By Simon Michie
How do businesses prepare for the next virus or major upheaval that disrupts supply chains and operations like the pandemic?
We saw how the sudden global eruption of the coronavirus forced businesses to facilitate remote working by millions of office workers and adjust to complete shutdowns of parts of the supply chain.
This abrupt shift in working patterns is here for the long term. A McKinsey global survey of senior executives in large corporations found that nine-in-ten intend on continuing with hybrid working beyond the pandemic. Perhaps half of all white-collar employees now work part of the time from home as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
Hybrid working has added hugely to IT infrastructure complexity. And that infrastructure is now under greater strain as organisations diversify supply chains to mitigate risk from further Covid lockdowns, bottlenecks in the shipping industry and the possibility of future pandemics and new viruses. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has also hugely disrupted supply lines for thousands of businesses, reminding everyone of how quickly major events unfold.
Supporting the use of SaaS
The move to hybrid working was rapid and only possible because of advanced Software-as-a-Service (SaaS) business applications and the adoption of collaboration tools such as Slack, Dropbox, Zapier and Trello. But all these applications depend on fast, high-bandwidth networks which are resilient, available, and secure. IT infrastructure must adapt to keep pace with application development and inject greater agility into the organisation.
The challenge for businesses is how to optimise SaaS, multi-cloud services and distributed applications and secure the vastly expanded networks that serve their hybrid workforces. This is necessary to make them more resilient and adaptable. In addition, businesses must be ready to embrace new technology-led models, such as Industry 4.0 and the rapid growth of the Internet of Things (IoT) as machines communicate intelligently with one another across 5G and superfast fibre. They must adopt artificial intelligence (AI) applications and maximise new patterns of software delivery.
The edge is the foundation of future resilience
All these dramatic developments have one thing in common – businesses can only fully optimise them through the adoption of the next major evolution of infrastructure – edge computing. Edge computing is the confluence of cloud and physical data, which exists wherever the digital and physical worlds intersect. It enables data to be collected, generated, and processed close to the end-user to create new value.
Whereas it would previously have been impossible to sustain high-speed data transfers necessary for applications using AI in many regions, edge data centres can now run analytics locally once models have been trained on masses of data in the public cloud.
Edge works in tandem with high-speed, high-capacity fibre and 5G mobile connectivity. Businesses need low latency and high-capacity connectivity to support multi-cloud strategies and hybrid working and to enable full deployment of advanced SaaS and security applications. Analysts at consulting organisation Gartner have found business collaboration solutions show reduced performance at latency above 25ms.
This all calls for edge since distance adds to latency. While the centralised cloud models of AWS and Azure and so on offer great computing advantages, organisations outside metropolitan areas will run into significant network latency problems. Industry 4.0 applications, need computing power as close to the devices generating and using the data as possible.
The advent of edge computing enables businesses to use and supply new applications and services from all over the world, significantly increasing diversification of supply and resilience. Vendors can orchestrate the network functions and computational infrastructure needed for secure delivery to their end consumers.
We can already see enterprise use cases supported by 5G-enabled edge computing. Remote monitoring and diagnostics in healthcare along with 3D medical imaging will be possible. In manufacturing, automated, short-run, high-precision customisation of high complexity will be possible in new locations. In port management and logistics, edge computing stands to deliver far higher levels of automation and efficiency across expansive campuses and entire supply chains.
This is taking shape already as the hyperscalers team up with communications service providers. In Italy, the port operator at Livorno is using a private Ericsson 5G New Radio (NR) network with sensors on forklift trucks, LIDAR, cameras, and mobile applications to streamline cargo handling operations using digital twin technology. Telefonica is also, collaborating with enterprise cellular 4G/5G platform Pente Networks, and last year, Telefonica Germany formed partnerships with AWS and Ericsson to enable fast integration of new applications and reduce costs.
These are localised set-ups, but for all enterprises, edge computing will deliver greater flexibility and agility, new models of business and vastly higher levels of performance. Established edge providers, with their networks of data centres, have tools that give customers the ability to manage all their cloud infrastructure from one platform. This is an important development in infrastructure optimisation for enterprise IT departments. Many increasingly see hybrid infrastructure as their best way forward, combining the cost, flexibility, and innovation of the major cloud vendors with retention of on-premise infrastructure for sensitive data or critical applications that are not cloud-compatible.
Improved network security
The edge also addresses many of the security concerns that have arisen from hybrid working. The extended attack surface that may include hundreds of poorly secured and unencrypted connections to employees’ homes, could offer criminals access to a corporate network.
Applying security policies to each remote worker can be complex and costly, and achieving visibility over applications is difficult. The edge, however, enables “application-aware networks” that allow businesses to understand and fix application problems much faster. SD-WAN technology (software-defined networking in a wide area network) is the cornerstone of this approach, giving visibility over applications so organisations control and direct traffic intelligently and securely from a central location. Businesses can configure multiple devices at the push of a button. Rolling out new applications becomes quicker and less costly across multiple sites.
The answer in a time of uncertainty
Edge computing takes cloud access and transforms it for the new age of uncertainty. It is how enterprises with hybrid work patterns and hybrid IT infrastructure will become more resilient and better able to adapt to what would once have seemed improbable events. It is a new approach that puts great power in the hands of businesses, enabling them to use new applications and AI to futureproof themselves against future changes and shocks while transforming their ability to change business models and generate new revenues.
About the Author
Responsible for enhancing and leading Pulsant’s technological vision and product strategy, Simon works closely with teams across the business to develop and standardise Pulsant’s infrastructure services portfolio and improve its service experience.
Simon has three decades of experience in the technology sector, starting out his career in sales. He then moved into a succession of technical and then managerial roles before co-founding Centric Networks. This ultimately led to a five-year tenure as CTO for Redcentric where he modernised the company’s network and cloud offerings.