This piece was originally published in the July 2018 issue of electroindustry.
Herb Villa, Senior Systems Consultant, Data Center Solutions, Rittal North America LLC
Mr. Villa has been involved in all aspects of data center and system design, installation, and operations for more than 20 years.
As the Internet of Things (IoT) continues to grow at an exponential rate, there is a greater need to make things easier, safer, closer, and—critically—more secure, especially in the supply chain.
As data centers and IT spaces in general get bigger and become more complex to support this growth, power consumption of hardware rises, heat density per footprint grows, and bandwidth and latency are stretched to the limit. Because of these factors, we are taking a new look at data centers and moving them—and all the data associated with them—from centralized spaces to the edge of the network. We call it edge computing, or simply “the Edge.”
Employing a distributed, open IT architecture based on decentralized processing power, the edge enables data to be processed by an IoT device itself or by a local computer or server, rather than being transmitted to a data center. The ability to compute, store, interconnect, and analyze data without involving a public cloud adds security and efficiency.
Why the Edge?
As we continue to demand more from online shopping, just-in-time inventory control, and instantaneous trackable shipping, companies supporting this global delivery network will find increasing benefits from moving their systems closer to the edge, i.e., from the warehouse to shipping hubs and even to their most valuable customers.
Edge computing allows data produced by IoT and related devices to be accessed and processed closer to where it is created instead of using faraway data centers. Historically, data centers were limited to Tier-1 cities such as New York, Chicago, London, and Tokyo. With cloud-based content now mainstream, it has become vital to move the internet’s edge closer to the user. Thus, data is local, instant, and everywhere.
An edge installation can take on many forms, depending on its exact function, level of complexity, and location. It can provide any number of services, such as becoming part of a power grid’s distribution infrastructure. It can also be in a remote location, supporting a series of cell towers, for example, or on an oil rig.
For the supply chain, edge installations are located in the middle of massive distribution centers and transportation hubs supporting land, sea, and air delivery.
They provide the bandwidth to support big data, on-premise applications and services, IoT connections, and storage. The requirements are the same as they would be for the traditional IT system, but, as the data becomes more complex with more equipment deployed in more nontraditional locations, there is a greater need to get it away from the traditional core locations and still keep it stable and safe.
Cautiously Moving Closer to the Edge
Moving to the edge brings data closer to the end user, supporting a range of next-generation devices and solutions and improving overall supply chain manageability and efficiency. However, before bringing your data to the edge, there are challenges that must be considered:
- Security. Security is the single most important challenge for any IT space. Since an edge deployment is intended to bring computing power closer to the end user, it’s often located in an area accessible by non-IT personnel. Protection—both physical and cyber—must be the first and foremost consideration for any IT deployment, especially at the edge.
- Latency and Bandwidth. While keeping data local, an edge deployment will also be a node on a larger network, whether cloud-based or in-house. Sufficient bandwidth capacity must be available to support connectivity back to home locations. Depending on the specific application, latency will also be critical to ensure any data is acted on in a timely manner.
- Power Distribution. As data technology evolves, so do the power capacities of edge systems. It is critical to maintain a 100 percent reliable supply of power to all IT components, regardless of installation location.
- Climate Control. With power comes heat. An edge system, though a smaller deployment fitting in unique locations, requires a climate control system with sufficient capacity to maintain a stable working environment, even in the most adverse conditions and unlikely installation locations.
- Redundancy. Edge deployments collect and process large amounts of critical data. As with latency, the appropriate level of redundancy will accelerate load times while eliminating downtime. An additional benefit of higher levels of redundancy is improved network resiliency and system availability.
- Growth. An ever-present challenge, technology is constantly evolving, getting smarter and faster. The edge needs to plan for and manage that growth, with tangible and cost-effective solutions.
Traditional Installation in a Nontraditional Space
Infrastructure and associated hardware must be considered for the edge deployment. This includes enclosures, climate control, power distribution, enhanced monitoring, and security, among other things, but scaled down to a single or limited number of footprints. All are installed without the luxury of a dedicated IT space.
Enclosures, in particular, must meet several criteria to be viable and solve the challenges of an edge data center. As the foundation of an edge installation, the enclosure must meet several unique and demanding installation criteria. These may include enhanced levels of environmental protection, protection against shock and vibration, and, of course, flexibility. Enclosures for IT and network technology need lockable doors and optional electronic locks to provide a log of any access attempt, authorized or not.
Power supplies for IT systems must be designed for the existing production environment. Power distribution hardware must ensure dependable power to active IT components and provide management and monitoring functions to deliver power reliably and effectively. With power comes heat and the need to select the correct climate control system. There is no room for error and the cost of downtime could be significant. Solutions range from ambient air to AC and liquid cooling systems supporting the low to medium installation densities typically found in edge deployments.
Over its lifetime, a typical IT enclosure will undergo a variety of changes and adjustments. In both design and accessories, each enclosure needs flexibility to manage modifications efficiently. This helps ensure the enclosure does not have to be taken out of service or replaced to accommodate new racks, cooling, or power solutions.
For the supply chain as well as just about every vertical market, technology is constantly changing and getting more sophisticated, moving from the legacy data center to the edge.
Before embarking on any new project, have conversations early and often, giving everyone the opportunity to discuss their concerns, offer advice on their areas of expertise, and develop a solution that is appropriate and suitable for everyone. This will support your business, your growth, and your customers—on the edge and beyond.