The Edge

I am writing to you this morning from the edge.

Chances are, sometime today you will encounter “the edge”. Whether you’re like me, and decided to substitute my typical morning dark roast for a pumpkin spice latte, or are simply going to the bank to get a little money out for the week, you are living on the edge.

The edge is where everything happens.

Perhaps I should explain.

As some of you know, my day job is as a programmer, specifically one who works on software that supports medium to enterprise level data-centers. Data-centers these days are almost like a public utility, they are the backbone of every transaction on the internet, every piece of electronic medical data, our spending habits, consumer preferences, etc. are all stored on rows and rows of server racks.

facebook-sweden-datacenter-racks

But it isn’t practical for us to have to talk to a central data-center every time we want to buy a cup of coffee, or track our reward points. A company like Starbucks has literally thousands of stores like this one. My particular bank branch lives in a Kroger in the same plaza, and that also tends to be where I buy groceries for the week. In one little plaza are about maybe a quarter of the transactions I do throughout the week.

So where does my data live?

Well, some of it does live back at that central data center, but the part that interacts with me, that knows who I am when I walk through the door, and knows that most mornings I just go for something like a “venti kati kati”, that part is stored in a data closet in the physical Starbucks store, or in a cash register.

That’s the edge. If our data-center is the hub of a wheel, branches of stores are at the end of each of the spokes. A mini-data center, maybe a single computer or a couple of network devices live everywhere, making it possible for a Starbucks to know who you are when you walk through the door (doubly so if you walk in with a smartphone).

And bad things can happen on the edge.

The Target hack last Christmas was due in large part to someone infiltrating the computer that updated the software on Target cash registers, and loading their own little trojan programs inside. Every cash register is a manifestation of the edge, and this is where millions got their credit card information stolen.

See, a large data-center has pretty good security. To break into its system, you’d often need to have physical access. But the edge by its very nature, has to operate wherever you are. And its often homogeneous, seen one branch computer seen ’em all.

So what do we do? Well, honestly probably nothing. We live in a society that is moving toward “the internet of things”. Even more devices besides what we conventionally think of as computers will start talking to the net, whether it’s a smart pill bottle, pedometer or even our umbrella. We’re paying for things with our smartphones, loading up coupons on our reward cards, and depositing checks by taking a picture. The only way to support that massive influx of data is a data-center infrastructure that is both centralized and distributed.

And the faster we grow, the harder it becomes to make everything secure.

But that’s okay. We change our passwords, have credit card fraud protection and two-step authentication. I’m not proposing we go to a cash only society, or bring down the net, or anything like that. I just think we should be aware of how our world is continuing to change around us, and at least be able to put a name to it.

So there, you’ve learned the one data-center term you’ll ever need to know.

Okay, there’s also UPS (Uninterpretable Power Source). It’s a big battery that keeps everything running when the power goes out. Now you know two.

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4 Comments

Filed under Trube On Tech

4 responses to “The Edge

  1. I like the part where we probably do nothing! The rest just went right over my head and not because of the early hour of the morning. 😉

  2. This was a great post in making sense out of so many of the security problems retailers, banks, and others are having.

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