Five Tips for Modernizing Edge IT for the Digital Era
The frontline of digital transformation is the edge—remote sites where the majority of employees work. These locations come in all shapes and sizes, including retail stores, regional sales offices, customer service centers, banks, manufacturing plants, warehouses—even government buildings and military installations. And while these sites may serve different functions, generally speaking, the edge is where a majority of business gets done.
Of course, the edge is home to more than just people. With the rise of the Internet of Things (IoT), businesses are placing an array of connected devices at the edge to make operations more efficient by crunching data in real-time, at the point where it is created. For example, think of sensors on an offshore oil rig that monitor extraction rates and can alert technicians to equipment that needs repair before it experiences performance issues or outages.
Efforts such as these are placing an increased focus on edge IT. While data centers or clouds have garnered most of the attention in years past, how well IT does at the edge moving forward will dictate business success. But to unlock the full potential of digital initiatives at the edge, IT must undergo a transformation.
Riverbed’s solutions were designed from the very beginning to support all kinds of business innovations at the edge. From our deep experience in this area, here are five tips for bringing edge IT into the modern era.
Tip 1: It’s time to think software-defined, not hardware-confined
Over the years, IT has deployed islands of servers and storage to host apps and data close to where employees or customers need to access them. The problem is that this aging infrastructure is far too time-consuming and costly to maintain. As companies seek to roll-out new apps across the edge in support of digital initiatives, this hardware-bound approach prevents IT from keeping pace with business needs for agility.
The cloud continues to make inroads at the edge to address these shortcomings. But while IT can add compute or storage in minutes from the cloud, it takes them weeks to reconfigure legacy, router-based networks. Moreover, some locations must contend with poor connectivity, including inadequate Wi-Fi coverage. As a result, edge networks negate the cloud’s efficiency.
The path forward is an edge IT strategy that is software-defined, not hardware-confined. One based on powerful, lightweight infrastructure—compute, storage, and networking capabilities in a single form factor that eliminates the burden of managing costly equipment from multiple vendors.
Carefully selected, such an approach brings a cloud-like experience to the edge: new apps and services can be centrally provisioned and deployed within a few minutes and a few mouse clicks, not by manually racking and stacking equipment or keying in thousands of command lines. The result is an architecture that delivers on the scalability and efficiency of the cloud to better enable digital initiatives—without complexity or compromise.
Tip 2: Think data at the center, performance at the edge
Performance requirements and user expectations that apps respond instantly force IT to keep certain workloads on-premises, rather than serving them from a data center or cloud. Factor in IoT and the need to act on data instantly, and the number of edge-hosted apps will grow.
But storing data at the edge is risky. These sites are susceptible to downtime and natural disasters, meaning data loss is a constant threat, and the projected growth of data in the digital age will further strain on-site protection schemes.
At the same time, most data still needs to be backed up to a secondary location for operational resiliency. But it’s often too cost- and time-prohibitive to send large volumes of data over bandwidth-constrained networks at the edge.
Selecting a software-defined platform with foundational intelligence specifically built-in to address these edge challenges gives you the best of both worlds: data can be centralized, but it is also instantly available anywhere, so user experiences aren’t impeded. Such solutions do this by projecting only the required data sets out to the edge, while a complete, up-to-date copy is kept in the data center or cloud, where robust security measures are in place. Employees and customers go about their business as if apps are still running locally, and data is 100% secure.
This method of application delivery also improves business continuity/disaster recovery plans. All backups are completed centrally, and any new data from the edge is instantly synced back to the primary storage location. This gives businesses more recovery points if data is lost—dramatically improving recovery time and recovery point objectives.
Tip 3: Do the heavy-lifting where the IT expertise is
Another shortcoming of today’s edge IT strategies is that many sites lack on-site technical resources. This means IT staff must be dispatched when new services need to be deployed or when issues arise.
These fly-and-fix missions are costly—not just from an OpEx perspective, but also because the delay in resolving issues can lead to excessive downtime. Meanwhile, waiting to get new services running creates missed opportunities for doing business. And this doesn’t account for the cost of having non-technical staff try to complete routine IT tasks, which distracts them from value-added business activities.
The good news: selecting the right type of software-defined approach can eliminate all of the time-wasters. By giving IT a centralized point of command, all heavy operations can be completed from a single location—not site-by-site. Standardizing procedures reduces administrative costs and, best yet, deploying new services is as simple as spinning up virtual machines (VMs) in the data center or cloud—bringing unrivaled velocity to the edge.
Tip 4: Audit now and forecast for later
Because edge locations vary by business function, it logically follows that their technology requirements differ, too. So before moving forward with modernization efforts, IT leaders should take stock of what infrastructure currently exists across the edge.
Start by determining what applications and services are running at each site, and how many users there are. Then account for how much compute, storage, and networking infrastructure is needed to support those apps and users, and gauge how vulnerable data is to theft or loss.
The second part of this audit is to forecast for future needs. How much projected growth will there be in terms of apps, data, and users per site? How many new sites might the business add in the next three to five years? During this forecast, be sure to account for future technology adoption, too. For instance, whether cloud or IoT usage will increase.
Completing this audit will help solidify the business case for modernizing edge IT by comparing the estimated total costs of ownership before and after the project. In addition, this “true-up” will accelerate planning by ensuring every site’s requirements are properly documented.
Tip 5: The price paid for not modernizing will far outweigh the project’s costs
While some reports indicate that IT budgets are slightly up, CIOs will still have to allocate those precious dollars across multiple initiatives. But given the criticality of the edge, IT modernization needs to be a top priority. In fact, the negative outcomes businesses will experience for not updating edge IT will far exceed the cost of doing so in the first place.
Simply put, brand reputations are at stake. For example, as large breaches continue to grab headlines, the cost of not properly securing data or complying with new regulations will mean lost business and heavy fines. Secondly, not being able to set up new services or sites on time will allow competitors to seize more opportunities and greater market share. In other words, the winners in the digital age will be leading-edge companies that think beyond upfront technology costs and focus instead on longer-term business outcomes.
Originally posted on Forbes.com.