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Zac Smith

The Enterprise and the Edge

By Postcards from the Edge


By Zac Smith 

CEO and Co-founder, Packet

If you asked 100 network engineers where the “edge” of today’s internet lives, I bet a fair number of them would point you to a map of Equinix’s IBX sites. Gravity defines public networks like the internet, and Equinix (along with regional players like Interxion) have built up a portfolio of sites where most of today’s networks physically connect.

Now the shape of the internet is starting to change. 5G wireless deployments, coupled with moves by hyperscalers, eyeball networks, content delivery networks, and new kinds of connectivity (CBRS! balloons! satellites!) promise that whatever the internet looks like in 10 years, it will be different from the one we know today.

Consider the first types deployments that make sense to move beyond the current shape of the internet, such as specialty applications including industrial IoT, network security, and 4G/5G wireless.

These workloads are nothing new, but their value increases exponentially as the data from our connected world explodes. While many use cases don’t yet make sense at the edge, it absolutely makes sense for these large-scale and consolidated applications.  

These first edge uses cases have a few things in common:

  1. How it works only matters to “me” (or a few players that look like me), but my way is special;
  2. It’s extremely important / critical / fundamental to the success of my business;
  3. I’m willing to spend a lot of money to make it happen.   

Sounds a lot like a well-heeled enterprise buyer to me!

What Does This Mean for Edge Computing?

If this fast-emerging edge is the domain of an expanding group of large enterprise use cases, it stands to reason that it will be some time before we have an edge computing ecosystem that looks or feels like today’s centralized cloud: infinitely scalable at incremental cost, instantly. In fact, I would argue that we may never get there.

There is no doubt that the edge will be driven by the DevOps-style experience that has evolved along with the cloud: automation will definitely rule the roost. But will the Edge be powered by pre-deployed infrastructure, configured to meet the demands of a wide variety of use cases and accessible with the swipe of a card and $100 in free testing credits? Will resources be priced by the hour or minute, with significant burst capacity?   My guess is: no!

Sure, we will see (and are seeing already) a number of amazing platforms that are extending the cloud experience to the edge. But until the traffic gravity of the broader internet moves beyond its current shape, we are going to see bespoke deployments dominate.  

Take Carriers, For Example

Wireless carriers are in many ways the archetypal enterprise. As they pump billions of dollars into the next generation of their wireless networks, we are seeing vastly different implementations. From the number of locations and type of infrastructure to the approaches around software or spectrum — it’s all pretty different. The only shared aspect may be the real estate (e.g. towers, fiber, and small cells). In short, each is trying to obtain a competitive advantage while spending only on the aspects that are unique to them — and sharing whatever else can be shared.

Why would we expect any other large scale use case to behave any differently?  Granted, automotive mobility and medical aren’t deploying with the same unified technology refresh undercurrent that is driving 5G wireless investments, but the premise is the same. If the market opportunity is big enough, then the implementations are likely to be consolidated to a few players and bespoke. It’s quite a contradiction, but it makes sense: if you are willing to spend a premium to deploy a market-leading tech substrate, you’d probably want to have it your way, right?

The Edge Opportunity is Real

With 5G deployments accelerating, the hybrid cloud market booming, and a compelling ecosystem of innovators making the technological promise of the edge a reality, I’m actually quite bullish that this year we’ll see the first iteration of a truly viable edge computing market. The big players in real estate and connectivity are making moves at the edge; a fast maturing cloud native and edge native software ecosystem is eating away at the complexity of deploying in dozens or hundreds of places; and the big hyperscalers are pushing rapidly to the edge.

As an industry and ecosystem, however, we can expect some twists and turns.  Enterprises don’t always get it right at first. But if we listen and iterate, we are likely to change the shape of the internet.  And just like with previous waves of innovation, new use cases will be unleashed that we cannot even dream of today.

Packet is a NYC-based bare metal cloud provider that empowers developer-driven companies to deploy physical infrastructure at global scale