You probably have heard talk about the emerging Cloud Continuum. Is it another tech buzzword? Not this time. In fact, the Cloud Continuum is the next step in bringing the digital into the physical world.

Here’s an example from the Amazon Go store concept, powered by their “Just Walk Out” technology (which, in turn, is possible thanks to the Cloud Continuum—more on this in a little bit).  

In a Go store,  you scan a QR code from your mobile app to enter a turnstile and now the store knows who you are. From there, a grid of overhead cameras tracks your journey through the store. It works as part of a fusion of pressure and scale sensors in the shelves to automatically update a virtual shopping cart based on physical items you pick up. To verify that the digital cart accurately captures the things you’ve picked, Amazon further uses a highly personalized algorithm based on your shopping history. When finished, as the name suggests, you “just walk out” and your items are paid. The result is the ultimate grab-and-go experience. 

If you think only Amazon can create this kind of “intelligent” experience, think again! Major cloud providers have released the tools that let others do the same—and bridge the digital and physical worlds in exciting ways for customers, business partners and employees.

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It’s a literal quantum leap in introducing new services to form a new cloud continuum (and, yes, this also includes quantum compute as a service!). These services allow intelligence to be distributed everywhere, including everyday systems like your car, toaster or even your shoes. They extend data access from anywhere, making available previously untapped data and scale computation from high performance to low power.

So what is the Cloud Continuum (and why isn’t it a buzzword)?

If I sound overly excited about all this, it’s because, well, I am. While deep technology powerhouses like Amazon have been able to create these seamless “phygital” experiences, not until now did we have the right technology enablers for every business to do the same. 

The Cloud Continuum is not a technology but a topology. It’s what happens when we bring together many cloud technologies designed to work together to create a new topology that connects everything. 

The Cloud Continuum is when cloud as we know it expands seamlessly between centralized and distributed computing. A new topology brings together on-premise data centers, public cloud and distributed compute all the way to the edge. Data and compute can be managed via a single pane of glass while deployed where it makes sense best.

The Continuum balances:

  • data that needs to remain on-premises for privacy or security;
  • data that resides in the public cloud to take advantage of cost models and high-level cognitive services provided by public cloud providers; and
  • data that remains in devices at the very edge.

Creating a continuum of options: Edge, 5G and hybrid cloud

The new Cloud Continuum gives many options for integrating the digital and physical.

Edge computing is one of them. Companies can run applications with the most critical reliability, real-time, and data requirements directly onsite. For example, a fast-food restaurant’s smart kitchen automation needs to run in-store to ensure we all have crispy fries. But not everything can run at the edge—space in the store is limited and physical access requirements make it harder to service and scale. 

Now, network advances like 5G guarantee connectivity and multi-access edge compute (MEC) give additional options for deployment along a telco’s network edge. For example, adding congestion management can route video from instore cameras to analytics workloads within the network to serve an entire shopping center or even a neighborhood. Here, tens of milliseconds of network delay is acceptable and the network provides a new option for deployment. Any upgrades to the algorithm or even hardware acceleration applied in this manner benefits all users.

How do we continue to learn from this new in-store data and create new experiences for customers and workers? The answer is in the hybrid cloud. Public cloud and on-prem play a bigger role than ever because that’s where you host enterprise data and systems and where you create new applications and analytics. Hybrid offers more options than ever to balance on-premise requirements of regulations, privacy and control, with agility and innovation powered by services from public cloud.

The result is a continuum of options to deploy workloads on a device, within the store, shopping center, telco network, public cloud or on-premise. There is new flexibility to place data where it needs to be and move and scale compute to optimize for interactivity, reliability, sustainability and cost. The Continuum allows access to cloud’s capabilities and on-demand service model beyond the public cloud regions—and into everyday systems.   

3 tech enablers that make the Cloud Continuum possible

Just a few years ago, we couldn’t talk about a Cloud Continuum because we didn’t have the right infrastructure and technology in place. It began emerging in the 2000s when we had Internet of Things (IoT) that allowed us to see at the edge. Then in the 2010s, we had containerization technology that allowed us to move the computation to be co-located with the data. These containers could be deployed in any cloud or in gateways or servers at the edge.

Evolution to the Cloud Continuum

Today, it’s a different story.

