For years, we heard about “the cloud” — the magical place where all of our photos, emails, and Facebook posts are stored, ready to be accessed by us at any time.
The term was always deceptive: It sounds like a clean, intangible place, when it fact it refers to megaplexes in low-population areas in Virginia and the Pacific Northwest filled with computers that are always on, churning through electricity. “The cloud is just someone else's computer” is now a popular laptop sticker among tech nerds.
But just as you were adjusting your mental impression of what the cloud is, the cloud is changing. It's all about "the edge" now.
The edge refers to internet infrastructure that is physically close to the user. Edge computing means putting smaller, more specific data centers in the field in order to reduce the amount of data that needs to be transmitted to a central data warehouse.
The cloud was efficient, but it had limitations. Customers were starting to notice latency because of the distance data had to travel. It's ill-designed for applications that constantly generate small amounts of data, like the software that runs Wi-Fi-enabled smart home devices, traffic lights, electrical grids, and other objects collectively referred to as the Internet of Things.
So what does this mean? The cloud — centralized, efficient, large data centers located in remote areas —will still exist. However, smaller, supplemental data centers will move closer to population centers.
But I'm an ordinary human, you say. Why would I care about that?
First, you might notice that things are a bit faster. Second, there are consequences for power usage.
Data centers use a lot of electricity, but they have made big efficiency gains in the past decade. A lot of that is dependent on centralization, however. Fragmenting the industry means at least a temporary setback in efficiency. That has consequences for the environment (more emissions) and potentially prices (higher electricity costs could be passed on to the user).
The biggest difference, however, is that you must now start saying "the edge" in addition to "the cloud."