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What is edge computing, and why does it matter to you?

Satya Nadella
Satya Nadella (Image credit: Windows Central)

The words "intelligent edge" or "edge computing" sound, well, cutting-edge and may evoke a feeling of pushing the technological envelope even for those who don't know what the terms mean. At the core of edge computing is connectivity to the cloud versus computing from an unconnected PC, as was common twenty or more years ago.

The concept itself is not all that new, but advances in the cloud, PC and mobile processors, artificial intelligence (A.I.) and LTE and 5G cellular networks are pushing the boundaries of connected computing into new territory. With the advent and proliferation of internet of things (IoT) devices, connected augmented (AR) and virtual reality (VR) experiences, wearable tech, smart homes, connected cars, smart speakers, smartphones, A.I., always connected PCs, and more edge computing is both pervasive and far-reaching.

This diversity of connected devices is bringing creative innovation and even greater potential to the always-connected nature of the edge. Still, what exactly is the intelligent edge and what does it mean for you?

What is the intelligent edge or edge computing?

To understand the intelligent edge we must first understand, at least in basic terms, the intelligent cloud; because the intelligent edge is a component of, or "the edge" of the intelligent cloud. When most people think of the cloud they visualize an abstract, perhaps ephemeral place beyond their devices where their pictures and documents go, where complex data processing occurs or where multiplayer game streaming experiences happen.

Most people probably don't visualize the actual physical reality of thousands of acres of data centers, miles away, that host thousands of servers that contain their pictures and documents, power their games and processes massive amounts of data that is streamed back to connected business and personal devices. Simply put, the cloud is comprised of physical computer hardware that is connected to tangible cellular networks that connect to enterprise or personal devices closest to the user – or the intelligent edge.

The intelligent edge are the connected devices closest to users.

The intelligent edge represents those devices from factory floor equipment to fitness trackers or smartphones and more that connect to the cloud but are closest to and directly interacted with by users. Some benefits of the edge include the computational power of the cloud being brought down to smaller devices with which users interact. Advances in network LTE and 5G technology reduces latency allowing cloud data to reach edge devices faster. Additionally, some cloud tasks can be moved to and managed on edge devices.

The increased computational power of edge devices also improves the abilities of A.I. on the edge. A.I. capacity to learn users and act proactively are among some of the advances edge computing brings to A.I. For example, Microsoft partnered with DJI and eSmart Systems to use drones, A.I. and Azure IoT Edge to bring the power of edge computing to maintaining the power grid and other equipment. These implementations of edge computing did in hours what it would have taken humans years to accomplish.

Microsoft, Qualcomm, Intel and PC makers building the edge

The intelligent edge requires a robust infrastructure and multiple industries for it to both exist and succeed. Companies like Microsoft and Amazon that build massive data centers - the cloud – to store, process and stream data are fundamental to connected computing.

Companies like Qualcomm, whose technology is foundational to the current cellular ecosystem, are required to develop the cellular technologies that comprise the connectivity infrastructure that connects the cloud to everything else. Qualcomm, Intel, and others are also responsible for building the processers, particularly mobile processors, that connect hardware to the cellular networks.

PC, smartphone and other hardware OEMs are essential to creating those "front-end" devices, whether business or personal, that house these processors that connect to the networks that connect to the cloud - or data centers.

Microsoft's, Qualcomm's and other's goal is to create an always-on, always-connected-to-the-edge reality. Some people welcome this, others are reluctant to accept it or don't see value in it.

A connected world, for digital natives (not you)

Those of us in our forties and older remember a world that was not connected. Nearly thirty years ago connecting our devices to the internet required plugging a physical wire into a phone jack and dialing-up a connection with the accompanying familiar crack and fizzle sound. When we were done with what we were doing, we disconnected.

Eventually, cell phones, the non-smart variety, provided us with an almost constantly connected reality with a rudimentary browser experience. Wi-Fi, smartphones and mobile broadband eventually engulfed us in an always-connected web of social media, apps and the mobile web through our smartphones. This is the world digital natives, the younger generation, are growing up in, and for whom constant connectivity is the norm.

