How to maintain a cutting edge

16 April 2019 | Gareth Willmer

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With 5G on its way, demand continues to grow around processing data at the edge for better-quality, lower-latency services. Gareth Willmer investigates

Edge computing, already gaining momentum with the internet of things (IoT), raises a question of how carriers will need to change their models and whether it means less transit needed over their backbone networks.

But carriers believe the massive rise in data traffic will counteract this higher proportion of processing at the edge, with Cisco forecasting a tripling in annual global IP traffic from 1.5 zettabytes (ZB) in 2017 to 4.8ZB by 2022. On top of that, they say, data processing will still be needed in the core network.

“The pie is growing for everybody,” as Phillip Marangella, chief marketing officer at edge data centre provider EdgeConneX, puts it.
“A growing part of data can be processed directly at the network borders,” elaborates Walter Fresen, SVP for wholesale at Deutsche Telekom. “But the overall volume of transported data will still rise and hence preserve the transit business.”

However, carriers and their partners are also looking to adapt their models to cater for the need for greater distribution that edge brings. Access networks will grow faster both in “capillarity” and speed upgrades, says Chris Roy, vice president of AT&T wholesale solutions – pointing out that high-speed links above 100G on carriers’ backbones and among data centres are predicted to grow rapidly in the next few years.

Roy says AT&T is testing how to bring edge computing capabilities into the operator’s 5G network with Microsoft Azure, as well as improve latency and user experience by deploying advanced cloud services closer to business sites.

Edge partners

Carriers are also teaming up with specialist edge data centre providers, such as EdgeConneX, and putting points of presence (PoPs) in their facilities. In the past couple of years, EdgeConneX has struck partnership deals with players including Telia Carrier, Colt Technology Services and Tata Communications.

This means a closer relationship with carriers to build edge infrastructure together and grow the number of customers connecting, says Marangella. “We’re trying to enable them to have more points of presence in a distributed fashion,” he says, in line with a need for networks and data centres to “re-architect the internet”.

EdgeConneX, which has the vast majority of its PoPs in its home market of the US, has also been expanding its presence in Europe, recently acquiring data centres in Munich and Warsaw. Furthermore, it has expanded to Buenos Aires in Argentina, where it has an edge data centre due to open in the second quarter.

“This all sets up the global edge platform that we continue to build out,” says Marangella, adding that the company will carry on looking at opportunities for expansion as ultra-low-latency requirements grow. Much of this will be defined by where EdgeConneX’s customers want to go.

From a network provider perspective, a benefit of working with a player like EdgeConneX is that it knows where the demand is and it’s easy to follow them where they go, says Mattias Fridström, vice president and chief evangelist at Telia Carrier. “They do a lot of analysis of where they need to build their next data centre and for us that’s perfect,” he says. “It takes away a lot of uncertainty.”

Telia Carrier is also talking to other providers in the edge space over potential partnerships, including striking a deal with TierPoint last September that will see Telia Carrier offer its Cloud Connect services across 25 of the data centre provider’s facilities in the US. The crux of the carrier’s overall edge strategy, says Fridström, is “how can we be more relevant in more places?”

Innovation

Meanwhile, trends towards edge give carriers room to innovate and create new revenue streams.

With carriers having such extensive networks, it gives them the opportunity to supplement these with edge cloud locations – or “cloudlets” – at network borders and sell infrastructure-as-a-service (IaaS) to both existing and new customers, says Fresen. He says Deutsche Telekom already has four edge cloudlets in its German network and will expand in line with usage demands.

Potential target customers include both carriers and companies such as MobiledgeX, an edge computing company that Deutsche Telekom founded last year, which can then add value with intelligent software on top and sell the package to companies such as developers and gaming operators. “On top of that, carriers can consider the option of engineering their own intelligent software to address developers,” says Fresen.

MobiledgeX itself shows the potential for innovation, with its aim to help players in the ecosystem maximise the potential of edge by building a global marketplace of edge resources and services. The start-up is already working with SK Telecom, with more operators to be announced soon – and, among other things, has struck a partnership to develop augmented reality edge gaming.

