|IT'S TIME TO THINK BEYOND CLOUD COMPUTING |
Fasten your harnesses, because the era of cloud computing’s giant data centers is about to be rear-ended by the age of self-driving cars. Here’s the problem: When a self-driving car has to make snap decisions, it needs answers fast. Even slight delays in updating road and weather conditions could mean longer travel times or dangerous errors. But those smart vehicles of the near-future don’t quite have the huge computing power to process the data necessary to avoid collisions, chat with nearby vehicles about optimizing traffic flow, and find the best routes that avoid gridlocked or washed-out roads. The logical source of that power lies in the massive server farms where hundreds of thousands of processors can churn out solutions. But that won’t work if the vehicles have to wait the 100 milliseconds or so it usually takes for information to travel each way to and from distant data centers. Cars, after all, move fast.
That problem from the frontier of technology is why many tech leadersforesee the need for a new “edge computing” network—one that turns the logic of today’s cloud inside out. Today the $247 billion cloud computing industry funnels everything through massive centralized data centers operated by giants like Amazon, Microsoft, and Google. That’s been a smart model for scaling up web search and social networks, as well as streaming media to billions of users. But it’s not so smart for latency-intolerant applications like autonomous cars or mobile mixed reality.
“It’s a foregone conclusion that giant, centralized server farms that take up 19 city blocks of power are just not going to work everywhere,” says Zachary Smith, a double-bass player and Juilliard School graduate who is the CEO and cofounder of a New York City startup called Packet. Smith is among those who believe that the solution lies in seeding the landscape with smaller server outposts—those edge networks—that would widely distribute processing power in order to speed its results to client devices, like those cars, that can’t tolerate delay.