Latency is a big deal for many modern applications, particularly in the realm of machine learning applied to problems like determining if someone standing at your door is a delivery person or a … robber out to grab all your smart toasters and big screen television. The problem is networks, particularly in the last mile don’t deal with latency very well. In fact, most of the network speeds and feeds available in anything outside urban areas kindof stinks. The example given by Bagchi et al. is this—

A fixed video sensor may generate 6Mbps of video 24/7, thus producing nearly 2TB of data per month—an amount unsustainable according to business practices for consumer connections, for example, Comcast’s data cap is at 1TB/month and Verizon Wireless throttles traffic over 26GB/month. For example, with DOCSIS 3.0, a widely deployed cable Internet technology, most U.S.-based cable systems deployed today support a maximum of 81Mbps aggregated over 500 home—just 0.16Mbps per home.

Bagchi, Saurabh, Muhammad-Bilal Siddiqui, Paul Wood, and Heng Zhang. “Dependability in Edge Computing.” Communications of the ACM 63, no. 1 (December 2019): 58–66. https://doi.org/10.1145/3362068.

The authors claim a lot of the problem here is just that edge networks have not been built out, but there is a reason these edge networks aren’t built out large enough to support pulling this kind of data load into a centrally located data center: the network isn’t free.

This is something so obvious to network engineers that it almost slips under our line of thinking unnoticed—except, of course, for the constant drive to make the network cost less money. For application developers, however, the network is just a virtual circuit data rides over… All the complexity of pulling fiber out to buildings or curbs, all the work of physically connecting things to the fiber, all the work of figuring out how to make routing scale, it’s all just abstracted away in a single QUIC or TCP session.

If you can’t bring the data to the compute, which is typically contained in some large-scale data center, then you have to bring the computing power to the data. The complexity of bringing the computing power to the data is applications, especially modern micro-services based applications optimized for large-scale, low latency data center fabrics, just aren’t written to be broken into components and spread all over the world.

Let’s consider the case of the smart toaster—the case used in the paper in hand. Imagine a toaster with little cameras to sense the toastiness of the bread, electronically controlled heating elements, an electronically controlled toast lifter, and some sort of really nice “bread storage and moving” system that can pull bread out of a reservoir, load them into the toaster, and make it all work. Imagine being able to get up in the morning to a fresh cup of coffee and a nice bagel fresh and hot just as you hit the kitchen…

But now let’s look at the complexity required to do such a thing. We must have local processing power and storage, along with some communication protocol that periodically uploads and downloads data to improve the toasting process. You have to have some sort of handling system that can learn about new kinds of bread and adapt to them automatically—this is going to require data, as well. You have to have a bread reservoir that will keep the bread fresh for a few days so you don’t have refill it constantly.

Will you save maybe five minutes every morning? Maybe.

Will you spend a lot of time getting this whole thing up and running? Definitely.

What will the MTBF be, precisely? What about the MTTR?

All to save five minutes in the morning? Of course the authors chose a trivial—perhaps even silly—example to use, just to illustrate the kinds of problems IoT devices combined with edge computing are going to encounter. But still … in five years you’re going to see advertisements for this smart toaster out there. There are toasters that already have a few of these features, and refrigerators that go far beyond this.

Sometimes we have to remember the cost of the network is telling us something—just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean we should. If the cost of the network forces us to consider the tradeoffs, that’s a good thing.

And remember that if your toaster makes your bread at the same time every morning, you have to adjust to the machine’s schedule, rather than the machine adjusting to yours…