The intelligent edge

Where data and technology converge at the edge of speed and intelligent efficiency.
By Tamsin Oxford
Johannesburg, 03 Jun 2020
Mandy Duncan, Aruba Networks South Africa.
Mandy Duncan, Aruba Networks South Africa.

Is your edge intelligent? Is it smart enough to wrap your data around its little finger and turn it into insights so delectable and relevant that your business is about to change the world of work forever? Or do you think it’s all just marketing hype to extend interest in IoT?

The intelligent edge is defined by the companies that sell it and the solutions that shape it. For HP Enterprise (HPE), the intelligent edge is the ‘analysis of data and the development of solutions at the site where the data is generated’. For Microsoft, it’s a ‘continually expanding set of connected systems and devices that gather and analyse data’. These systems or devices are close to the user, the data or both and they’re powered by cloud, artificial intelligence, hardware, software, applications and emergent technologies. The intelligent edge is the blend of compute with intelligence at the edge of the network with the goal of developing insights that deliver relevant business insights and solutions.

It is also, according to Forrester, becoming an increasingly important and relevant solution thanks to the myriad benefits it brings. The research company found that the edge gave the business the flexibility it needed to manage present and future AI requirements while avoiding network latency and achieving faster response times. The edge is about leveraging lower bandwidth and improved efficiency and data to get more, do more, and go further with less. It sounds complicated, but the benefits are simple. These are, like most compute solutions that hover on the very cusp of evolution, subject to change, but, for now, edge is about real-time engagements, speed that translates into data and analysis, industry-relevant solutions that can transform insight usage and business capabilities, and improved security solutions.

As a multi-vendor, multi-platform, technology-agnostic implementation, the edge has applications across multiple industries. It’s also seeing significant investment from companies like HPE, Microsoft and IBM – the current thought and innovation leaders in this segment.

The CEO of HPE, Antonio Neri, has said that the goal is to invest $4 billion over the next four years into edge computing, and the company has recently led a Series C investment of around $145 million into Pensando Systems. The latter is a startup led by the former CEO of Cisco, John Chambers. In 2019, Microsoft committed to a $5 billion investment into both the Internet of Things (IoT) and the intelligent edge and has a list of impressive edge clients that include Starbucks, BMW and Walmart already leveraging Azure and intelligence for competitive gain. In December 2019, Verizon and AWS revealed an edgy new partnership, with the former offering 5G network edge computing on AWS Wavelength.

The intelligent edge represents a dramatic overhaul in how companies understand, service and meet the needs of their customers.

Mandy Duncan, Aruba Networks South Africa

In the startup and disruptor space, there are numerous edge computing companies emerging alongside the capabilities of the technology. Mutable, Swim AI, Edge Gravity, Ori, Hangar and German Edge Cloud are among some of the companies introducing industry-specific solutions that manipulate edge and cloud to get intelligent results. The shifting sands of development and solution have also seen engagement across multiple industries. From the Starbucks and Walmarts investing in Microsoft intelligence and IoT, to Disney Studios collaborating with Cisco systems to tug on the threads of innovation for the future of consumer entertainment.The intelligent edge is steadily cementing itself as a powerful ally in the war for market share and company growth, allowing for deeper traction with customer and development and speedier control over data and the insights it has on offer.

Definitive intelligence on the edge

The what, the how and the why.

Brainstorm: What technology powers the intelligent edge?

Sven Blom, head of sales, Teraco: The edge is an opportunity for all technologies to improve performance and those that don’t will fail. Just like the speed of light is a physical restriction to how fast a network can perform, so too is the distance from the user a limitation on performance.

Rudeon Snell, senior director: Intelligent Enterprise Solutions, SAP EMEA: What I love about the notion of the intelligent edge is that it’s the glue you play with to aggregate data from multiple sources into a cohesive layer from which you can make even more informed business decisions. It’s not just about dealing with forward-facing integration of IoT, but also integrating data from legacy equipment and taking all that data into a layer of abstraction in the cloud, from which more informed business decisions can be made.

Matthew Crockett, principal and projects custodian, Synthesis: Public cloud and IoT devices are crucial to enable the models that will be used at the intelligent edge and to collect and operate on the data.

Mandy Duncan, country manager, Aruba Networks South Africa: The opportunity at the edge is driven by many things, including smart applications powered by artificial intelligence and machine learning, mobile devices, Internet of Things technologies, data analysis, next-generation WiFi, 5G communications, and edge-to-cloud computing.

Brainstorm: How will the intelligent edge benefit South African business?

JK Kanis, cloud and enterprise business group lead, Microsoft South Africa: Organisations such as hospitals, schools and other critical institutions that require always-on connectivity to serve the needs of the local community can literally do what before was not possible in remote environments or where there is unreliable connectivity. This includes providing access to medical records, keeping the lights on and other critical equipment running.

