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Cutting edge: IT's guide to edge data centers

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Concerns about quality, IoT devices to push edge computing

The increasing expectation for high quality content and the growth of IoT will be helped as edge computing brings nodes closer to end users.

The online shopper looking for a perfect homemade gift basket or summer-themed placemats may turn to Etsy, an online...

retailer that uses edge computing to increase the performance and resiliency of its services.

Companies like Etsy, Inc., are moving to the edge to improve their users' experience, said Sophia Vargas, an analyst with Forrester Research, Inc. in Cambridge, Mass.

Many applications in the enterprise are back office apps where latency may not be a significant issue, but customer-facing apps are often latency sensitive, she said.

"On the other end, if I'm thinking about my customers, having all my infrastructure in Ohio may not be the best for folks in London," Vargas said.

Edge computing is the idea that smaller data centers located close to end-user populations can improve speed and performance.

The move to the edge is less about opening data centers in rural areas such as Bristol, S.D. (population 341) or Moscow, Maine (population 512), and more about moving to Tier 2 cities.

"NFL cities may be satisfactory for a lot of Web operators," said John Scanlon, CEO of 365 Data Centers, referring to some of the largest metro areas in the United States. 365 is a company that operates data centers on the edge in Tier 2 cities.

The Internet of Things (IoT) will increase the need for more data centers on the edge, but the focus is currently on the next 20 cities. Within 10 years, Scanlon predicts, "the edge" will mean 100-150 cities with a "rich cache" of data.

"Frequency and quality -- that is why you would want to move to the edge," Scanlon said.

Serving local customers from Miami or Atlanta is cheaper than, say, Ashburn, Va. Moving data to Miami once, for example, has no incremental cost after the move, making it a capital expense and not an operational expense for an enterprise.

Etsy stitches together a global data center fabric

For customers of Etsy -- an online retailer that lets craftspeople sell their handmade or vintage items direct -- serving all buyers from a central data center is great for users who live close to an Etsy data center, "however, it becomes less great the further away you get," said Jason Wong, senior engineering director for infrastructure at Etsy.

One major roadblock to a great experience for all Etsy shoppers is the increased cost of deploying new data centers.

"We don't wish to take on the cost of replicating our data center footprint across the globe," he said, and instead the company seeks to put small collections of servers -- or "pods" -- around the globe.

"Doing this will result in faster transmission of data packets and page load times," Wong said. "In addition, storing certain pieces of data at those pods will eliminate our reliance on always having to communicate with our primary data center."

It also helps build Etsy's resilience, he said.

The push to the edge has three steps, with step one being data center density in "NFL cities," driven by "proximity to the people who own the data centers," according to Matt Miszewski, senior vice president at Digital Realty Trust Inc., a San Francisco-based colocation and data center provider. He was also CIO for Wisconsin Gov. Jim Doyle and served as a general manager at Microsoft Corp.

Frequency and quality -- that is why you would want to move to the edge.
John ScanlonCEO of 365 Data Centers

Step two is a move into Tier 2 cities and step three is the "final frontier," with a highly distributed network of devices -- "ubiquitous computing" -- where a network deployed anywhere can be connected to a data center.

Right now, the move to edge computing is at step 1.8, Miszewski said.

The continued move to the edge will consist of a split between networking and data center improvements, he said. Miszewski also expects a fragmented data center industry in Tier 2 cities to consolidate.

"It will be interesting to see who deploys capital for stage 3," he said.

To take full advantage of edge computing, there is still a need for more cooperation between data center operators and network providers and a better management layer for the IoT in Tier 2 cities, Miszewski said. For example, 1,000 IoT devices need to work together as one unit before reporting back to the data center. Right now, that's something that has the focus of research and development departments at major companies and investors.

The IoT will require significant capital expense and a different way to go to market on the edge, Miszewski said.

There are two major options -- either an agile deployment where a shell is built for the multiple needs of clients or a "more radical" option where a small data center-in-a-box provides a lights out platform.

Micro data centers sent to the edge

The greatest challenges for Etsy's move to edge computing are choosing locations to place pods and finding data centers in those locations that align with the company's values, Wong said.

After that, Etsy will buy servers and configure them for software deployments and communicating with the company's main data centers before it gradually turns up traffic on each pod.

Demand for compute power at the edge has also led Schneider Electric to release a new line of single enclosure micro data center products that include power, cooling and management software in a self-contained environment.

The data center may be built off-site by Schneider partners or on-site with a configuration by the customer. Once up and running, the SmartBunker FX line includes its own cooling while the CX and SX line of micro data centers relies on the building cooling system. SX is designed for IT rooms, CX is for office environments and FX is for any setting. The SmartShelter is a multi-rack, ruggedized system.

The new micro data centers, which range in size from half a rack to 10 racks, are priced between $2.50 per watt to $5 per watt.

Smartbunker FX, SX and CX range from 3kW to 8kW and the SmartShelter can go up to 100kW. That would mean pricing from $7,500 to $40,000 for the SmartBunker line and up to $500,000 for a Smartshelter.

"They don't have to have someone who is familiar with the IT equipment on site," said Steve Carlini, senior director of Data Center Global Solutions at Schneider.

Robert Gates covers data centers, data center strategies, server technologies, converged and hyperconverged infrastructure and open source operating systems for SearchDataCenter. Follow him @RBGatesTT.

Essential Guide

Cutting edge: IT's guide to edge data centers

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