Looking over the edge -- how edge computing will impact business decisions [Q&A]

Earlier this year, AT&T's Cybersecurity Insights Report found that business and technology leaders are finally coming together not just to understand the new edge computing ecosystem, but to make more predictable, data-informed business decisions.

We spoke to head of cybersecurity evangelism at AT&T Business, Theresa Lanowitz, to find out more about the edge journey ahead and how it will affect businesses.

BN: What exactly does edge computing mean?

TL: If you haven't heard about edge computing, I have some exciting news for you. First, you have likely already benefited from edge computing. Second, it will make life better by connecting near-real-time data to solve mundane and complex problems. And finally, it's finally moving the tech out of the data center and putting it in the field where we are realizing amazing benefits of having data and processing happening closer to the source.

Here's a simple example: You head to the mall, and you know parking is always an issue. You don't feel like driving around in circles trying to find a spot, so you choose the garage with a 'parking space availability' display. This is an edge use case -- that's what we call an edge computing application. The garage has near-real-time information about open parking spots, and you can quickly head to the third floor and park. It might seem mundane, but you can imagine this is a competitive advantage for the garage because they've simplified something that can be a time waster.

Here's a more complex edge use case: You're diagnosed with an illness that can worsen if you aren’t given the right dose of medication. Your healthcare provider connects you to a wearable monitor that can adjust the medication based on near-real-time data. The decision of how much medication you need is based on data exchange that’s happening where you are; you don't need intervention from a third party. Intelligence is built in.

What’s happening here is edge computing. The term 'edge' can be interpreted differently by different people, and it typically tends to skew to the tech stack being used or sold. For the purpose of this discussion, and based on our research, edge computing has three primary characteristics:

  • It's software-defined (and lives on-premises or in the cloud).
  • It's comprised of applications, workloads, and hosting that happens closer to where the data is being generated and consumed.
  • It is a distributed model that includes management, intelligence, and networks.

Edge computing is the next generation of computing underpinned by faster networks with lower latency; applications that are ephemeral, headless, and come together as needed; and a digital-first experience.

BN: How is the edge changing how organizations operate?

TL: In 2020, change was all about digital transformation. That was an IT-centric activity. Three years later, we are in a period of digital operationalization based on that transformation, and it’s been fueled by innovative business leaders who understand the opportunities edge computing delivers. This is a huge shift, and it's incredibly exciting. We're already seeing organizations adapting to take advantage of edge use cases.

In 2023, 75 percent of organizations have started their edge journey, with 56 percent of our survey participants considering themselves in the partial implementation of edge computing. We learned that 48 percent of businesses use common endpoints such as laptops, desktops, tablets, and phones, but 30 percent said that in the future, they would use intentional devices, such as autonomous machines or wearable technology. This is a clear indication that as digital transformation evolves, we'll see edge use cases are primarily driven by the Internet of Things (IoT).

Because business is the driver for most edge use cases, we're already seeing these very specific use cases such as real-time fraud detection for financial services, real-time inventory management for automated warehousing, and real-time visual inspections for uses such as manufacturing assembly lines, and passport control at border crossings. These edge use cases are going to continue to grow.

BN: What are some of the security challenges and risks associated with edge computing?

TL: One of the most critical aspects of edge computing is endpoints. Most of us are familiar with consumer-focused endpoints, otherwise known as devices, such as mobile phones, tablets, and personal computers. These have commercially expanded to include things such as wearables that track your health information or location. When it comes to business applications, you can imagine the endpoints start to have specific purposes. We call them intentional devices. These kinds of endpoints might gather data on water and dirt conditions in an agricultural setting. They might measure CO2 and O2 levels in a convention center for smart building management. The possibilities are endless.

As you might imagine, securing endpoints becomes the issue. It's also the challenge.

Securing endpoints includes three critical variables: building in security when the use case is still on the drawing board. This would include encryption and authentication to protect the data. The second is making sure the operations are protected from threats like DDoS attacks as well as being effectively managed by understanding where the device is and whether or not it is being used. And the third is protecting the physical endpoint itself from being stolen or damaged by a bad actor.

As you are finding out, securing the edge is not linear. Edge computing is a dynamic environment. We're already seeing organizations becoming more conscious of the need for cybersecurity measures as they put out more edge use cases. According to our research, security budgets have become 22 percent of overall project budgets that include strategy and planning, the network, and application development. The research suggests that security has become integral to developing edge use cases, not an afterthought.

BN: How is the edge computing ecosystem helping increase collaboration between technology and business leaders?

TL: Anyone paying attention to the sea change happening in cybersecurity knows the industry is resource constrained. There are not enough people trained today to meet the demand. The good news is that our research revealed that the old criteria for doing things in-house are evolving, and it’s well-timed with the changes edge computing requires.

First, our research found that leaders developing edge use cases are changing how they access expertise. When it comes to project planning, 64 percent of respondents go outside the company for expert advice. As we move to production, 71 percent of respondents report using outside expertise to bring the use case to market.

Second, the old days of silos between teams dedicated to application development, networking, and security, are anathema to designing edge computing use cases. All the stakeholders have to come together at use case inception to create a solution that meets a panoply of requirements. Often initiated by a line of business, security, legal, compliance, users, subject matter experts, and more, are critical to designing a solution to deliver a positive business outcome. The good news is the shared responsibility dynamic helps control costs, speeds development, and prioritizes security as the team focuses on solving the business problem.

BN: How can the edge enable organizations to become digital-first businesses?

TL: Everything we have discussed to this point enables organizations to become digital first -- eroding decades old silos; understanding the need to work cross-functionally internally but working with trust third-parties as well; balancing investments to include an ecosystem of planning and strategy, network, applications, and security; and realizing that digital-first removes us from the traditional endpoints and makes use of intentional-built devices. This is a new generation of computing.

BN: How can organizations future-proof themselves and prepare as they move to the edge?

TL: Based on the research findings, we have four recommendations for moving into edge computing:

  • Start developing your edge computing profile -- Work with internal line-of-business teams to understand use cases. Include key business partners and vendors to identify initiatives that impact security.
  • Develop an investment strategy -- Bundle security investments with use case development. Evaluate investment allocation. The increased business opportunity of edge use cases should include a security budget.
  • Align resources with emerging security priorities -- Use collaboration to expand expertise and lower resource costs. Consider creating edge computing use case experts who help the security team stay on top of emerging use cases.
  • Prepare for ongoing, dynamic response -- Edge use cases rapidly evolve once they show value. Use cases require high-speed, low-latency networks at the same time, network functions and cybersecurity controls converge.

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