The Great Land Grab for Edge Data Centers

February 13, 2020

“The great land grab” for the edge was one of the main narratives emerging out of Edge Global Congress late last year. Several companies used it as a platform to launch their edge data center plans to the industry, and as we’ll see, several others have made similar announcements since, from startups to the Big Three cloud providers.

As edge data centers increasingly become a real-world proposition, today’s communication networks and the nature of the Internet itself looks set to radically change. As an edge-forward company from the get-go, we see a lot to be excited about in the coming year.

Sami Badri, an analyst at research firm Credit Suisse pointed out how noteworthy it was that data centers for edge computing were beginning to spring up before there is widespread demand for edge computing itself. Comparing the trend to “eggs showing up before chickens”, he highlighted how unusual this is in the tech world. Badri, however, predicts the trend will reverse itself in 2021 when, he says, demand for edge computing will begin to catch up to the increasing number of edge data centers.

What is the compute edge and what are edge data centers?

A compute edge can be constructed from existing telco infrastructure, cloud infrastructure and on-premise data centers.

The term edge data center refers more specifically to the highly distributed micro data centers appearing to fill the compute void between on-prem and cloud. As demand grows for near-instantaneous computing, covering everything from virtual assistant responses to online video game streaming, the drawbacks of the centralized nature of current communications networks and Internet computing are becoming increasingly clear.

Proximity to the end user allows edge data centers to support applications that need rapid response times, are latency-sensitive and/or require a large amount of bandwidth without the operational overhead of on-prem systems. Other potential benefits include lower data backhaul costs (due to the reduced amount of data being transmitted across networks), the potential for more location-specific or workload-specific security around how and where data is stored, and on a wider level, the way in which edge data centers lay the physical foundation for the creation of innovative, new services.

The combination of edge data centers with cloud, on-prem, telco and device compute can be described as the edge compute continuum. Each of these locations has advantages for different application use cases, and the challenge for application architects is to find a deployment mechanism to efficiently run the right workload in the right location at the right time for their specific application stack.

The growing rollout of edge data centers

The inherent opportunity in laying the geographic footprint for the edge is garnering interest from a wide range of players, from data center companies like Equinix, to Internet providers like Verizon, to startups like Vapor IO and EdgeMicro.

There is even speculation about Walmart joining the fray. According to a report in the Wall Street Journal, in a bid to compete with its biggest rival in retail, Amazon, Walmart is discussing the possibility of adding edge compute to its “secret weapon”, its supercenters. With 90% of Americans living within a 10-mile radius of a store, Walmart is exploring venturing beyond retail to use its stores as a base for technology infrastructure. In a significant potential shift discussed in a recent strategy meeting, Walmart is apparently considering doing this in two ways: to transform superstores into “edge computing centers” and to lease its roof space to telcos for installation of 5G antennas.

Vapor IO to launch 36 edge data center sites across the US

Austin-based startup Vapor IO recently announced a new raise, which brings its Series C funding to $90M and provides the means to “fund an accelerated coast-to-coast deployment of Vapor IO’s Kinetic Edge”.

The company already has sites deployed in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Pittsburgh and with another 16 cities underway, says this makes them “the nation’s largest provider of interconnected edge facilities”. Vapor IO plans to have a total of 36 multi-site markets coming online before the end of 2021. These include both City Scale Data Centers and Remotely Operable Data Centers.

“The Third Act of the Internet requires that we build out edge computing infrastructure as quickly as possible. By deploying Vapor IO’s Kinetic Edge exchange, colocation, and networking services in the top U.S. markets, we provide a platform to deliver low-latency edge capabilities at the intersection of the wireline and wireless networks.” - Cole Crawford, Founder & CEO, Vapor IO

EdgeMicro joins the startup charge

Numerous startups are already in the process of deploying live edge data centers for commercial use. One such, EdgeMicro, took the occasion of Edge Congress to announce its first three commercial installations, located in Austin, TX, Raleigh, NC and Tampa, FL. The Denver-based startup said site selection and permitting of twenty further locations was also in progress. At twenty feet, EdgeMicro’s micro sites are tiny by comparison to the standard data center warehouses of Equinix, Flexential, etc.

“This is about much more than three sites going live. We are starting with these initial sites and plan to quickly scale to hundreds of locations. People have wondered when the edge would take off. It’s here now.” - Jason Bourg, VP of Sales, EdgeMicro

Undoubtedly, a large and growing number of vendors are getting involved in rolling out edge data centers, such as EdgePresence, DartPoints, EdgeConneX, Compass Data Centers, Axellio, MetroEdge, and Zellabox. However, few are giving out detailed information about what they are actually doing. EdgeMicro is unusual in disclosing the details of its first edge colocation centers, including their exact locations and capabilities.

A new global phase for Packet?

Packet is another key player in the edge data center ecosystem. In partnership with Vapor IO, the developer-focused bare metal cloud provider launched 15 new edge locations last year. The new sites are part of a plan by Packet to deploy edge locations almost anywhere you could imagine.

“This is the digitization of real estate. Technology is going to get infused in all aspects of real estate, whether a tower or a mall or an office.” - Zachary Smith, CEO, Packet

That plan is about to get much bigger. Earlier this month, Equinix, the world’s largest data center provider announced its plans to acquire Packet in order to accelerate the development and delivery of its interconnected edge services. Equinix’s intention is “to create a world class, enterprise-grade bare metal offering across Platform Equinix that allows customers to rapidly deploy digital infrastructure, within minutes, at global scale”.

The bold move is an entry into a new market for Equinix, and shows how much momentum there is behind the edge computing space. On the transaction, Packet says it is continuing its plan to expand its number of new public cloud locations and expand current sites under new ownership by Equinix. Packet will continue to operate as before with the “same team, same platform” and “same vision”. The relationship with Equinix will allow it to scale much more substantially by connecting Packet’s customers with Equinix’s 200+ data centers in 55 markets and an ecosystem of 1,800 networks.

Section and the Kinetic Edge Alliance

Here at Section, we are working with both Vapor IO and Packet, along with other key industry leaders as part of the Kinetic Edge Alliance (KEA) to help foster the wide-spread deployment of edge computing, build a network of interoperable edge facilities, and test out customer use cases at the edge through the movement of application logic to KEA-powered edge locations.

Packet and Vapor IO’s initial two edge locations in Chicago were in fact the first two KEA locations. Both sites follow a proprietary architectural design known as the Kinetic Edge, which combines several small facilities into a single virtual data center with multiple availability zones. Other KEA partners include Alef, Clear Sky and Pluribus Networks who are supporting the Alliance’s agenda by making their technology and expertise available to deployments.

Section’s role within the KEA is focused on bridging the gaps between engineers and infrastructure by providing a developer-led platform to empower flexible and intelligent deployment at the Edge.

“To meet the needs of the future, our industry must collaborate. We must bring together all of the products, platforms, and technologies, such as those offered by Section, in order to help make operators and developers successful with edge deployments.” - Cole Crawford, Founder & CEO, Vapor IO

Run your edge workload anywhere

Edge computing requires a complex combination of software, hardware, networking and infrastructure. As increasing numbers of edge data centers come into play and grab industry headlines, it’s just as crucial to pay attention to how developers can run application logic at those sites. As a vendor-neutral solution, Section’s developer-centric platform gives engineers the flexibility and control to run workloads in any edge location to meet their unique performance, security and scalability objectives.