It is at the intersection of these two generations that Microsoft and others are pushing an always-connected-to-the-edge computing vision. Those who buck against the value of always-connected PCs are likely those who grew up in a "disconnected" world. Microsoft's, Qualcomm's, Intel's and others ACPC and edge computing strategy is forward-looking and designed to appeal to digital natives for whom constant connectivity is not only the norm but an expectation.

Change is inevitable

For the old guard, those of us forty and over, this always connected world is a "new" reality. We recall a world where we had to be in front of the television at a certain time to watch a program or we'd have to wait weeks to see the rerun. For digital natives streaming videos on-demand via services like Netflix, Hulu and YouTube where they can watch virtually anything, anytime is the only reality they know. Captivating social media apps that send constant notifications day and night engage this digitally native generation constantly.

For good or bad the connected world Microsoft and others are building is being forged for a generation for whom constant connectivity is the norm. Edge computing via embedded IoT devices, connected cars that know our routes, smart homes, and appliances that know our habits, A.I. that connects us between our homes and office and bridges our personal and professional lives (as Microsoft plans) may eventually become a pervasive reality facilitated by a deluge of intelligent connected devices.

For the older generation where a wire connected PC was once the extent of a connected world, the reality of A.I. powered coffee pots, refrigerators, fitness trackers, traffic lights, cars, dog collars, footwear, smartphones, PCs and more is a reality that may even intimate digital natives. Then again maybe not. Human beings are fairly adaptable and do seem to enjoy living on the edge.

Related: How CES 2019 put a spotlight on Microsoft and edge computing

Jason L Ward is a columnist at Windows Central. He provides unique big picture analysis of the complex world of Microsoft. Jason takes the small clues and gives you an insightful big picture perspective through storytelling that you won't find *anywhere* else. Seriously, this dude thinks outside the box. Follow him on Twitter at @JLTechWord. He's doing the "write" thing!

