We’ve been through several major generations of computing during the past five decades, beginning with mainframes (many machines in this class are still in use, by the way), with batch processing and then timesharing with dial-up, “dumb” terminals. The timesharing model extended to minicomputers, which became obsolete with the advent of PCs, local-area networks and client/server computing. Today, it’s all about the business mobile phone and tablet, in addition to notebook PCs, but with much computing now in the cloud--kind of a back to the future with respect to timesharing, but with far more capability in terms of throughput, processing power, reliability, connectivity and, our topic for this article, the edge.
Today’s edge clients, it’s often noted, have many times the storage, processing and communications power of the multimillion-dollar mainframes of the 1960s. It would seem, then, that business mobile phones, tablets and notebooks should be great platforms for computing, and that we should continue to plan for more power and more applications on these edge systems. While such a strategy could indeed work, computing power alone isn’t a good metric to use when deciding upon a computing strategy today. Instead, we need to consider that the whole paradigm for computing has in fact been flipped upside down and over--again.
What do we mean by this? Well, computing in the mainframe days was all about the automation of clerical tasks--payroll, personnel records, accounting and similar jobs. The data was indeed important but small in volume, which is especially relevant to what we see today. And, as computing was in the hands of a small number of professionals whose day-to-day work was often mysterious even to senior managers at the time, it was all about enhancing productivity but only on a very small scale (this despite the millions of dollars spent on hardware alone).
Consider where we are today. Computing power--again, even at the edge--is so cheap that it’s almost inconsequential. Ditto for cloud-based servers, with massive processing power and storage and essentially every application available on-demand and at rock-bottom prices. The data on all of these devices, however--from the edge to those cloud servers--is where the real value of computing is realized today. Both personal and shared (group or collaborative) data is essential not just to enhancing (now organization-wide) productivity, but also to the overall success of any organization anywhere. Need more computing or storage on a moment’s notice? Just click! But lose that spreadsheet that you spent all afternoon on, and, well, it's a feeling that you can only understand if you've experienced it yourself. Anyone who’s even had a word processor crash just as the finishing touches were being put on that exciting new business plan knows what I’m talking about here. So, cheap computing, but all that data (to paraphrase a famous commercial)? Priceless!
OK, crashes are rare these days, but lost or stolen devices are disconcertingly common. So, what should organizations do to make the most of contemporary computing at the edge? Here are a few essentials:
1. Use enterprise mobility management (EMM) products and services. Deciding what applications should run where, and making sure that all organizational data is secured, backed up and otherwise managed is why EMM has become so popular--and essential--during the past five years. The mobile application management (MAM) capabilities of EMM suites make it easy to ensure that only authorized apps can utilize potentially sensitive organizational data, and that mobile content management (MCM) manages the security and integrity of the data itself.
2. Provide training, support, and help-desk services. Today’s highly mobile client devices are indeed little computers, and things can and do go wrong--from errant device settings to end users just getting confused. Make sure your educational and support resources are capable of dealing with problems as they come up; every minute spent head-scratching represents lost productivity--or worse.
3. Limit BYOD choices. It’s essential to assure that a given combination of handset and operating-system release has the security, integrity and certainty essential for trouble-free operations, and certifying such takes time. Fewer choices here also lighten the load on support staff when problems do creep in.
As the cloud-based capabilities essential to collaboration play an increasing (and, we believe, eventually dominant) role in computing, computing at the edge will remain essential. But remember: In organizational IT, it’s not really all about the device or the apps; rather, it’s all about the data.