Living on the edge: the new frontier

27 April 2018 | Gareth Willmer


Demand for low-latency and real-time insights mean applications are moving closer to the edge. Gareth Willmer explores how this will impact the wholesale industry

The internet of things (IoT) is creating the need for low latency and real-time insights closer to the user, meaning a greater need for data processing out towards the edge of the network. With 5G coming up, this will also mean more of a need for such developments.

Over the coming years, these trends are set to alter the distribution of data processing. Gartner, for example, predicts that the proportion of enterprise-generated data created and processed outside a traditional centralised data centre or cloud will rise from about 10% now to 50% by 2022 and 75% by 2025.

In line with this, the research company believes communications service providers should take an approach that fosters an open ecosystem for edge, which in the short term should address “well-defined, targeted vertical use cases”, and later evolve to meet the needs of a 5G topology.

And specific edge data centre providers, such as EdgeConneX and Vapor IO, have in recent years been rolling out facilities to meet edge demands. “For us, the edge is wherever it needs to be,” says Phill Lawson-Shanks, chief innovation officer at EdgeConneX. “We build the infrastructure for the service so the customers can get to the edge.” 

The facilities are then swift to build with the company’s modular design for data centres. “We’re very bespoke, nimble and agile,” says Lawson-Shanks. EdgeConneX aims to create ecosystems for partners, so that they see extra value as these facilities become a magnet for data customers.

The model has proved its worth and has grown in popularity with carriers, he says. And last year, for instance, the company announced a strategic partnership with Telia Carrier to bring access to the carrier’s network and interconnection points. “They know where to build the data centres because they see the traffic patterns,” says Mattias Fridström, vice president and chief evangelist at Telia Carrier.

One of the key things for Telia Carrier, says Fridström, is that EdgeConneX was building in places where there used to be no data centres, and teaming up with them would help expansion outside the traditional major markets. “There’s no need to have every data centre in Ashburn any more,” says Fridström. “That’s what EdgeConnex is taking advantage of – building them where others haven’t built before, and therefore being closer to where the data is consumed.”

Fridström also foresees a growing demand in the current climate for looking to places such as the Nordics, where there is an abundance of cheap and green power, no earthquakes and a cool climate ideal for data centres – describing the region as a “sweet spot” for future data centres.

EdgeConneX, meanwhile, also recently unveiled its first edge data centre in Buenos Aires, Argentina – comprising a multi-tenant carrier-neutral facility with an ecosystem of partners. This is aimed at helping provide underserved areas in South America with high-quality, low-latency content delivery, cloud access and international connectivity. The company also plans further expansion to countries such as Chile and Brazil.

Micro data centres

Webscale content companies are looking at markets such as Argentina as a huge opportunity, says Lawson-Shanks. “It’s not an emerging market, it’s already there – but they just need to get their stuff to it faster and more effectively.”

Another edge player is Vapor IO, a US company that provides hardware and software for the rapid deployment of edge data centres. Founder and CEO Cole Crawford says the evolving picture is that third parties such as Vapor IO will deploy shared infrastructure in the form of neutral data centre facilities able to accommodate many tenants, which will bring new applications and services to carriers and introduce new business models. “For example, it will be possible for a carrier to spin up extra capacity and deploy new services at a moment’s notice, without expending any capital,” says Crawford.

An example of this is the forthcoming 5G-as-a-Service offering that Vapor IO has just announced, which will allow players to lease 5G capabilities on demand without deploying any equipment. Last year, the company also unveiled Project Volutus, an initiative in conjunction with partners such as wireless infrastructure provider Crown Castle to build the world’s largest network of distributed edge micro data centres at the base of cell towers.  

“Many carriers will decide not to roll out their own data centres and will instead contract with third parties like Vapor IO’s Project Volutus to lease data centre capacity, rather than build and operate their own in thousands of locations,” says Crawford. He believes that this kind of micro data centre approach will be necessary for telcos that want to deliver low-latency edge.