Keith Matthews, country manager, South Africa and sales director Sub-Saharan Africa, Orange Business Services: At present, enterprise network infrastructure concentrates largely on providing sufficient bandwidth to support remote applications, providing enough computing power in a remote cloud and unlimited storage. That will change, as data generation increases. There is also a need to use data in real-time to maximise it, so that means processing it immediately, at the edge.

Anthony Laing, GM: networking, NEC XON: The most practical solutions for South African businesses are not likely to be the ones that easily capture our imaginations such as self-flying cars or bipedal robots with finely tuned personalities that befriend and care for the elderly.More realistically, they’ll be simpler edge systems built on off-the-shelf technologies that are cheap and much easier for a far broader spectrum of people to use for daily challenges in their work.

Julian Thomas, principle consultant, PBT Group: Improving the connectivity between line of business solutions to enterprise data solutions will improve the connectedness of key stakeholders in the organisation in strategic decision-making. This will have a real impact on how well a large business is run.

Brainstorm: What is the single most important element in any discussion about the intelligent edge?

JK Kanis, Microsoft South Africa: It’s important to have a clear roadmap in terms of the business’ cloud strategy. This roadmap should not be limited to the organisation’s public cloud strategy, but should encompass its hybrid cloud strategy too as the reality is that most businesses are going to remain in a hybrid state for some time.

Mandy Duncan, Aruba Networks South Africa: The intelligent edge represents a dramatic overhaul in how companies understand, service and meet the needs of their customers and employees. It will be a world defined by dynamic, immediate and personalised services.

Matthew Crockett, SynthesisWe’ve known for a long time that there is much value in data, potentially far more than we thought a few years ago. Intelligent edge allows us to put this data to use, to help realise its full potential.

Anthony Laing, NEC XON: The ability to increase the processing power at the edge while simultaneously reducing energy demands and the reliance on always-on connectivity.

Sleeping inside the intelligent edge

A leading South African hotel leaps onto the edge to change how it manages people and proficiencies.

The intelligent edge is where data and technology collide, right on the very bleeding boundary of data creation and technology manipulation. It’s the space where technologies such as artificial intelligence, machine learning and the Internet of Things combine to create solutions that are capable of analysing data at speed. It’s where these analyses deliver insights that can be used by organisations in real-time to change engagement with customers and approaches to systems and platforms. A hotel based in Johannesburg’s northern suburbs made the bold move to the edge in a bid to change operating and energy efficiencies while transforming customer experiences.

“The solution formed part of the international group’s initiative to drive energy and carbon reduction goals across its global portfolio of hotels,” says Glenn Noome, director at Smart Integration. “The local rollout is the first such implementation in South Africa.”

The most practical solutions for South African businesses are not likely to be the ones that easily capture our imaginations.

Anthony Laing, NEC XON

The chain needed to uplift the guest experience while improving both operating and energy efficiencies. To achieve this, the hotel implemented a guest room management solution and building management solution (BMS) on a single platform that incorporated edge devices in every room. These were linked to a central BMS that relays relevant information to housekeeping, reception and maintenance services.

“These edge devices, known as Hotel Room Controllers (HRC), allow for the standalone operation of lighting and air-conditioning per room instead of a central solution,” says Noome. “These can be optimised depending on guest preference and occupancy to achieve improved energy efficiency. The HRCs also provide greater visibility around room occupancy details for housekeeping.

As the entire system is linked, the information also includes the duration of a guest’s stay, whether or not the room is rented or occupied, or where housekeeping is required to make up the room or adhere to a guest’s Do Not Disturb requirements. The BMS also integrates into the hotel’s property management system, which runs from reception to book in guests. This means that room information can be pulled through the different layers and systems to manage more accurate reporting and efficiencies.

“This single, integrated system incorporates lighting, heating, ventilation and air-conditioning, occupancy and guest requirements,” says Noome. “This means that the hotel can better manage its energy usage and staff as well as improve the guest experience.”

The technology used to create the edge-powered platform was the Schneider Electric EcoStruxture for hotels. The system has allowed for the hotel to create more than just guest experiences and improved operational efficiencies, and for an improved reporting structure that allows for ongoing system changes based on feedback and insights. This means that if specific areas are not working to peak efficiency or meeting guest requirements, then the system is capable of identifying them rapidly so that the hotel can change course or technology. The system has been used in global installations, but the Covid-19 crisis has meant that the local hotel hasn’t yet been able to put quantifiable measurements in place.

“The hotel’s global counterparts have recorded up to 15% energy savings across operations as well as improved visibility into energy consumption,” says Noome. “They have also centralised all their monitoring and control systems to create a more efficient and effective team.”

While not a flying car or any other dramatic example of the potential of the intelligent edge, this is a solid example of how using the technologies at the edge can make tangible changes to the business bottom line. It also demonstrates how flexible the edge can be across industry and use case and how it can potentially change the business and customer dialogue if implemented with the intelligence that its name defines.