Three ways to implement edge data centres
Thu 20 Aug 2020 | Chris Wellfair
Chris Wellfair, projects director at Secure I.T. Environments, outlines the benefits of edge data centres and the practicalities involved in making them a reality
When you have been working in IT departments for a few years, you start to realise that certain technologies and ideas get fashionable, then disappear only to emerge again a few years later with a slightly different look about them.
Thin client is a great example, very popular in the 70s/80s, vanished, only to be back on our radar 20 years later as remote working gathered momentum, and connectively was still pretty dire. At the time it offered a relatively simple way through VDI infrastructure for companies to give employees access to their applications, but again eventually evolved into something else.
The cloud has done something not entirely dissimilar for the data centre. Traditionally, companies took a protectionist approach to their IT infrastructure, wanting to keep everything close and under their control. In time, companies moved more of their infrastructure and applications into the cloud as connectively and web technologies improved. The cloud has also helped companies address some of their biggest security challenges by putting their data and applications behind technology and skill resources they can’t possibly match.
However, it’s not without problems. The demand for the lowest possible latency on computing networks, between them and the cloud services that are now so predominantly used by companies has been a growing problem. For many there really have been only two options, either putting everything in the cloud, or to increase the bandwidth of their networks to seemingly outrageous levels.
Pushing out to the edge
Neither of those options are perfect, so a middle way is becoming more popular. For a long-time edge computing has been associated with IoT and those networks with naturally distributed networks, such as telcos, oil fields, or industrial networks connecting multiple sites.
Where a company would have previously pushed data back to the corporate network for processing, say from a sensor, and then a corresponding action back to a valve, with edge computing that analysis happens at the perimeter, sometimes in a perimeter data centre, or on the device itself.
This would overcome the risks of dropped connectivity, but also enables performance improvements. By processing device or application data at the extremities of the network, traffic is reduced, and devices can even be given the autonomy to act as a self-contained unit.
Now a similar approach is being adopted to pushing out – away from the corporate network – towards the cloud services that we all rely on. By placing smaller data centres as close as possible to fibre backbones, enterprises can address wider problems by reducing network hops, creating redundancy and spreading downtime risk. Primarily this approach greatly reduces network latency by putting corporate servers ‘right next to’ cloud services providers.
It is very easy to think about taking an edge data centre approach as expensive – but today data centres come in all shapes and sizes.
Here are three different ways you can implement your own edge data centres:
The modular option
Building your own data centre affords you the flexibility to design and build a facility that is made to measure, specific to your organisation and entirely within your own control.
Modular systems in particular can be built very quickly, at relatively lowcost, and to fit any space. Going modular does not mean you have to compromise. A well designed and built modular data centre will add capital value to an organisation as well as peace of mind that the IT infrastructure is onsite and within sight – the build is flexible and you have complete control over the intricacies of how it is put together.
Even when space is limited, a data centre can be fitted into ‘dead space’ within one of your sites – helping you create that edge server environment. Using modular data centre systems, spaces that would ordinarily be wasted can be turned into highly secure IT environments.
Containerised data centres
There are a couple of misconceptions about containerised data centres, the first being that they really are just a temporary solution. This is an understandable reaction, after all they do look like an upcycled shipping container, but the technology in them is the same as would go into a ‘normal’ data centre build, or at least from the same suppliers.
Containerised solutions can form small data centres where they help resolve space, deployment time, build complexity and cost challenges. But they are very flexible and depending on the internal configuration can perform very well in high-density applications depending on your edge data centre needs.
Micro data centres
For decades, organisations with branches have had the ‘comms or server cabinet’ lurking in the corner of a room to support their connectivity and IT needs. But, with more computing power being squeezed into smaller spaces, and energy needs dropping, that cabinet has evolved into the Micro Data Centre (MDC). This approach can be particularly powerful for those looking to explore the edge data centre model for a very specific application task, where you need a limited amount of data centre resource.
They can be easily placed in co-location sites or ISPs, which can be as close to a fibre backbone as any company can get without huge expense, whilst maintaining the physical security of your data and servers.
Security and edge data centres
Any traditional on-site data centre or those operated by cloud providers gives IT teams a lot of confidence when it comes to physical security. A site may have guards, CCTV and the data centre itself will have different stages of access control from corridors leading to the data centre, entry controls and even down to the cabinet-level. Where a data centre is a stand-alone unit or perhaps in a remote location where posting security staff is unrealistic, such sites can be at greater risk of theft or criminal damage, so must be protected.
All of the data centre form factors outlined above can be designed to meet different levels of the Loss Prevention Certification Board’s LPS1175 standard. The aim of this standard is to assess the physical resistance of security products when various types of unauthorised access tools are used against them.
Depending on how a product performs it is given one of five different grades, according to the time and tools likely to be used by somebody wanting to subvert those products to get at whatever they are protecting. Essentially, the standard provides a buyer’s guide those designing a data centre (or anything else that needs protecting) can use to ensure the selected products meet the level of protection they require.
Data centres and the cloud
It is an exciting time for cloud and data centre technology with advances happening in both. The current trend certainly seems to be that whilst many companies choose to invest in cloud technologies, the data centre in its many forms, still has a clear role to play in helping companies meet their own IT goals.
Distributing servers may in some regards feel like a flashback, but it’s an approach that is allowing companies to get what they want from the cloud, but improve performance, and maintain control over the applications and data.