29 Comments
  • Jason thanks for the excellent informative article! I am in my Seventies and recall trying to get on the internet with my Commodore 64 and I was successful, kind of using a 300 baud modem, but what to do with it. You typically had to go to some form of a message board, post a question wait a day or week and hope someone answered it.. The 'Net has come a long way. I was a early adopter of e-mail. But I am not a cloud user, nor do I post to a my Facebook page (But I do have one, LinkedIn too) No Twitter, No Instagram, No Messenger, I'm just not that social. I have a lot of experience with being "Out of Service Area" by being in a remote location, nature of my work, so I do not like internet based anything. I have been able to call often in those same locations so LTE might work if I was to return to work.
    This "Edge" you are talking of is a good thing, but I do have privacy concerns. What if I choose my next career to be a Bank Robber, or a axe murderer, would not all this connectivity leave a trail of information for detectives. Or might this not be another opportunity for bad hombres and hombrettes to find a way to target me.
  • Youre quite welcome and I'm glad if was helpful. 🙂 Oh there are many downsides, particula9to privacy, and I tried to allude to those a bit towad the end. I certainly could go into much greater detail. There are a myriad of privacy concerns, hacking opportunities, potential for state sponsored or corporation sponsored abuses of power, and more. When everything (IoT devices) is connected and intelligent and knows you, it's there is a dark flipside to the conveniences.
  • Yes, thank you Jason, for writing this very descriptive idea of what the intelligent edge is :)
    I actually did not think any of my devices as part of it, but I think I expect too often too much of the tech I own and upgrade it too infrequent for it to be able to execute on that expectation.
    I for one, will look forward to when waiting for software to finish a computation, because it did not anticipate it, is no more =)
  • Excellent article. I have learned about this edge concept which I really didn't knew much about beside being, as you said, a buzzword. Stay always connected, as usual.
  • Are there Windows based coffee pots, refrigerators, traffic lights, cars, dog collars, footwear, etc? They definitly have PCs and are strong as the backbone with Azure. We know there aren't any mobile phones or fitness trackers. Also seems like A.I. speakers is soon to be gone as well. They've even given up on the browser which many connected devices might use. I'd be interested in finding out how Microsoft is a part of this push outside of PCs and Azure.
  • Given up on the browser? How so?
  • Edge will still exist, but it will be based on Chromium. Effectively Microsoft has given up on having their own browser engine. It's going to work like Chrome but with Edge dressings similar to how Edge on Android is built.
  • I know, so how is that giving up on browsing? Seems more like progress to me. Sure, they failed again, but giving up would be dropping browsing all together, and adopting Chrome, or Firefox, for Windows default browser, and they aren't doing that.
  • A browser is its engine. They have given up on developing a browser engine and are now just going to reskin Chromium. A bit like they gave up on mobile and reskinned Android instead.
  • So, you're saying they've given up on browsers? Isn't it more accurate to say they've given up on a browser?🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔🤔
  • I think it would be important to state that MSFT via Edge using Chromium will still give them access to lots of data. How this data is processed determines the value of your search. I would rather have MSFT holding my data than Google.
  • If they dropped Windows and switched to Linux with a Windows UI, would that be progress?
  • If it's better, then yes, of course, troll. What kind of stupid question is that? Disagreeing just for the sake of being stupid, and making no point in return, is just like you.. Now, do we need to get Daniel to show you the door again, troll?
  • I remember a world without devices; pc's didn't exist, cell phones didn't exist. :-)
  • It was a much "quieter" time. 🙂
  • Until digital watch alarms started...
  • Bleached wasn't born yet. They were good times fo Sho.
  • I have no problems with intelligent edge clients or with the cloud sending me notifications. The linked IBM video showed an example of a helpful notification when driving a car. However, your driving data could also be used against you, such as insurance companies raising your rates based on your driving habits, or the government fining you for speeding. I don't trust that the companies that have this information will put the customers' needs above their own. This potential has already shown that this data may be abused. Corporations are not your friends.
  • Seeing how I have a car I rarely drive, it would be nice to let the insurance company not charge me money for parking a car in my driveway for many days.
  • Thanks for the explanation., useful information. However I would draw your attention to the slide behind Nadella because it highlights his complete disconnect from the rest of the world. A cloud for everyone on every device? Just laughable when you look outside the 'world' off the usa. Simply put., not everyone., or even 20 % (my guess) of the world has access at sufficient speed or even at all to the internet and hence the cloud. Nadella would be better served if he had underlings who could persuade him that he is off with the pixies.
  • So what is "sufficient speed"?
  • Fast enough that cloud computing seems as fast as local computing to the end user.