The Continuum supports building topologies where data can flow and be processed anywhere on a mesh of interconnected nodes—some of which can be deployed within the cloud, on-premise, in the network or at the edge. All of this is better when we have 5G, with its high speed, low latency, and ability to support thousands of separate devices, connecting cloud to edge. It adds a connectivity guarantee, so the edge can be managed and used for business-critical applications.

There are the pillars of the Cloud Continuum:

1. Cloud. The biggest change is made by cloud providers who have proven over and over their ability to democratize technology—whether it’s compute infrastructure or big data and AI.

Cloud providers continue to do so by launching AI, augmented reality/virtual reality, IoT, and robotics services. Cloud makes these services easy to use in the same way it hid the technicalities of compute, storage and network. With cloud, this futuristic technology has become the new basics on which businesses can reimagine everyday experiences. For example, cloud providers are launching an exciting new set of edge offerings (like AWS Outpost, Microsoft Stack or Google Anthos). They make it easy to develop and deploy at the edge—within the network, at the regional sites or on a device—right by the end-users, just like we can already do in the centralized cloud regions. 

If you want to create transformative experiences, you can speed up development thanks to new services that public cloud providers are constantly releasing. In essence, we are standing on the shoulders of giants.

2. Infrastructure architecture. Hyperconverged infrastructure and hardware vendors are more important than ever in the Cloud Continuum era because they provide the computational variety for processing data. This can take place:

  • On a device that requires ultra-low power;
  • Onsite in a factory, a hospital or a retail location, where there are specialized requirements to work in ruggedized environments or with limited power and space; or
  • On-premise, to even to run compute on encrypted data using multiparty compute.

The new Continuum will require deploying compute to more places than ever. And in turn, we will need specialized hardware with configurations to process more data faster and in an energy-efficient way. 

3. Seamless network connectivity. The connectivity makes the Continuum, and it’s enabled by telcos offering unique computing points directly within their network along with a rollout of public and private 5G.

This extensive connectivity provides first-of-its-kind quality of service guarantees. An example: Today we need to purchase the latest Play Station or Xbox for our teenagers (or maybe for ourselves). Tomorrow, with edge and 5G, we will have this same experience right from the 5G network in our homes without needing the far-off data centers we have now. Thousands of mini-data centers that are closer to the players will give us that high-end experience instead. If you know how video game streaming works, I’m saying that the game will be rendered by edge in the network—which could make expensive consoles with dedicated hardware a thing of the past.

Another simple example. 5G enables easier servicing and management. Today, you take your phone out of the box, download the apps you want, set up your preferences, etc. Tomorrow, you take your phone out of the box, power it on and the 5G network is enabling your phone. Done.  

How to become a Continuum Competitor

Just like cloud-created digital natives (like Airbnb, Netflix and Uber) have reinvented entire industries, the new Continuum creates a new opportunity for disruption by creating “Continuum Competitors”—businesses that commit to reimagining themselves within the new Cloud Continuum.  

If you want to take advantage of Continuum’s huge potential and become a Continuum Competitor, you need to develop a set of enabling “behaviors.” Here’s a summary, but I encourage you to check out the Cloud Continuum research we just published for examples of how these behaviors come to life:

  • Feed-it-forward—Use cloud’s elastic service model to be first and make the market.
  • Continuous goals—Interlock your cloud and business strategies to get the data you need to drive decisions and agility to act.
  • Cloud-first apps—Use as much cloud as possible to stand on its wealth of evergreen technology stack and focus on innovating.
  • Talent transformation—Democratize cloud tools to make continuous learning and innovation a shared mission across your business.
  • IT experimentation—Adopt agile principles across the entire business using cloud to prototype experiences, fail fast, adjust and optimize. Use this process to try out and apply new capabilities from cloud providers.
  • Scale awareness—Understand how to scale in a way that balances growth with sustainability, safety, responsibility and trust.

I should emphasize that the Cloud Continuum is not a destination but an operating model—a way of doing business. It uses cloud’s interlocked capabilities as an innovation engine—from how you interact with your customers, partners and people to new ways to build and operate your IT systems. It powers a continuous stream of improvements to create the best experiences, like just stepping into a store, grabbing something from a shelf and walking out.

Teresa Tung

Cloud First Chief Technologist

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