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The Intelligent Edge: How Smart Solution Providers Are Creating New Services Blueprints

The edge is where the action is. The opportunity -- which incorporates networking, security, IoT, power, storage and emerging technologies like 5G -- has solution providers in prime position to find new target markets and create a services blueprint for the future.

It’s being hailed as the biggest opportunity since the cloud and as the fuel that will power the next wave of digital transformation. It’s also seen as the answer to the biggest IT riddle of today: how to collect, secure and process the explosion of data being generated at warp speed. Edge computing is the new IT frontier for the data decade ahead.

The opportunity—which incorporates networking, security, power, storage and emerging technologies such as 5G to capture, store and pluck insight from data—already has caught the attention of forward-thinking solution providers who are finding new customers and target markets and are creating a new services blueprint for the future.

“Everything happens at the edge. That’s where the next big opportunity lies,” said Rob Steele, chief technology officer at Sanford, Fla.-based solution provider Skyhive. “Instead of looking inside the data center, now we’re looking out to where people are functioning and where essentially all the action is. You can put edge solutions in the most crowded areas in the world to check for any COVID-19 instances, for example, or in remote areas where IT processing never could have been done before. … It’s all about capturing, storing, processing and using data in an intelligent way. The sky is the limit.”

One of Skyhive’s customers, a large retail chain, needed an IT refresh to accommodate new sensors and applications that were being implemented in 10 branch locations. The retail store was hoping to gather information and analytics on its customers to provide a better in-store experience and help boost sales. Skyhive deployed 10 different Dell Technologies PowerStore appliances at each branch location to meet all of the customer’s requirements, including a much smaller IT footprint.

“They’re gathering analytics based on how customers walk around the store, what they’re buying and how often,” said Steele. “The data gets crunched locally there and then only the important data is shipped up to home base. They were looking for certain kinds of redundancies, and they get that through the virtual infrastructure that’s running underneath PowerStore. It’s amazing to see how much horsepower and technology can fit into one edge appliance and how much more you can do with less.”

Skyhive was able to cut the retail store’s hardware and software costs by 40 percent, while at the same time quickly providing it with tangible business outcomes. The solution provider is now working with the retail chain on implementing a standardized uninterruptible power supply (UPS) environment followed by remote monitoring services. Skyhive isn’t alone in seeing the benefits of jumping into the burgeoning edge computing space. A recent survey by the IPED Consulting arm of The Channel Company, the parent of CRN, found that 75 percent of approximately 160 solution provider respondents said they consider intelligent edge computing to be an important or critical solution focus in the near future, and 24 percent said they are extensively invested in intelligent edge computing now (see p. 18).

The majority of respondents said they already have built up moderate to extensive skills around key intelligent edge technology segments such as Wi-Fi-networking (78 percent) and security (75 percent), while areas such as 5G (35 percent) are still ripe for development among most.

As solution providers build up their intelligent edge computing practices, there’s one thing they should be focused on, said Mark Williams, senior consultant for IPED: “Data, data, data, because people are tired of stuff, widgets. Give me something that’s useful.”

Finding something useful amid a blizzard of data is one of the key promises of the intelligent edge, and it couldn’t come at a better time.

This year, more than 59 zettabytes of data will be created, captured, copied and consumed across the globe, according to IDC. The research firm projects the amount of data created over the next three years will be more than the data created in total over the past 30 years.

Data-collecting sensors are being embedded in everything from manufacturing equipment to medical devices to cornfields. These pools of data, along with increasing amounts of metadata that describe and categorize that data, are growing aggressively. By 2024, IT research firm Gartner predicts that large enterprises will triple the amount of unstructured data stored as file or object storage at the edge compared with 2020.

With the influx of data, these edge devices are being treated as an extension of a data center or cloud. The data is driving businesses to rethink their IT strategies and leverage them to solve a business outcome or drive better operational efficiencies and productivity.

Solution Providers Step Up

Solution provider giant Presidio has invested in an Emerging Solutions division to tackle new markets, such as IoT, AIOps (artificial intelligence for IT operations), enterprise analytics and edge computing. The business unit is offering purpose-built solutions for industrial use cases, connected transportation, smart cities and school safety.