One big benefit of this set-up is savings of “billions of dollars” on long-distance backhaul, he adds. “We predict that by 2020, the top 100 major metropolitan areas in the US will be served by dozens of edge data centres like ours.”

Products and places

Other players are meanwhile expanding their data centre reach into new places and launching new products to help users get closer to the edge. In recent months, Interoute has, for instance, announced the opening of new virtual data centres in Sydney, Australia, and in Sao Paulo, Brazil. It also launched an Edge SD-WAN service that intelligently optimises data flows so that traffic takes the fastest and most direct route, reducing latency compared.

“The driver for [these moves] has been effectively being able to deploy sophisticated virtual network functions, as well as a bit of local IT for customers who are increasingly global,” says Mark Lewis, Interoute EVP for products and development. He adds that with the SD-WAN service, the company takes an important role for its customer because it becomes more part of the IT fabric.

Separately, Equinix is leveraging its network based on interconnection as a key differentiator amid the rise of the edge. “The team in EMEA is looking to increase the overall rate of interconnection in our region, and that’s going to be very important as things like edge computing and new technologies come along,” says Brenden Rawle, head of interconnection at Equinix. 

In addition, he points to the digital ecosystems springing up in its data centres in areas such as broadcast media, healthcare, insurance and e-commerce. “These are really a reflection of that move of data from centralised IT to more distributed points of interconnection.”

p52 400And Andrew Fray, managing director UK at Interxion, says his company provides a great location for the “connected” edge, where enterprises require multiple carriers to deliver global content to clouds and local eyeballs. 

Meanwhile, some carriers have been turning some offices to become miniature data centres in a bid to move towards the edge, under a strategy known as central office rearchitected as a data centre (CORD). A recent survey of 20 global service providers by research company IHS Markit found that in 2018, 85% of respondents plan to create or will have already deployed such smart central offices.

This is something that CenturyLink has been working on for a few years in some locations, says James Feger, vice president of network virtualisation at the company. He says that the strategy has been so far to deploy in “in-between” areas that both provide a lot of scale and have proximity to the edge, but the edge will move further out over time. “By going where we have gone, it gives us the ability to determine which central offices could benefit from this infrastructure,” he says.

Meanwhile, Joseph Campbell, co-chief technologist at T-Systems, says there will be a need for industry players to look at different types of edge. “If you’re processing Pokemon Go at a cellphone tower, it’s going to be one thing versus a cracking operation at a refinery.” He says one place where his company sees the edge emerging first is at locations such as oil refineries and manufacturing plants, where there tend to be “tons” of sensors. “The plant is the new data centre,” he says.

Multi-tiered world

The rise of the edge does not, however, mean that centralised hyperscale facilities will be usurped, say observers. “They will not be replacing hyperscale data centres; they will largely become extensions of hyperscale data centres,” says Vapor IO’s Crawford. “The internet of the future will be increasingly multi-tiered.”

“One thing remaining constant is the fact that the demands for bandwidth and connectivity aren’t slowing down,” says Carl Grivner, CEO of Colt Technology Services – adding that Colt provides a wide scale for partners requiring both connections to large-scale data centres and edge facilities, through its global reach with its IQ Network connecting to more than 850 data centres.

The trend towards edge means that “telcos need to have both the ultra-high bandwidth connections that are going to large central aggregation points, but also a network that has local capillaries in major cities to connect edge compute and storage locations”, says Grivner. However, he agrees that the need to connect hyperscale facilities will remain, because data will still need to be backhauled to a central aggregation point to be further manipulated in a centralised, secure and resilient location.

“Take the example of connected cars,” he says. “The cars in a zone of the city will need to communicate to [do things such as] optimise traffic flow [and] avoid accidents. This can be managed from an edge compute device for the local area. But a synopsis of that data would be backhauled to a central compute and aggregation point to manage traffic flow between zones or around the city. This might backhaul on to another aggregation point for the region or the country.”

With technologies such as IoT and 5G in their early stages, it’s not easy to know how far out the edge might ultimately go. But that looks set to evolve as the business cases become clearer in the future data-oriented world.