Created by The Atlantic’s marketing team and paid for by Lumen
Re:think Original / Lumen
Edge Computing Will Change the Way We Think About Data

Edge Computing will change the way we think about data

We know that the cloud brought us to where we are today. But what computing model comes next—and why should we be excited about it?

Illustrations by Matt Chinworth

Data is at the heart of the future of everything. It is being produced everywhere you look: from vehicles to common household items, from the smartphone in your hand to the coffee maker in your kitchen.

Gaining a competitive edge in this future means understanding what that data can do: for businesses and industries as well as individuals and users. Many of the most promising use cases for all this data are intrinsically tied to advances in edge computing. But what does edge computing actually mean—and how does it change how data gets used, moved, and applied?

Bringing Data Closer To You

“It’s very much a cloud-centric world now,” says Adeel Omer, vice president of global marketing and brand messaging at Lumen. “The cloud is really just somebody else’s server, a state away or five cities away. And that has worked great for a long time, but there are complexities with moving data on those networks.”

In essence, the current cloud model means that most of our data has a “commute.” It has to travel—sometimes across state lines—to be put to work. And while data does travel fast, the longer the distance between it and the cloud server, the longer it takes to be processed. It also sometimes raises questions of data security and sovereignty.

“Edge computing comes out of a necessity to provide the intelligence that makes the data worthwhile and bring that intelligence closer to the end users,” says Omer. “The end user might be a machine. It might be a person. If it’s my automated manufacturing floor, it’s a machine. If it’s me on a website, it’s a person.”

As more and more data gets produced, and as it needs to perform more complex functions, edge computing offers a way to shorten that distance. In an edge computing model, the data processing and analysis that would normally happen in a cloud server happens either in the device that’s creating the data, or in a localized node nearby.

“Edge computing is about being able to use that data closer to the end customer for the purposes of better performance, better liability, and better security,” Omer says. “It enables new business models.”

Enabling the Future

Those business models all require ultra-low latency, even when vast amounts of data are in play.

A fleet of autonomous trucks, for example, can’t afford to have even the slightest delay when it comes to making calculations and decisions on the road. Edge computing would allow them to communicate with each other, as well as their surroundings, practically instantaneously, reducing the chance of accidents and collisions. “When I need whatever I’ve seen to be analyzed and be recognized as another car or a child crossing the street, if it’s going to take me half a second to recognize that object, even that’s too slow in machine-to-machine interactions,” Omer points out.

Those interactions would be at the heart of smart city infrastructure, another use case that would be driven by edge computing. From smart grids that can manage and regulate energy usage to reduce power consumption, to traffic systems that can adjust based on how many cars are on the road, truly smart cities would require huge amounts of data to be processed continuously and as efficiently as possible. Edge computing would eliminate the need to send all that data to a centralized cloud.

“What is critical about edge computing is that when you are able to bring that compute closer to the point of digital interaction, you’re able to deploy use cases that previously weren’t possible,” Omer says.

Improving the Now

Businesses that plan ahead for those futuristic use cases and how edge computing will affect their organization will be positioned to succeed in the long-term, Omer says. But there are also ways that edge computing could improve our world now.

“It’s important for businesses to realize that it’s not just next-gen, cool use cases, but it’s also some of the indignities that we’ve just learned to live with,” he says. “That slight lag in your video conferencing that makes you speak on top of the other person, that’s really just a tenth of a second—we can potentially take that away by hosting the app at the edge.”

The same goes for streaming content: edge computing would enable better, faster delivery of videos, and even video games. The latter requires ultra-low latency to be effective, and bringing servers closer to gamers could allow them to stream an array of video games the same way they do television shows today.

Soon, all these things will be expectations, not aspirations. As the infrastructure for edge computing continues to develop, the organizations that have already started investing in that architecture are going to be ahead of the curve. “It’s going to be the same advantage that any first-to-market company tends to have,” Omer says. “It’s like we broke down the cloud and put it in a million different places.”

The future of data isn’t necessarily going to be in the cloud. Data will be everywhere, which is why the processing that turns it into something useful should be everywhere, too. That’s the promise and potential of edge computing: It not only enables futuristic use cases, but we also makes the data already in our lives even more powerful.