Activity at the edge is accelerating for a number of reasons. For years, network designers bought into the idea that “bandwidth is free.” As that notion fades, efforts to cut transmission requirements grows. At the same time, running apps at the edge is increasingly possible. The cost of CPU cycles is falling. More condensed and self-contained applications are being written. Stable, robust, and secure transmission protocols are being deployed. Finally, penetration of Web services — which are the kindred spirit of edge computing — is growing.
The gating factor in moving to the edge is the specific task the server is performing, said Peter Salus, the chief knowledge officer for Matrix NetSystems. The move of full apps to the edge will be slower since they run on “stateful” application servers that remember clients between communications and perform very specific tasks. It is hard to buttress these servers by “virtualizing” server muscle from elsewhere. Stateless servers (those that retain no memory of previous interactions) are more easily aided by virtualized serving capacity brought from elsewhere. “An application server has to follow very complex business rules and broker requests,” Salus said.
Regardless, the impact on servers will be profound. Decentralization means that as a group servers will get smaller. Big, fully functioned machines now in the middle of the network will be de-emphasized in favor of smaller, more flexible units better suited to remote operation. Blade configurations will become more common because they increase flexibility and reduce environmental and power requirements. “I think we will have a smaller number of large servers from Sun, Dell, or HP,” Salus added.
Other changes will abound, experts say. While decentralization will take the emphasis away from the core, each server at the edge will become a bit more important. Thus, it is likely that server designs will accommodate increased clustering, redundancy, and connection to network-attached storage (NAS) capabilities. Hardware-based routing engines and secure socket layer (SSL) termination will be put into these machines. Although not a direct cause of the growth of edge computing, future servers will have to accommodate the growth of 802.11b wireless fidelity (Wi-Fi) protocols. Finally, decentralization will imply changes in the way in which servers are managed.
Bill Roth, group marketing manager for Sun’s x86 server line, notes that the natural path will be to build as much into edge servers as possible. Eventually, he says, Sun edge servers will host entire e-mail, portal, and content management applications.