IoT requires edge computing because data is being collected and stored in new places, not just the public cloud or centralized data centers anymore. Now more than ever— especially because of the COVID-19 pandemic—users, apps and data are completely distributed, said Presidio Chief Technology Officer Vinu Thomas.

Since the onset of COVID-19, New York City-based Presidio has built solutions to create smart school buses equipped with wireless and 4G LTE connectivity. The buses have been bringing internet to low-income neighborhoods for students to access while they learn from home. Presidio also is working with its health-care customers on custom-built telehealth solutions for remote patient treatment since in-person appointments are still problematic and, for some patients, not possible.

“There are some real nice, bespoke solutions that we have built on the intelligent edge,” Thomas said. “Everything is accelerating to the edge in a post-COVID world. I think it’s going to continue, and there will be a lot of realization that we all need to invest in this stuff.”

Meanwhile, when an assembly plant in Rhode Island was forced to shut down amid the pandemic, it turned to Waltham, Mass.-based solution provider Aqueduct Technologies to save the day. The manufacturing facility received permission from the state to reopen, but needed to prove it could meet COVID-19-related safety mandates.

Aqueduct Technologies deployed Cisco Meraki cloudmanaged smart cameras to give the customer the ability to abide by the state’s reopening requirements, including continuous readouts of the number of individuals in a given space and the average per-square distance between employees.

“They needed cameras that were intelligent enough to be able to provide them that information,” said Manak Ahluwalia, president and CEO of Aqueduct Technologies. “So the APIs, the advanced analytics, motion search in these cameras and a small software add-on effectively allowed for them to open their manufacturing plant by harnessing data available at the edge to make that happen.”

Still, the edge is a challenge because customers have different requirements and governance they must abide by, making it difficult to create and replicate edge solutions, solution providers said.

“The stars have to align—you need to have a specific use case, make sure the customer has the budget for it, and then make sure there is a solution that actually fixes it. … This business is all about scale and the ability to replicate quickly,” Presidio’s Thomas said.

Taking a platform approach is one way that some solution providers are making money and seeing success at the edge.

Sayers, a Vernon Hills, Ill.-based IT consulting firm, is using a networking platform as a foundational layer on which to add compute, data and security services to address the edge, said Joel Grace, vice president of engineering and emerging technologies for Sayers.

The solution provider is working with Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company, to connect sensors via wired, wireless and Bluetooth technologies at the edge. From there, Sayers layers on Aruba’s security products, like secure network access control offering ClearPass, as well as AIOps and now, SD-WAN with Silver Peak, which HPE acquired in September. The combination gives customers a way to not only safely collect data, but process and make use of it, Grace said.

A longtime Sayers enterprise customer wanted employees to return to its office, but knew it had to do it safely by implementing contact tracing. Using existing Aruba networking infrastructure and adding analytics technology to the mix, Sayers was able to extract data that already was being collected to easily turn on contact tracing for the customer.

“What was amazing is we were able to use the network, which has visibility into the devices that are walking around the office every day and communicating to different access points, to do contact tracing for them. That was a big win for them,” Grace said.

The AI technology, said Grace, is key to analyzing and acting on the data that exists at the edge. “This is becoming a very common scenario, especially if you look at university campuses and public venues,” he said. “You can leverage existing technologies, layer some smarts on top of it and provide a real business impact.”

A $250 Billion Opportunity

The worldwide edge computing market is forecast to reach approximately $250 billion in 2024, with a compound annual growth rate of 12.5 percent over the next four years, according to IDC. Services, such as professional and provisioned services, will account for 46 percent of all edge spending by 2024, followed by hardware at 32 percent, and then edge-related software at 22 percent. With such a heavy emphasis on services at the edge, solution providers are capitalizing on net-new services and as-a-service opportunities.

Robert Keblusek, chief technology officer at Sentinel Technologies, a Downers Grove, Ill.-based solution provider, said there’s a new market opportunity for solution providers to provide “smart services at the local network” around data analytics, SD-WAN, application awareness and security.

