Edge Computing’s undeniable role in sustainability

Businesses can take advantage of edge computing to reduce their environmental footprint.

As companies migrate to the cloud for more efficient operations, concerns about the environmental impacts of such centralized processing are surfacing. More and more data centers are adopting greener practices, but an alternative could provide even more fuel to the sustainability movement: edge computing.

Digitization has made life and business more convenient, but these processing centers require huge resources to operate. They contribute to carbon emissions and produce e-waste, adding to the burden humans place on the environment in their quest for progress.

That doesn’t mean all is lost. More and more organizations have already tied sustainability components to key performance metrics, and many have signed pledges to reduce their environmental footprint. Data centers have started adopting greener practices, which could help reduce costs in the long run. New advances in efficient data processing and storage promise to ease the burden.

Download the infographic now: Manufacturing leaders' views on edge computing and 5G

Some of these (more) green practices include:

  • Use renewable energy to power data center operations.
  • Significant investment in state-of-the-art cooling and ventilation that reduces energy consumption.
  • Integrating smart building technology and engaging machine learning to optimize building operations.

However, these can’t do much when traffic continues to increase the processing load on cloud servers.

See also: Acting for sustainable development: how technology makes ESG a reality

What is edge computing?

Edge computing processes data closer to the device that captures it. Instead of sending everything to a central location, i.e. the cloud, the data stays close to the sensor or is processed directly by the sensor itself.

It basically uses the same technology stack as a cloud server, but scaled down to fit on a single (very small) device. Not everything can be processed on such a small stack, but it can help limit the amount of processing power required for compatible applications.

This reduces unnecessary cloud traffic and reduces processing load and storage resources. Gartner predicts that as little as 25% of enterprise data will be headed to a centralized cloud by 2025. Considering that data centers alone account for 2% of global power resources today, that’s significant.

Why edge computing is key to sustainability

In some cases, edge computing can improve speed and performance by keeping processing close to the device, reducing costs and providing more efficiency. But there are other reasons why companies should look to the periphery to help reduce environmental impacts.

Reduction of network traffic

The edge helps reduce network traffic in and out of centralized servers, reducing bandwidth and power waste. This frees up bandwidth at the data center itself and bandwidth for the organization in terms of centralized on-premises servers.

Data that requires processing in the cloud tends to be more useful data, limited by the constraints of the peripheral device itself. The device manages what it can and only sends the most critical data (if any) to the cloud. These natural limitations prevent unnecessary processing or smearing.

Many companies can use existing devices

Companies are moving to the cloud to avoid large upfront investments in equipment. With Edge, many companies have already deployed sensors and devices that are currently underutilized.

By moving data processing to the edge instead of sending everything to the cloud, enterprises reduce their dependency on the central cloud and their contributions to energy waste.

Edge computing is made for efficiency

Resources on peripheral devices are naturally limited by the hardware of the device. Every piece in an edge stack is optimized to work efficiently. Many can work even without a continuous internet connection, allowing processing to continue offline. This helps reduce overall power consumption.

Download the infographic now: Manufacturing leaders' views on edge computing and 5G

Examples of real-world edge computing

Organizations are realizing the power of the periphery in their sustainability goals. Some recent examples are as follows.

Chicago Smart City Lighting Helps Reduce Energy Consumption

The City of Chicago has implemented a smart lighting system leveraging sensors and advanced computing to help reduce energy consumption and improve repair efficiency. Each new light gets a more energy-efficient bulb as well as a sensor that detects when a light fails. It automates repair tickets and scheduling.

Walmart reduces reliance on centralized cloud servers

A few years ago, retail giant Walmart launched an initiative to turn each of its stores into data centers ready for edge computing. It currently uses a hybrid system designed to take advantage of the two centralized cloud services, but can fail over to its own local servers to reduce reliance on the cloud itself. It currently has at least 10,000 edge nodes across the enterprise, helping to reduce costs while improving performance, all without relying heavily on centralized data centers.

FedEx, Dell and Switch reallocate existing real estate

In an example of leveraging what already exists, FedEx has partnered with Dell and Switch (a data center provider) to use existing FedEx locations to host edge computing hubs. Users will be able to process data much closer to their location thanks to the ubiquity of FedEx centers, reducing reliance on centralized servers without having to create anything new.

Additionally, FedEx is also the largest consumer of its own edge nodes. He will use them to run smart robot applications and IoT sensors to automate critical elements of FedEx operations.

The Role of Edge Computing in Sustainability Can Expand

Businesses can take advantage of edge computing to reduce their environmental footprint. Cloud computing has many advantages, but the tradeoff is increased resources for processing and maintenance. Incorporating edge computing into the mix can help operations continue to run smoothly while incorporating more sustainable practices.

As advanced computing devices become more efficient, the benefits may increase. And if companies continue to move more of their resources to the edge, it could make leveraging technology a less resource-intensive activity. Time will tell us.

Sherry J. Basler