The phrase edge computing speaks to decentralized data processing power located close to the “edge” of a network, right where devices generate and act on data. That represents a major shift from the traditional model where most computing and analytics occurs in huge centralized data centers.

Such disruptive architecture pushes the frontier of computing applications, data and services away from centralized nodes directly to smart devices situated in the field and on local networks. Edge computing enables data to be analyzed, processed and acted upon in real-time at the local source of data generation before it is sent to distant cloud data centers.

Billions of connected devices and sensors embedded out “on edge” of vast networks, such as those making up the Internet of Things (IoT), are producing oceans of data every second. The near instant decisions needed for innovations like self-driving cars, industrial automation and virtual reality cannot wait for data to make the round trip to distant clouds. Local edge servers create the responsiveness needed, while also saving bandwidth.

Smaller edge data centers embedded at cell towers, factories, warehouses, retail stores and more complement the heavy computing power still delivered by massive cloud data centers. Specialized hardware and virtualization software allocate workloads between edges and the cloud to optimize efficiency, security and cost.

Beyond enabling real-time responsiveness, edge computing also enhances reliability by allowing essential applications to function offline. It also addresses data privacy laws restricting movement of personal data by handling data on-site. What’s more, intelligent systems can use edge learning to synthesize real-world data into rapidly evolving AI models.

The global edge computing market is projected to reach $250 billion by 2024. Challenges around managing such vast decentralized networks and concerns of increased attack surfaces for hackers call for continuing innovation, though.

The practice of edge computing unlocks the full potential of emerging technologies like IoT, 5G and AI by harnessing the power of decentralized data networks spanning across smart infrastructures, devices and spaces. That brings computation to where we live for more responsive and resilient systems.