Edge computing
vs. cloud computing:
What are the
benefits in
higher education?

Author: Gary Hilson

In the face of an uncertain future, higher education continues to weigh the benefits of edge computing against the benefits of cloud computing. As decision-makers consider the value of moving to the cloud, they could also find opportunities in redesigning campus IT infrastructure and moving applications to the edge.

Edge computing vs. cloud computing in higher education

The edge computing-or-cloud computing debate in higher education is dictated by specific use cases and application needs such as:  immersive learning, process-intensive research and lab applications, and near real-time collaboration, to name a few. Higher Education entities must consider that bandwidth and computing power vary widely across applications. A network needs to support classroom video conferencing and online tests and exams, not to mention researchers crunching enormous volumes of data and administrators handling potentially thousands of student applications during enrollment season.

While cloud computing is still necessary for some higher education applications, edge computing is gaining traction for others.

What are the benefits of cloud computing?

Cloud computing frees teaching from location dependence, increasing the number of students who can learn through online delivery of courses and through video conferencing and other enhanced, collaborative environments. It can also reduce the investment students make in software; most students can meet their basic needs with an inexpensive computer with a web browser.

The cloud also grants institutions the ability to shift resources—curricula, tools, whatever—onto third-party providers' hardware. This cuts spending, reduces maintenance costs and frees up IT staff for more innovative work that can further enhance teacher and student experiences.

Application developers working in a flexible cloud environment are better equipped to add or remove resources based on demand. And because the cloud is scalable, it is easier to make applications available to more teachers and students as needed. Furthermore, as data is secured and backed up regularly, business continuity is available for academic and administrative functions.

However, cloud computing's centralized approach has its limitations—and that's where edge computing can help bring about new, transformative outcomes that were not possible before.

Edge computing gets closer to the user

Edge computing distributes computing resources and application services via decentralized infrastructure. Instead of collecting and sending vast amounts of data to a central cloud, edge computing infrastructures can process and analyze incoming data at or near its source. Since communication paths are shorter, computation outputs have less distance to travel and can, therefore, deliver services in near real time.

Think of edge computing as distributing multiple clouds that can serve staff and students spread across a campus or several campuses. Bringing the computing infrastructure closer to them reduces latency, which can improve the user experience for students, teachers, researchers and administrators. Edge content can still be backed up to central cloud data centers to ensure business continuity.

Even though cloud computing offers plenty of cost reductions, migrating data still requires connectivity, bandwidth and latency needs—and those can be expensive. When computing power is distributed to the edge, data requires less bandwidth and distance to travel. Campus environments, especially those with research and medical centers, also generate massive amounts of data, which can be analyzed faster the closer they are to the edge.

Edge computing vs. cloud computing: a balancing act

Edge computing is ideal for some applications in higher education, while cloud computing remains the best option for others.

Cloud computing continues to be a workhorse for everyday applications and unique cases. Many organizations have moved their email systems to the cloud using third-party service providers because it is more cost-effective and frees up IT staff to do more work on strategic initiatives. Similarly, applications and systems that experience a spike in usage during specific times of the year are often better served by the cloud. Service providers can easily boost computing power and bandwidth to accommodate usage spikes during enrollment, graduation, concerts and sports events. A central cloud data center is also better for housing the shared high-performance computing resources that support research activities that require massive data lakes and apply artificial intelligence to vast amounts of data.

User experience expectations play a key role in deciding between cloud computing and edge computing. By moving applications and data closer to stakeholders, edge computing generally delivers a better user experience.

Ultimately, fast, reliable connectivity is a must-have for campus-based institutions so that stakeholders can access the information and applications they need to learn, teach and conduct research. Edge computing ensures resiliency and dramatically reduces latency because it shifts access to applications and data away from dependence on a central data center.

Cloud computing and edge computing both have a place in higher education, and understanding their respective benefits is critical to maintaining a resilient network and maintaining robust performance for students in a digital-first world.

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The author of this content is a paid contributor for Verizon.