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What is
distributed
computing
and why does
it matter for
my business?

Author: Shane Schick

The rise of technologies such as 5G and the Internet of Things has led businesses to reconsider how they'll make strategic use of all the data that they expect to be available to them. Distributed computing, and edge computing in particular, will likely prove critical to achieving the outcomes they want.

But what is distributed computing, and where does edge computing come in? Though the term "distributed computing" has been around for decades, the concept of an edge topology may still be relatively new for some organizations. Think of this as a crash course in the two concepts and how they interrelate.

What is distributed computing?

Most of the technologies we use in everyday life are only possible thanks to distributed computing. This includes search engines, streaming services and even online banking.

The technologies required to perform these tasks can include independent hardware, software and other components that are linked as nodes in a network. The components can work together to exchange information and run as though they are one system.

Contrast this with parallel computing, in which multiple processors execute tasks at the same time, within the same system. That's useful for increasing the amount of work an individual computer can handle efficiently, but the needs of most businesses require IT capabilities on a larger order of magnitude.

So what is distributed computing? It not only maximizes the performance of the collective nodes but also offers great flexibility. Servers and workstations can be connected in a local network, for example, or woven together across remote sites around the world.

Organizations can also add more equipment to expand the capabilities of distributed systems, or to build in greater redundancy and ensure greater reliability and business continuity. These systems are also sometimes referred to as distributed clouds

Distributed cloud vs. edge computing

It's easy to get confused about distinctions between distributed cloud vs. edge computing, but essentially distributed cloud can make edge computing much easier to manage and maintain.

As organizations continue to enhance employee and customer experiences, for example, they often need to speed up data processing where their employees, customers or frontline devices are: at the edge of the network.

Although still distributed in nature, edge nodes are set up to process data closer to its point of creation. This could include smartphones, IoT devices, cloud-based point of sales systems and more.

It's possible for organizations to scale edge computing significantly as part of their growth strategy. This can create challenges for ops teams to set up a large number of individual edge servers and deploy them to container environments, such as Kubernetes, in a consistent way.

Distributed cloud helps to address that by offering a single control plane with which to manage multiple edge environments, whether they are sitting in the cloud in containerized clusters or on premises in a warehouse.

It's not so much a case of distributed cloud vs. edge computing, in other words. The two technologies complement each other to reduce overhead for IT. 

Distributed cloud vs. edge computing in action

You don't have to look very far to see where distributed computing has made an impact on the world. If you're browsing the web, sending email or checking your company's intranet, you're benefiting from distributed architecture. The large number of users dependent on these kinds of applications requires the kind of processing power that's ideally suited to a distributed cloud. Security is also improved—in part because the architecture is not all set up in one location.

Apart from smart objects and streaming services, edge computing is becoming pervasive in several other critical areas. These include industrial settings such as factories, where bringing data closer to where it's used can help to introduce automation for operational improvements. The introduction of self-driving cars is another instance where having workloads run at the edge can allow systems to respond quickly to real-time data.

What is distributed computing going to look like in years to come? As it continues to evolve, there's little doubt that carving out edge computing could accelerate a lot of innovation that brings more value to businesses in multiple industries.

Learn how you can harness the power of 5G and edge computing.