Close Encounters with the Third Premises

Aliens were a big deal when I was growing up, and they featured prominently in pop culture. A lot of great sci-fi alien movies came out in the late 1970s and early ‘80s, including the rather sophisticated Close Encounters of the Third Kind, written and directed by Steven Spielberg. Most people will remember it from the distinctive five-note musical phrase, D’ E’ C’ C G.

The movie takes its title from the Hynek scale, UFO expert J. Allen Hynek’s classification of close encounters with extraterrestrials, used to classify the degree of contact from vague sighting to hanging out with a living, breathing alien.

And, yes, I’m actually going to tie that into current information technology conversations.

What do I mean by third premises? The most persistent subject of cloud debate is on-premises versus off-premises. For most, on-premises refers to traditional data center environments and off-premises to public cloud data centers. Folks tend to twist themselves into knots trying to prove that on-prem versus off-prem is a zero-sum phenomenon. I believe that’s false, but it also misses out on a more interesting trend. What happens when all that IT equipment doesn’t find its way into either?

Increasingly, infrastructure and software are being deployed in the world around us — that’s the third premises. And these deployments defy the conventional false dichotomy (see my earlier blog, The Transformation Knothole, for more thoughts on this).

Nothing travels faster than the speed of light, not even great news

We’ve reached the peak of traditional centralized data and computer warehousing, and we’re seeing a fundamental shift in where computing happens and data is generated. Moving from thousands of systems in hundreds of locations to millions of systems and locations creates a scaling problem, especially for public cloud vendors. Glory awaits whoever can figure out this scaling issue – and we have a nice head start here at Dell Technologies.

Deployments are growing very fast, and I’m going to summon all of my sci-fi nerd power and tell you it’s all because of the speed of light (are you having flashbacks to high school science class yet).

The speed of light governs the rate at which information can be transmitted. It’s wicked fast, but not fast enough in the world of modern computing. It causes latency – or a measure of delay. Throw in some additional latency driven by equipment, and lag time starts to pile up quickly.

AWS publishes a handy chart that cites the latencies between its global data centers. Data centers in Northern Virginia and Central Ohio, where Amazon data center zones are closest, are 12 milliseconds (ms) apart under ideal conditions. That stretches to 72ms to traverse the country from Northern Virginia to Northern California. Both the 12ms and 72ms numbers reflect a highly engineered, owned and operated network. Those will be much higher where network conditions are not as ideal.

Have you recently had a close encounter (really close)?

Until somebody can harness something like quantum entanglement (back to high school physics, everyone) to create latency-free communications, we’ll have to live with it. But we are on the verge of a great swing of the pendulum from a state that Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella characterized as “peak centralization” toward a much more distributed IT environment. The operator of the second-largest public cloud, Microsoft realizes that centralization is good for business, but also that centralized public cloud services are not suitable for everything.

Businesses are rapidly digitizing their operations, coupling physical with digital spheres to drive improved outcomes of all kinds: safety and quality in manufacturing, security in public spaces, productivity and automation in warehouses, environmental efficiency in enclosed spaces and experiences in entertainment venues.

Delivering these improvements requires that the digital systems operate in real-time, but moving data thousands of miles to be processed is the enemy of real-time execution (see latency above). We need to put the infrastructure where the data is being generated. That means the systems that bridge the digital and physical spheres need to be close, really close.

As proximity of systems becomes critical, deployments of IT equipment outside of data center environments – third premises — will likely dwarf what we have seen over the past decade in terms of the scope and scale of public cloud.

You can’t fool us by agreeing with us

You’ve probably already had close encounters with third premises and just didn’t realize it.

At Dell Technologies, we have a long history of working with retailers to provide IT systems for their stores. Traditionally, a store might have a few servers and a few more point-of-sale systems. Retailers are now gearing up to deploy entire racks of IT gear to power in-store experiences, improve theft and loss prevention, adjust pricing via dynamic in-store operations, automate stocking, etc. Manufacturers are similarly deploying gear to automate hundreds of tasks and operations throughout factory floors.

I get asked a lot about whether the third premises (or edge) is real, likely spurred by people who have been burned by expectations around consumer IoT. It is very real, and it is not a sci-fi future state, it is everywhere around you already.

Preparing for a decentralized world will be critical to long-term business continuity and human progress. Digital transformation will continue to move out of traditional data centers to the cloud and the edge. Having the capacity to ingest, manage and connect data and experiences will be crucial.

In Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Richard Dreyfus’ character was asked what he wanted. “I just want to know that it’s really happening.” The third premises are here. As the iconic little boy in the movie said, “You can come and play now.”

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