It’s time to eliminate “edge” from our IT vocabulary • The registry

opinion What exactly is the edge? What Makes Something an Edge Device? These are trickier questions than you might think, and depending on who you ask — and frankly, what they’re trying to sell you — the answers can vary wildly.

Still, the edge is often talked about as if it were a place or a thing. It is not. At best, it’s a collection point for computing and networking equipment deployed outside of the confines of a data center.

Today, the term usually refers to computing resources that are in close proximity to a data source. The approach allows information to be processed closer to end-users, which has the benefit of improving round-trip latency and reducing the bandwidth that would otherwise be required to route it back to a central location. Because of this, edge computing is often cited as a key enabler for several emerging and established markets such as 5G, IoT, robotics, transportation, and manufacturing to name a few.

While it might seem like a fairly simple definition, things get complicated when you start using the term to describe devices or services.

What the heck is an edge appliance?

In a data center, operating conditions such as temperature, humidity, and air quality are carefully controlled according to industry standards. You don’t have to worry nearly as much about whether a device like a server or switch designed for one data center will work in another. But the same cannot be said about the edge.

Depending on where your data resides, the Edge can be anything from an industrial warehouse to a remote oil rig or a temperature-controlled closet in the back of a department store.

Modifiers have emerged over the years to describe what benefit a product or service is intended to provide. There’s Network Edge, Telco Edge, Near Edge, Far Edge, Industrial Edge, Datacenter Edge and the list goes on.

It certainly doesn’t help that marketing departments have a habit of trimming everything down anyway.

If you look at the websites of the major OEMs, you will find a few edge appliances ranging from full fat servers to industrial PCs designed for harsh operating environments. The problem is that a system designed for an edge data center looks and works completely differently than something designed for use in an industrial environment.

For example, a sports arena could deploy a rack of servers to transcode large volumes of streaming video on-site to save on bandwidth costs, rather than routing it back to a centralized data center first. While this is generally considered a near-edge application, it is unlikely to require any special equipment.

On the other hand, a system destined for a manufacturing facility must operate for weeks or months at temperatures above 85°C or in high humidity with minimal airflow and limited power. These are not conditions conducive to a typical server, and so a specific designation such as “rugged” or “industrial” is not only justified, but arguably a better description than the label “Edge Appliance.”

Customers buy gear to solve a problem, and having everything labeled the same only makes things more confusing and harder to find the right gear. There’s a reason we describe servers by their function—memory, compute, GPU, virtualization, etc.—rather than where they’re deployed.

The fringe is exaggerated

It’s not just confusing. It must be argued that edge as a term has become so ambiguous in the cloud age that it is irrelevant.

Edge as a definition made sense when the bulk of our computing power was locked away in at most a handful of centralized data centers around the world. Today that is no longer the case. Workloads can and will be deployed anywhere, whether in an on-premises data center, cloud region, colocation facility, as workers at Cloudflare or Akamai, or on a cluster of Intel NUCs at the back of a store.

We humans like to categorize and classify things. However, pointing to something and labeling it an edge device or location is about as revealing as describing an organism by its taxonomic kingdom. It may be an accurate description, but it’s not nearly specific enough to be of any use.

While the need to place computing resources closer to data or users isn’t going away anytime soon, it might be time to drop “edge” from our vocabulary in favor of something more specific. Time will tell what that will be. ® It’s time to eliminate “edge” from our IT vocabulary • The registry

Rick Schindler

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