“What you can do is run [virtual machines], you can run containers, you can run different services that make sense near the edge,” he said, adding that Sentinel’s top-notch DevOps teams are crucial for edge implementation and services. Intelligent edge solutions are also being used to future-proof an IT environment in a small footprint.

“It’s really modernizing that branch by giving it the local power to be able to provide things coming down the road. It lets companies say ‘yes’ more often than ‘no’ to new features and new capabilities,” Keblusek said. “If the security team says, ‘We need a new compute device,’ or ‘We need to buy a server and put it there,’ now they can say: ‘Well, why don’t we leverage the intelligent edge that we put into place? Let’s just make this a function off this single device,’ which gives you better operational costs, better synergies. It essentially packages up what a branch looks like all in one unit.”

Thanks to technology consolidation, such as a hyperconverged infrastructure, and more powerful software and IP, Keblusek said partners can now offer a “branch in a box” with a small footprint at the edge packed with intelligence. “You can have intelligence, security, secure networking, intrusion prevention, highly capable processors to process things like AI or [machine learning]—you can run all those things on a single platform now,” he said.

For example, Sentinel has been deploying Cisco’s Enterprise Network Compute System (ENCS) appliance to create an intelligent edge for customers across the country. Cisco ENCS is a software-defined branch network architecture that can provide network functions virtualization, SD-WAN, compute, storage, security as well as zero-touch automation deployment and management. “The power and the footprint is small enough where everything can be localized,” Keblusek said.

Nearly every vendor across the IT landscape has been creating technology in recent years to enable an intelligent edge—from chipmakers like AMD and Intel creating custom-built processors for rapid IoT data transfer at the edge and support of AI workloads, to power management players like APC by Schneider Electric, Eaton and Vertiv, which have crafted edge-specific UPSes and intelligent power management with monitoring, remote control capabilities and automated responses. Infrastructure leaders including Dell Technologies and HPE, meanwhile, are injecting AI and machine-learning functions into their platforms to better analyze data in real time and adapt to network traffic patterns to increase speed, agility and improve uptime and performance at the edge, while distributors like Tech Data are helping pull it all together.

With hardware sales expected to capture approximately one-third of the edge market by 2024, Eaton expects the edge to revitalize the hardware market.

“As we’ve seen over the last few years, a lot of data centers moved to the cloud, which has reduced the opportunities to sell our products on compute inside the data center,” said Hervé Tardy, vice president and general manager of Eaton’s Distributed Power Infrastructure Division. “So, the edge computing trend is creating a brand-new opportunity because all these compute systems that can be anywhere will require specific infrastructure to operate properly, be it in terms of enclosures, power distribution or power protection.”

Tardy expects a huge services play for channel partners around the remote management and monitoring of edge devices. Partners will reduce customer costs and increase stickiness by providing remote location services to customers’ edge facilities. “When people figure out the cost of rolling a truck to a distant location in the middle of nowhere, they quickly understand that they need to overinvest in technology and hardware up front to enable its remote management capabilities,” he said, adding that AI-enabled UPS solutions will likely boost margins for Eaton partners.

The Edge Is The New Cloud

As the data economy becomes the new currency of the IT world, edge computing is the technology enabler. Products and services at the edge will power the next wave of digital transformation as organizations are poised to leverage data analytics at the edge to improve business agility and create new customer experiences. This is why experts are calling the edge the new cloud.’

“The opportunity at the edge is exactly like the cloud,” said Shekar Ayyar, executive vice president and general manager for VMware’s Telco and Edge Cloud business. “The cloud created an immense amount of opportunity, but it was all about remote computing, taking things to the cloud and it gets computed somewhere. The edge is literally closer to home. We now have a much better way to create, deliver and consume services from the edge. We look at the edge as a massive growth opportunity for VMware and our partners as customers start to build and consume more and more applications and data that will all be delivered from the edge.”

