Getting Edge-y at OpenStack Summit – 5 ways it’s an easy concept with hard delivery

The 2018 Vancouver OpenStack Summit is very focused on IT infrastructure at the Edge. It’s a fitting topic considering the telcos’ embrace for the project; however, building the highly distributed, small footprint management needed for these environments is very different than OpenStack’s architectural priorities. There is a significant risk that the community’s bias towards it’s current code base (which still has work needed to service hyper-scale and enterprise data centers) will undermine progress in building suitable Edge IT solutions.

There are five significant ways that Edge is different than “traditional” datacenter.  We often discuss this on our L8istSh9y podcast and it’s time to summarize them in a blog post.

IT infrastructure at the Edge is different than “edge” in general. Edge is often used as a superset of Internet of Things (IoT), personal devices (phones) and other emerging smart devices. Our interest here is not the devices but the services that are the next hop back supporting data storage, processing, aggregation and sharing. To scale, these services need to move from homes to controlled environments in shared locations like 5G towers, POP and regional data centers.

Unlike built-to-purpose edge devices, the edge infrastructure will be built on generic commodity hardware.

Here are five key ways that managing IT infrastructure at the edge is distinct from anything we’ve built so far:

  • Highly Distributed – Even at hyper-scale, we’re used to building cloud platforms in terms of tens of data centers; however, edge infrastructure sites will number in the thousands and millions!  That’s distinct management sites, not servers or cores. Since the sites will not have homogeneous hardware specifications, the management of these sites requires zero-touch management that is vendor neutral, resilient and secure.  
  • Low Latency Applications – Latency is the reason why Edge needs to be highly distributed.  Edge applications like A/R, V/R, autonomous robotics and even voice controls interact with humans (and other apps) in ways that require microsecond response times.  This speed of light limitation means that we cannot rely on hyper-scale data centers to consolidate infrastructure; instead, we have to push that infrastructure into the latency range of the users and devices.
  • Decentralized Data – A lot of data comes from all of these interactive edge devices.  In our multi-vendor innovative market, data from each location could end up being sprayed all over the planet.  Shared edge infrastructure provides an opportunity to aggregate this data locally where it can be shared and (maybe?) controlled. This is a very hard technical and business problem to solve.  While it’s easy to inject blockchain as a possible solution, the actual requirements are still evolving.
  • Remote, In-Environment Infrastructure – To make matters even harder, the sites are not traditional raised floor data centers with 24×7 attendants: most will be small, remote and unstaffed sites that require a truck roll for services.  Imagine an IT shed at the base of a vacant lot cell tower behind rusted chain link fences guarded by angry squirrels and monitored by underfunded FCC regulators.
  • Multi-Tenant and Trusted – Edge infrastructure will be a multi-tenant environment because it’s simple economics driving as-a-Service style resource sharing. Unlike buy-on-credit-card public clouds, the participants in the edge will have deeper, trusted relationships with the service providers.  A high degree of trust is required because distributed application and data management must be coordinated between the Edge infrastructure manager and the application authors.  This level of integration requires a deeper trust and inspect than current public clouds require.

These are hard problems!  Solving them requires new thinking and tools that while cloud native in design, are not cloud tools.  We should not expect to lift-and-shift cloud patterns directly into edge because the requirements are fundamentally different.  This next wave of innovation requires building for an even more distributed and automated architecture.

I hope you’re as excited as we are about helping build infrastructure at the edge.  What do you think the challenges are? We’d like to hear from you!

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