EdgeMicro: At the edge of a new world for data centres

18 July 2019 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

Cover

Data centres for the 5G era will be small and installed at the edge of networks so they can deliver content efficiently. Josh Snowhorn, founder of EdgeMicro, tells Alan Burkitt-Gray.

We’re about to see what Josh Snowhorn calls “a complete land-grab” for small data centres at the edge of the world’s new 5G networks. He should know: he’s been in the data centre industry since 2000, when he was vice president of Terremark Worldwide.

Shortly after Verizon bought Terremark for $1.4 billion in 2011, Snowhorn moved on to CyrusOne, a data centre company then owned by Cincinnati Bell.

Last year it was time to found his own company, EdgeMicro – as the name implies, focusing on the edge.

“My history is in giant data centres,” he tells me. “The edge is different: the big thing is content. The content guys are looking at those markets where there are no internet exchanges – places such as Houston and Dallas, no peering or interconnection.”

Is this right, that there are no peering points or internet exchanges (IXs) in so many places? “IXs are not as pervasive as in Europe,” he says. “Houston is sprawled, with millions of people, and no IX.”

At the moment, this is tolerable. If you’re watching Netflix or Facebook Live, then it doesn’t matter too much where the file comes from. But with 5G, that will be different. The demand for content will rise and content companies will look for a better way to reach their customers. “5G will need more bandwidth, more backhaul and more cost.”

There’s a technological reason, too, says Snowhorn, who is taking part in our first Communications Infrastructure Summit, in Atlanta on 26 June.

The ideal is to deliver content right to the edge of the mobile network – to as close to the base station as you can.

In the mobile world until now this has been done in repurposed central offices – telephone exchanges – where peering equipment has been installed in place of the old equipment designed to connect landline calls. “Previously content companies embedded their services in the central office,” he says. “A central office wasn’t designed for that.”

And there’s what might be called a territorial problem. These aren’t Snowhorn’s words, but what he’s meaning is that one local exchange company runs the central offices in a city – but the content companies want access to all the mobile companies serving the area. That local exchange company is the gatekeeper and is not always cooperative.

What’s the alternative? Go direct to the base stations, and put small data centres next to them, connected to the content companies by fibre.

“But 3G and 4G doesn’t allow peering at the edge,” he says. “Can’t you just peer? According to our CTO, Anton Kapella, no.” With 5G, though, it’s different. “When 5G comes, we can do it,” says Snowhorn. EdgeMicro has filed a patent covering what it calls METX, mobile edge traffic exchange.

EdgeMicro commissioned Aricent, a global design and engineering company owned since 2018 by French group Altran, to develop METX. “None of us are really software guys, so we asked them to write a module, and we now have the solution,” says Snowhorn. “We paid them to do it, and we own it.”

EdgeMicro’s small data centres are “half a rack up to two racks” of equipment. Ultimately there will be one at “every radio head-end server gateway”.

So far, EdgeMicro has planned a roll-out to 30 cities – “but we have to do hundreds of cities”, he says. “The big cloud guys are the biggest customers, and also Akamai. We have a US focus now, and then Canada.”

Snowhorn is sharing information with Cara Mascini, CEO of EdgeInfra, based in Amsterdam. “It’s helpful for everyone and there’s an agreement that allows us to integrate if we want to in the future.”

In the longer term, he sees standarddesign data centres being moved around the world on ships – in shipping containers themselves or something of similar design – ready to be dropped off in ports and installed in Africa, Latin America, south-east Asia and India.

But he’s aware that competition will build. “Every Tom, Dick and Harry will do an edge strategy. I see a complete land-grab. You have to do it at scale.” There is a plan to raise “more than $100 million” later in the year, “but that’s a moving target”.

Small data centres with 5G will appeal to applications “such as video, gaming and telemetry”, he adds. “Who knows what smart people will design?” Taxi companies such as Uber and Lyft “are excited about local access” to services, he says. “It will reduce their cost of deployment.”

When Snowhorn helped to found EdgeMicro, he was chief strategy officer, but he stepped back from that at the beginning of the year. “I’m not full time any more. You can hire a bunch of people for what you’d pay me.”

That gives him a bit more time to indulge his interest in Formula 1 racing. “I try to do five to 10 a year.” He reels off a list of those on his schedule. “But some are more boring.” In the edge infrastructure world he’s hoping things are anything but boring.

View this executive interview as a digital page in the June/July edition of Capacity magazine and see what other great articles you may have missed out on!