a platform of secure edge services that enables developers to protect, accelerate, and innovate cloud properties ranging from websites to media delivery and IoT services. More than one million customers, including early-stage and Fortune 100 companies, use StackPath services. StackPath is headquartered in Dallas and has offices across the U.S. and around the world. For more information, visit www.StackPath.com, and follow StackPath at www.fb.com/stackpathllc and www.twitter.com/stackpath.

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