Edge computing has become a much talked-about element of federal IT infrastructures in recent years. But what is edge computing?
For one thing, the word means much more than a small data center somewhere out there. In fact, many interrelated elements make up edge computing, said Kelsey Monaghan, lead of federal strategic programs and partnerships for cloud and edge at Dell Technologies.
She described edge as a continuum “defined as edge to core to cloud” and made of several tiers. Sensors and internet of things devices define the outermost edge, along with so-called operational technology, such as industrial control systems. The next tier might consist of computers aggregating data acquired by those sensors as well as processing and analyzing data locally.
But discussions of edge architecture must also include the telecommunications links that connect edge facilities to an agency’s data centers or to the cloud, Monaghan said during Federal News Network’s Industry Exchange Data.
As agencies seek to reduce application latency, they might also want to consider what Monaghan called the cloud edge. The cloud edge consists of computers architected to replicate commercial cloud service providers (CSPs) but operating in a compact form factor close to users geographically — perhaps in austere wartime or post-disaster environments.
Edge use varies based on mission demands
Monaghan said applications of edge computing vary as widely as the missions of the agencies using edge.
For example, “we’re seeing enormous collaboration and investment in the health care space,” Monaghan said, as health-related agencies develop new delivery models such as telehealth. Across the government, “we’re also seeing research really drive that bidirectional, edge-to-cloud discussion, as we look at normalizing data from the edge into those aggregation points,” she said.
Needs at the edge are spurring federal agencies to collaborate on the design, building and configuration of edge computers. Partners include both original equipment manufacturers and cloud service providers, who provide colocation. Agencies can benefit from a “design once, build repeatedly” model, Monaghan said.
“In an industry partnership, those repeatable partnerships can provide time to value in those systems of systems,” she said. For example, Dell is working with the Defense Department for federated learning environments that follow the edge-core-cloud continuum model.
The edge devices are “customized to have the space, weight, power and ruggedizing requirements that the DoD demands,” she said. The devices, which have a variety of specific form factors, tie into CSPs through the telecommunication tier of the edge model.
Edge computing requires stability and agility
Building hardware and installing it on military platforms or moving it around in vehicles might appear antithetical to the cloud proposition that agencies get out of the capital expenditure model and the need to refresh hardware every three or five years.
But Monaghan said that in edge situations, stability of hardware and configurations can be a virtue.
“There’s also some value in remaining constant at the edge,” she said. “Some of the edges that we see within the federal space today don’t have the same benefit from constant lifecycle updates. There are certain challenges, in the satellite community as an example, where we prefer consistency as opposed to constant updates.”
Monaghan said a critical element is security. She said Dell and others in the IT industry are focusing intently on this issue, “not only as a zero trust approach but also securing the edge and governing right to the edges.”
She added, “Physical security continues to be top of mind for the mission space, as does data sovereignty. Both of those can be supported through an edge-by-design or a cloud-by-design approach, keeping those constraints or those requirements in mind.”
As with any IT investment, agencies should approach edge computing with the mission in mind and armed with solid requirements, Monaghan said. “Having that scope in mind, or that breadth in mind, really can allow you to leverage the ecosystem of your partners more effectively.”
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