  • While not a digital native, I, like more than just a few, grew up cheering all of these advances happening. I find myself at odds with even the current generation, who don't seem to grasp the value of a world that is more like Tony Stark's world. I am constantly frustrated that truly advanced ideas (regardless of sometimes kludgy execution) are summarily ignored in favor of MUCH less capable and much more wasteful approaches to edge computing. Far too many are lemmings who simply grab on to what their friends are buying/doing instead of demanding better, more. Case in point: The Alexa approach. Forgetting the fact I can't stand the VOICE of Alexa, Siri, Bixby and Google, it frustrates me that people seem to be perfectly fine throwing their money at a bunch of pieces of hardware to interface with this particular bit of intelligent edge. In contrast, the potential of Cortana has been COMPLETELY blown by the idiots running Microsoft. And NOBODY truly gets where this COULD go and SHOULD go. The intelligent edge is anything but, where this is concerned in my opinion. For a TRULY intelligent edge and the exploitation of always-connected life, there is absolutely NO excuse for anyone needing to buy separate devices. The intelligent edge should be 100% integrated in expressing and interfacing with an assistant. EVERY SINGLE DEVICE that is capable of being a frontend for an assistant, such as Cortana, should, through the cloud, be 100% aware of all other frontend devices. I've explained this before: I have Cortana always on with our Xbox, our phones, my Surface Pro, my studio PC and our server. When I walk into our house I should be able to give a command or make an inquiry within "earshot" of my devices and expect the "intelligent" edge to discern not only all the devices the command came in from, but WHO it came from and where I want the results/response to GO. If it can't determine the destination, it should be INTELLIGENT enough to ASK me. And this is already something that Cortana is capable of doing in some limited cases. An INTELLIGENT edge should be able to immediately recognize, among multiple devices a command came in, which device heard it the loudest (implying proximity) and make all other devices go to standby while further interactions (such as clarifying questions) happen on the nearest device. Once the actual destination of the results is understand, said device would present them. Some commands would logically ONLY go to a specific device (e.g., "Hey, Cortana, turn on my Xbox" would cause the other devices to remain silent and the Xbox would respond). Conversely, I should be ALSO able to direct the destination of results within my command (e.g., "Hey, Cortana, show me tomorrow's weather on my Surface Pro"). But, you see, the so-called "intelligent edge" isn't all that intelligent, and our much adored digital natives are perfectly happy wasting money on a bunch of ADDITIONAL devices because their friends did. I live a very transparent life. I laugh at my friends who tell me they need my contact info because they got a new phone, while a tornado could destroy every piece of my tech and I could buy a new phone or PC tomorrow and have immediate access to EVERYTHING. Now, because I remember a time when none of this existed, it does make me much more capable of thriving when the zombie apocalypse happens and digital natives are completely unable to function. However, I WANT more of the intelligent edge. It's just that I'm absolutely convinced nobody is doing it right and not enough people are demanding they do it right.
  • Google Assistant recognizes all the devices in range and defaults to the speaker. It knows about the phone or other device though and will push info if needed. Your issue is with Cortana, which is basically dead at this point. It won't last long just as an Alexa skill.
  • What a lovely Utopian view of what it should be, and I agree in an ideal world this is what you'd want, but we live in a commercial world, where very little development is done without a business model suggesting how to monetize the development, and it's not going to change, Cortana and Alexa in bed together is simply a business decision, probably to try and extend the life of Cortana, but like many here, you seem to think MS should have pushed on regardless of little chance of actually profiting from developments, edge computing is simply another potential profit area, that's all. You could rely on governments to push the agenda, but then that would probably guarantee failure, plus you'd struggle to get Western governments to agree standards, let alone worldwide. Then we hit the real issue with edge computing, the lack of the infrastructure to support it, I work for a supplier of cloud based solutions, with clients across the world, even in the USA getting reliable high speed internet isn't guaranteed (an absolute requirement of anything like an intelligent edge you describe), we're lucky mostly it doens't need to be that fast for what we supply. Worse than that, Wi-Fi congestion is making using that internet harder and harder, ironically those that have high speed internet are then going to hit the wall of other people's Wi-Fi slowing their internet down, 5G mobile might help, but only for those lucky enough to be able to get it. But then your condescending tone to other people, wasting money on devices that don't supply your utopian view on edge computing, as though you think your vision is the only valid option. Alexa works in my house, not because it's particularly effective, nor comprehensive, but it just makes some things convenient, it's a tool to aid my daily life and that's as far as I see it, like my microwave, Cortana can't do the same tasks, failure of Alexa to fill the comprehensive view, doesn't mean edge computing itself has failed, just that it's actually providing something the consumers want. I don't need Cortana to turn on the XBox, I'll do that when I pick up the controller, which are conveniently stored next to my XBox, now it would be useful if the TV would then know to switch on and go to the correct channel, but then I can probably do that quicker than I can say "hey Cortana, turn the TV on to HDMI 2", anyway. I actually think edge computing, could potentially put us at more risk, the more reliant we become on cloud, the easier it becomes for someone else to disrupt our lives, if a tornado hits my house, the last think I'm going to want to do is nip out to Best Buy to replace all my IT, to discover the tornado hit the internet supplier, so all my cloud data is unavailable too, just look at the chaos caused when local IT systems go down, or we lose Gmail for a couple of hours. Natural disasters and minor IT issues are one thing, but someone trying to be malicious would know how to disrupt far more.
  • Edge Computing isn't important to me, at all, not until mobile broadband gets cheaper, or home broadband gets faster.
  • Microsoft is the next IBM. Their cloud only, nothing else matters approach will be the death of them. Really, who wants their PC to be connected to the internet to function? I live in a major metropolitan area and I still can't get consistent, reliable internet. As Microsoft forces everything to the cloud, people will move more and more towards Mac, Chrome, and Linux.
  • You add Chrome in you list of alternatives to MS following a "connected computing model". Chrome though it has limited offline functionality is predominantly browser/internet based. Microsoft, in a broad sense in some areas, is following a web-based model that has worked for Google.
  • But chrome is extremely online oriented just saying and so is Imacs with the iCloud as well.