The edge creates a distributed IT architecture that’s proven to lower latency, improve proximity computing, and increase agility and security at a local level—providing the ability to solve some of the most complicated data challenges companies face today. Ayyar said edge computing and data collection will enable businesses to truly leverage “the richness of vast amounts of data” by having distributed locations working together to analyze data more efficiently than ever before.

“This is how you can look at the data problem everyone has and you can say the edge makes it a lot easier and more diverse in the sense of deconstructing the data problem and then solving it using edge computing,” said Ayyar. “The richness of data is going to essentially become orders of magnitude richer because you’re going to have all these distributed points collecting data, and the complexity of problems you can solve with edge computing is also going to become orders of magnitude higher. … The opportunity is going to increase immensely.”

SD-WAN And Security At The Edge

Gartner sees SD-WAN operating as the main WAN edge function in customer networks going forward, predicting the edge SD-WAN market will grow at a compound annual growth rate of 18 percent over the next four years.

MSP Apcela specializes in software-defined networking and application delivery solutions to help customers digitally transform. Embedded into its offerings are managed security, SD-WAN and secure access service edge, or SASE, which is helping enterprises tap into hybrid cloud and distribute their networking and security closer to their users without having to make significant infrastructure purchases, said Travis Shank, vice president and head of enterprise solutions for Reston, Va.-based Apcela.

Today, Apcela works closely with SD-WAN-turned-SASE startup Versa Networks, Cisco’s SD-WAN powered by Viptela offering and Meraki SD-WAN offering, and VMware’s VeloCloud to offer a converged networking and security solution at the edge.

“Our bread and butter is really on the core networking side of digital transformation. … Over the past year or two, though, there’s been increased demand from customers for edge compute,” Shank said.

The COVID-19 pandemic has accelerated the cloud transformation journey for some of Apcela’s larger enterprise customers, said Kunal Thakkar, director of solutions engineering for Apcela. “What that translated to [for] us was more services closer to the edge in terms of network, security and SD-WAN, and more private cloud on-ramps,” he said.

By 2024, over 60 percent of SD-WAN customers will have deployed a SASE architecture, compared with about 35 percent in 2020, according to Gartner. SASE is causing customers to think about their IT infrastructures much more holistically, Thakkar said.

“Customers aren’t asking for SD-WAN to solve their connectivity problems. They’re thinking much broader— they’re thinking about security and compute at the edge,” Shank said. “We’ve always thought that distributing security out to the edge and incorporating SD-WAN into it makes a ton of sense, and it’s where enterprises need to go. It’s this exponential growth in all things edge.”

Solution provider DataVizion has been focused on securing digital transformation for years. Over the past eight months, that’s translated to equipping more of its customers with remote access solutions to ready them to work from anywhere, said Kelly Schrad, president and CEO of DataVizion.

“We’ve had some success over the years deploying the remote access solution for certain customers, but it went from ‘nice to have’ to ‘need to have’ pretty quickly,” Schrad said. “It’s resonated with people because they’ve been able to [work remotely] with the same security solutions they’ve deployed at the corporate office—the edge has been extended into people’s homes.”

Lincoln, Neb.-based DataVizion has built an ecosystem around Aruba’s ClearPass platform to secure the edge, which includes offerings from Palo Alto Networks, Fortinet and other third-party mobile device management vendors. The pandemic, said Schrad, is making many businesses realize that certain roles can be very effective remotely on a more permanent basis.

“It’s not so much about the virus anymore. It’s about, do [businesses] want to continue the move to a digital workplace?” he said. “We’ll be helping our customers adapt and further develop their security policies to make sure their data is protected no matter where it is.”

Skyhive’s Steele said the emerging opportunities at the edge around advanced data analysis and remote services appear to be endless. This seismic industry shift from the data center to the edge is changing the go-to-market strategy for many solution providers who want to skate to where the puck is going to be.

“We used to typically start in the data center, but now it seems like we’re starting from the edge and then looking back into how we can make the data center more efficient—that’s a significant change in IT,” said Steele. “It’s all about storing data in an intelligent way and parsing and crunching that data with intelligent automation or AI at the edge to provide some type of business outcome. We’re now living on the edge.”

JENNIFER FOLLETT contributed to this story.

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