How to drive business at the network edge

Why businesses should learn to exploit the digital connections between systems, people, places, and things.

Imagine a state-of-the-art airport where you can use your phone or tablet to effortlessly check in for a flight or avoid long lines at customs or immigration. The same technology keeps you updated with flight status alerts. While you wait to board your flight, it sends you special discounts from airport vendors. Just tap on an indoor navigation app to locate them.

Not impressed? How about a state-of-the-art hospital where inventory management is automated so that each operating theater, test facility, and storage room always has the correct supplies and medical tools when needed? Think of what that would do for the quality of patient care.

Or maybe an industrial equipment manufacturer embeds sophisticated sensors in the compressed air systems it sells. Those sensors generate data that can be collected and analyzed in order to predict and prevent unexpected and costly outages on customers’ production lines. 

Corporate networks are expanding rapidly, encompassing more people, objects, systems, and physical spaces every day. By 2020, Gartner predicts that some 20.4 billion Internet of Things (IoT) devices will connect to enterprise networks each second. These devices will range from wearable computers to agricultural sensors that test soil moisture to diagnostic chips inside heavy equipment such as power plant turbines. The number of connections among these objects will expand exponentially, along with the systems and users that tap into them. 

It is a perfect storm of data, the sheer magnitude of which will require businesses to change how they design and operate their networks—and the processes by which they absorb and analyze the information those networks generate.

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An opportunity to innovate

Managing such networks is complex, to be sure, but it also offers businesses an unprecedented opportunity to innovate, realize efficiencies and cost reductions, and enhance the experiences of customers, employees, and other users, all by using the insights gained from people and things at the edges of their networks

The businesses that can best exploit the digital connections between systems, people, places, and things—incorporating them into the “intelligent edge” of their networks—will win the day with useful services, disruptive technologies, and compelling business models. 

How will it work? The network’s intelligent edge—defined as the people, spaces, and objects that connect to the network around the edges—is where data is collected and where the network will need to analyze and act on that data in real time. For example, it will be able to detect a failing piece of equipment and generate a maintenance event, recognize low inventory and automatically place an order to restock, or identify a nearby potential consumer and deliver useful information or a special retail offer to their smartphone. The possibilities are endless, but they all entail seamless and automated connections between people, places, objects, and systems. 

While that data collection, analysis, and action takes place at the intelligent edge, much relevant analysis will still take place back at data centers, as businesses will need to aggregate all that data over time and analyze it in order to improve the way the network reacts to it in future. So intelligence must be built into all layers of the network, including the edge, the cloud, and the core data centers.

Any business hoping to create an intelligent edge needs to take three steps now to prepare:

  • The edge of your network—people, devices, and spaces—must be a growing, significant piece of your hybrid IT infrastructure. This will require shifting some of the computing workload from centralized data centers to the network edge. The challenge here is to establish core principles around your intelligent network so that it can adapt to ever-changing requirements, seizing and acting on opportunities that it may not have encountered before.
  • Businesses need a hybrid cloud strategy to take full advantage of the intelligent edge. What are the opportunities for cloud computing based on your business and workload needs? Identify the systems, services, and applications that have the biggest impact on your mission and revenue, as well as the costs of network modernization and moving processes from the core to the cloud and the edge. Work with human resources to make sure you have the best talent to create and maintain the dynamic, hybrid IT environment that an intelligent edge will require.
  • Third, security and dependability are key aspects of every network. With new devices added to your network each day, transparency decreases, and it becomes more difficult to know what exactly is running on your system. Applying traditional IT logic to maintain security across such an unstructured network is tricky. Some 84 percent of IoT adopters say they have experienced at least one security breach as a result of connecting to objects. Of course there is always the risk of disruption to the network—as well as to enterprise critical applications and processes—that comes from continuously introducing new capabilities. To mitigate this risk, try to find the right balance between incremental and innovative changes.

Prepare to accommodate change

How you respond to these three complex challenges will vary depending on your technology, your industry, and your strategy. But the one constant that can facilitate all responses is a network architecture that is simple, policy-driven, agile, and scalable. The network will need to be aligned with your business goals. Speed and flexibility will matter immensely. 

When you design your architecture, think about “what we can do,” not “how it can be done.” With such an architecture in place, networks can adapt on the fly and react to problems, take advantage of new opportunities, and enhance user experiences, all by reacting at the edge instead of back in the data center. That means efficiency gains and cost reductions, as well improved business processes and better customer engagement, satisfaction, and loyalty. Simply put: It's about making the network a source of value, not just another cost center.

Leveraging the intelligent edge: Lessons for leaders

  • The sheer magnitude of data that businesses must deal with requires them to radically alter the way they design and operate their networks—and how they absorb and analyze the information those networks generate.
  • The businesses that can best exploit the digital connections between systems, people, places, and things will be the ones that win the day.
  • The "edge" of your network—people, devices, and spaces—needs to become a growing, significant piece of your hybrid IT infrastructure.


Reinventing Rio's airport

As the primary host airport for last summer’s Olympic Games, the managers of RIOgaleao knew they had a problem: The technology that helped them deal with 17 million passengers annually was barely adequate. And given the sharp increase in traffic that the Games would bring, they had to upgrade the airport's network infrastructure quickly.

With 90,000 passengers per day during the Games—an increase from the 40,000 it handles on an average day—the airport network needed to be much faster and more reliable. It also needed to be able to support mobile applications that could help travelers navigate the huge facility and assist airlines, concessionaires, service companies, and airport employees in serving the needs of those passengers.

That meant connecting the edges of the network—passengers via their mobile devices, spaces such as terminals and gates, and stores and lounges—with systems providing flight information, security, and check-in and boarding.  

With a new one-kilometer long terminal and 26 boarding bridges, the most of any South American airport, RIOgaleao is not easy to navigate. So the airport installed more than 3,000 Bluetooth beacons and 500 Wi-Fi hot spots that allowed the airport to offer its own indoor navigation app, helping passengers find everything they needed with maps and turn-by-turn navigation on travelers’ mobile phones, much like Google Maps or a GPS system in a car.

That same app also offers real-time information on flights, eateries, and shops, and allows passengers to pay for parking and get live help, all available in three languages. The faster network accelerated check-in, security, and boarding processes for all those passengers.

“It’s crucial for us to give passengers an environment that becomes part of their journey, a place where they want to spend more time and money,” RIOgaleao CIO Alexandre Villeroy said when the upgrade was completed just before the Olympic torch was lit. With the new network in place, further enhancements are underway, including connecting airport personnel with Internet of Things devices such as air conditioning, lighting, and water systems so they can help keep visitors comfortable. The airport is even downloading data from aircraft to keep flight status information for travelers as accurate as possible. Welcome to the future.