In addition, MobiledgeX is part of the newly-created Kinetic Edge Alliance (KEA), formed by edge micro data centre provider Vapor IO to create platforms and aid wide-scale deployments in this area.

Matt Trifiro, chief marketing officer at Vapor IO, says new developments in edge will open up fresh opportunities for carriers, especially given the need for mesh networks and connection between many micro data centres. “This will drive a significant amount of new business potentially, because every one of those data centres is going to need a lot of long-haul connection,” he says.

And to aid wireless players seeking a distributed footprint, Vapor IO last year launched a 5G-as-a-Service offering, allowing players to lease 5G capabilities to accelerate rollouts at lower cost.

Trifiro says new competition may meanwhile stem from developments such as the opening up of so-called Citizens Broadband Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum in the 3.5GHz band in the US, which could potentially allow a whole host of businesses to introduce new IoT-based edge services. “That’s going to create a lot of competition around cellular,” says Trifiro. At the same time, he says, “it will create more and more data for wholesale carriers”.

Network slicing
Eric Bozich, senior director of product management at CenturyLink, believes there will be many interesting business cases for carriers as “wireline and wireless start to mesh” and the idea of network slicing comes into place with 5G.

He suggests an MVNO-type model could emerge whereby businesses focusing on a particular market segment can offer specific services using network slices. “I believe there are a lot of new opportunities for wholesale services that operate on more of a utility-type model,” he says – adding that CenturyLink is doing lots of proofs of concept and tests to see what might work.

Bandwidth infrastructure provider euNetworks similarly talks of the advantages of network slicing. “This leaves the door open for innovative mobile network operators to offer slices bundled with edge computing facilities to enterprises or other virtual network operators to own a mobile service network with distributed computing capability,” says head of products Toby Williams.

The company says it is working on the 5G “fibre fronthaul” opportunity in Europe’s capital cities, with the expected “densification” needed for long-term traffic growth on 5G networks needing this type of metro fibre distribution.

Making changes

A running theme among carriers is the need to have a more distributed approach to infrastructure to meet the future customer requirements that edge brings.

A challenge for carriers is to create a dense metro network rather than just having a backbone, says Andrew Edison, vice president for wholesale at Colt Technology Services.

“For 5G, the next-generation mobile network promises much in terms of revenues and new use cases, but for this to be realised it will require an evolution in network architecture, and this has significant implications for access to the metro and core network,” adds Edison.

“Distributed architecture brings in more complexity, fuelling the need for wholesale carriers to simplify the integration and migration of services between endpoints,” says Srinivasan CR at Tata Communications. “True value” is realised when endpoints span across a wider scale with the ability to communicate and exchange data, he says.

With edge, meanwhile, he sees opportunities for Tata to grow the capacity of its metro, IP transit and content delivery networks, as well as PoPs and cloud offerings, driven by new applications such as VR, IoT and high-definition video consumption.

Data centres

Moves towards edge will also mean changes and opportunities for carrier-neutral data centre providers. At Equinix, VP of business development Jim Poole says there will be a role in helping enterprises and operators to monetise the change in architecture and connect their distributed IT environments.
To aid this, Equinix developed its ECX Fabric service, an SDN-enabled offering that allows customers to interconnect entities within the data centre player’s global platform of nearly 10,000 customers. “Provisioning network capacity to tie distributed IT environments spanning tens of data centres in multiple countries is a non-trivial task,” says Poole. “We make it possible within minutes.”

Equinix is also opening data centres in new markets, with a fourth German site set to open in Hamburg this year, as well as a facility in Oman.
Given the multiple potential directions for edge in these early days, it is hard to predict how the landscape will ultimately look, though. “I don’t think anybody really has a good enough crystal ball to predict where all that will go,” says CenturyLink’s Bozich. But as platforms and services start to emerge, he thinks it will be “a snowball effect”.

“I think the next five years will be really interesting, with some dramatic changes in the wayin which services are offered and the way they’re consumed.”