13 Sep 2022

Taking innovation from precarious place to competitive edge | NTT Ltd

Author: Stephen Green, SVP Offer to Client Transformation, NTT Ltd.

Edgy, close to the edge, on the edge of our seat – phrases like this make the edge sound a precarious place to be. Yet in today’s organisations, this is exactly where a significant and growing proportion of demand for computing power, data analysis and decision-making sits. So much so that edge computing cannot afford to be precarious.

Edge computing is not new. Industries such as Manufacturing and Distribution were among the first to create more distributed networks. With a focus on availability, relieving bandwidth pressure and decreasing latency for factory floors and warehouses, these networks increased the speed of data access and analysis from a host of smart sensors, mobile and IoT devices.

This fundamental shift away from a traditional hub and spoke infrastructure for faster, localised decision making is now applied to many edge device use cases – from hospital doctors monitoring patients’ vital signs on the move, to branch and mobile banking services, to auditing refrigeration sensors in supermarkets. In some areas such as smart city design, delivering innovation depends on the agile, digital connectivity of an edge infrastructure.

A fundamental shift away from a traditional hub and spoke infrastructure towards faster, localised decision making

This opportunity to leapfrog the potential constraints of legacy architecture, combined with the changes to working practices post pandemic, have sparked new conversations about edge computing – encouraging bold rethinking of where and how technology can deliver the best outcomes. So, what are the technology innovations supporting the demand for edge computing?

The need for speed at the edge is being supported by advances in cost-effective, richer capability sensors that are reducing data loads and offering as close to real-time information and reporting as is necessary. We have also seen clients take the decision to replace sensors with 4K cameras to deliver richer experiences. Developments in image analysis, combined with artificial intelligence, not only make hardware easier to manage, but also offer the potential to observe hundreds of places at the same time, zoom in at sub-millimetre scale, even see in the dark.

For some organisations, 5G has been key to achieving new levels of high-speed operational performance and delivering the continuous availability required to the increased number of devices connected to the network from the edge. Many clients are using private 5G in conjunction with multicloud to implement virtual networks (network slicing), initiate subnets for targeted connectivity as well as create a programmable network which prioritises connections to avoid possible overloads of the mobile network.

With all this new capability at the edge, imagination becomes the only constraint to innovation, as we have seen in the BMW Group Innovation Hub at their plant in Dingolfing, Germany. A collaboration between NTT, BMW and Intel Corporation, this centre of edge excellence is a place where ideas can become production reality and employees can learn new skills.

With all this new capability at the edge, imagination becomes the only constraint to innovation

Despite its growth however, edge computing skills remain hard to find. Edge specialists need the technical expertise to architect new infrastructure but just as importantly, the ability to define specific outcomes and the experience to anticipate and manage any disruption of this significant social and technological shift. Edge will undoubtedly drive a technology spike and there is a risk that demand will outstrip the supply of specialists to advise, implement and secure solutions.

As cyber threats continue to grow, organisations understand that any digital transformation that relies on uninterrupted access must be secure by design. Unsurprisingly, this means that any move to the edge demands new thinking in terms of security and resilience.

Any move to the edge demands new thinking in terms of security and resilience.

The transition from a centralised to a decentralised edge model is forcing organisations to adapt to the security challenges of a broader potential attack surface. Edge requires new levels of agility in applying and enforcing security policy, no matter where a user is located – offering adaptive access and authentication processes. As edge gathers momentum, security and network specialists are collaborating on how to apply principles of zero trust and least permissions by bringing network and security decision making together to avoid increasing complexity. Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) is evolving to enable a single point for centralised network management while providing the right bandwidth provision for every user, device, and application, often by converging security functions into an efficient as-a-service model.

Just as decentralisation is evoking new approaches to security, organisations are also exploring how to balance the opportunities and risks of data at scale from the cloud to the edge. Accepting that while moving away from the traditional data centre hub and spoke model there will still be a role for the data centre. Making the right decisions about the balance of data centre and cloud usage as the edge matures, will require a deep knowledge of the market and the available options to make the right choices first time. And more data will inevitably mean the need for greater processing power as well as speed, just at a time when this commodity is being seen as a business risk.

Sustainability therefore must also be a consideration for edge deployment – not only in the continuing greening of data centres, but in terms of hardware innovation if we have any hope of reaching our climate goals. As part of our sustainability programmes, NTT along with its partners are investing in the use of photonics beyond replacing optical cables in telecommunications – investigating ways in which photons will run right into a microchip without conversion. As light (photons) travels faster than electricity, speed is one benefit. But this innovation also offers greater energy efficiency, as photons do not waste energy heating components.

Greater speed and scale without increasing energy consumption could offer a paradigm shift in computing.

The rise of edge-native applications via a multicloud, hybrid environment allows organisations to deploy new functionality quickly and efficiently – accelerating the modernisation of legacy IT or even leaving outdated infrastructure behind. Users are finding new opportunities to drive business value with faster, totally relevant, real-time data. Investing in edge infrastructure will soon be at the heart of a successful business. The question most organisations will now be asking is how to design and implement it correctly so that rather than feeling precarious, they create a clear, sustainable competitive edge.

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Stephen Green

Stephen Green

SVP Offer to Client Transformation, NTT Ltd.

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