Healthcare on the Edge

By KIM BELLARD

Perhaps you read about, or were directly impacted by, the massive, multi-hour Amazon Web Services (AWS) outage last week.  Ironically, AWS’s effort to add capacity triggered the outage, although apparently was not the root cause.  It’s no surprise that AWS sought to add capacity; it, like most cloud service vendors these days, has seen skyrocketing growth.  Even healthcare has jumped into the cloud in a big way.

But, as the outage reminds us, sometimes having core computing functions done in far-off data centers may not be always a great idea.  Still, we’re not about to go back to local mainframes or networked PCs.  The compromise may be edge computing. 

Definitions vary, and the concept is somewhat amorphous, but goal is to move as much computing to the “edge” of networks, primarily to reduce latency.  PwC predicts: “Now, with the rise of IoT, the centralised cloud is moving down and out, and edge computing is set to take on much of the grunt work.” 

As they describe it:

With edge, instead of pushing data to the cloud to be computed, processing is done by devices ‘at the edge’ of your network. The grunt work is done closer to the user, at an edge gateway server and then select or relevant data is sent to the cloud for storage (or back to your devices).

The oft-cited example is self-driving cars; you really don’t want the AI to wait a single millisecond longer than necessary to make a potentially life-saving decision.  An article in Nextgov pointed out:

Thus, a Tesla isn’t just a next-generation car; it’s an edge compute node. But even with Tesla, a relatively straightforward use case, building and deploying the edge node is just the beginning. In order to unlock the full promise of these technologies, an entire paradigm shift is required.

If this sounds like techy “inside baseball” stuff, think again.  This is a big shift.  Analyst and fund manager Stephen McBride believes edge computing is the “next great tech revolution.”  He says: 

The key takeaway is that edge computing makes the “impossible” possible. Technologies like self-driving cars, IoT, AR, and the commercialization of 5G will never get off the ground without edge computing.

It’s not just Mr. McBride who sees edge computing as a paradigm change.  The 2020 State of the Edge Report calls edge computing “the Third Act of the Internet.  Arpit Joshipura, the General Manager, Networking, Edge, and IOT for The Linux Foundation (which help create State of the Edge) proclaimed: “We stand on the precipice of a profound re-architecting of the Internet called edge computing, which will impact all areas of society.” 

The press release warned:

Where we stand today is at the edge. Today’s Internet struggles to support the newest use cases, particularly those that require real-time and low-latency interactions, not to mention handling connections with billions of devices generating petabytes of data. Only a radical restructuring of the Internet at the edge will solve for these emerging challenges, which will require thousands of companies to invest billions of dollars in new infrastructure.

The report estimates over $700b in capital infrastructure on edge infrastructure and data center facilities over the next decade, with healthcare identified as one of the leading industries that will adopt edge computing.  Mr. Joshipura believes “edge computing will overtake cloud computing” by 2025, which is a pretty bold statement.

More recently, IDC forecast edge computing as being a $251b market by 2024, asserting: “Edge products and services are powering the next wave of digital transformation.”  Healthcare is again cited as one of the impacted industries. 

There are plenty of hardware companies positioning for the edge computing movement, such as Akamai Technologies, Cloudflare, Fastly, or Telefónica, but also software vendors like Google, Microsoft or Red Hat. Earlier this year, Red Hat President and CEO Paul Cormier said:

We can look at the edge as the newest IT footprint, becoming an extension of the data center just like bare-metal, virtual environments, private cloud and public cloud.

The edge is open. The edge is hybrid. And the edge is powered by Red Hat.

Glenn O’Donnell, writing for Forrester in ZDNet, sees 2021 as an “inflection point for edge computing.  He predicts three key developments:

  • Data center marketplaces will emerge as a new edge hosting option – “We see a promising new option emerging that unites smaller, more local data centers in a cooperative marketplace model;”
  • Private 5G will push enterprises to the edge – “Private 5G is here now, and we expect it to fuel edge computing in 2021…2021 will be the inflection for 5G, but it will be private, not public.”  
  • New edge vendors will shave five points off public cloud growth – “As edge computing becomes a “cool” new platform for business computing, it will siphon some of the money that would otherwise have gone to cloud expansion.”

Health care is going to be impacted in a big way.  Most forecasts about the healthcare system of even the near future expect more real-time patient monitoring – the so-called Internet of Bodies (Iob) that includes “an expanding array of devices that combine software, hardware, and communication capabilities to track personal health data, provide vital medical treatment, or enhance bodily comfort, function, health, or well-being.”

We’re not going to get that without edge computing.  As PwC predicts: “5G and edge computing will enable the low-latency, real-time guaranteed conditions necessary to use IoT devices for patient monitoring and at-home care. For rural patients unable to access the care provided in larger metropolitan facilities, this could be a game-changer.”

The future of healthcare is on the edge.

I’m not smart enough to know exactly what edge computing will look like, in healthcare or anywhere else, much less how it works (then, again, don’t ask me how cloud computing or even PCs work!), but I’m smart enough to predict that this is a trend that no industry, especially healthcare, can overlook. 

As the 2020 State of the Edge report warned –not specifically about health care, but definitely including it – “Edge computing is crucial for many industries that currently find themselves in the midst of the digital revolution…It is crucial that industry players respond to these demands—if they don’t they will be substituted for players who can and will.”

Ignore it at your own risk.

Kim is a former emarketing exec at a major Blues plan, editor of the late & lamented Tincture.io, and now regular THCB contributor.

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