Burgeoning demand for low latency and real-time data processing has brought Edge computing to the fore. An increasing number of companies believe that the technology is a game changer. They feel that it can enable them to expand beyond traditional cloud services towards location-based and distributed data processing. In more ways than one, Edge computing truly is a perfect example of convergence of networks and information technology. By providing the capability to process, manage and analyse digital content in near-real time, close to where applications are accessed and devices located, Edge computing offers the potential to unlock new applications and service opportunities in the technology domain. Further, the concept of Edge computing complements other technology evolutions being witnessed in the telecom space, such as virtualised system deployments, advancements in distributed network architectures and the introduction of 5G. Although still in its infancy, Edge computing is expected to be among the most significant new network architectures in the coming decade.

The combination of Edge and 5G

Cost-efficient service delivery for 5G will not be feasible without the deployment of some form of Edge data computing. Most of the 5G deployments will be localised and will require an element of local computing. Edge computing can ensure that 5G latency is so low that it becomes indistinguishable from reality.

Broadly, the use cases of 5G Edge computing will be premises based and network based. Premises based refers to cellular networks that connect to on-site servers having cloud software plugged into them. The technology can be used to enable remote patient care, and leverage augmented reality (AR) and artificial intelligence (AI) for student training. As for network Edge computing, it allows businesses that have more distributed environments to use the mobile network or the fibre network along with cloud.

Market size and growth

The key driving factor behind the rapid growth of Edge computing is the need for telecom service providers (TSPs) to improve response time and performance through their networks. This provides a major push to the market for smaller, more compact data centres that can be placed closer to end users. However, at present, there is no industry-wide standard definition for Edge data centres. Many take the form of prefabricated modular data centres (PMDCs) that can be built and deployed at a remote location in a few months, or even be prefabricated and ready to use, creating a turnaround time of less than a month. As the network Edge develops and companies scale up their deployment of Edge data centres, standardisation will play a critical role. Edge data centres and PMDCs will need to be uniformly managed and interoperable.

In terms of growth, the PMDC market is forecast to grow from $1.2 billion in 2018 to $4.3 billion in 2023, with shipments already growing faster than that forecast a year ago. This growth is being largely driven by cloud service providers, telcos as well as the rising adoption of Edge computing by the government, industrial, healthcare, education and retail segments.

The telco Edge

Edge computing is attracting interest from a broad spectrum of stakeholders in the telecom industry. Among these stakeholders, telcos are well placed to become the central players in the Edge computing ecosystem as their networks are already evolving towards a virtualised, cloud-based model that can become the basis of Edge deployments.

Telcos have started moving their new network infrastructure and services to regional data centres and local metro networks located closer to customers. The shift to 5G is driving more of this transformation and is letting TSPs inject new network features in different locations across their footprint.

Globally, the Edge computing and Edge service plans of several TSPs, including AT&T, British Telecom (BT), Telefonica and Verizon, are at advanced stages. Operators in Korea, Japan and China are beginning to deploy Edge cloud infrastructure for the introduction of commercial services. Both SKT and KT are deploying regional Edge data centres and plan to target both the business-to-business (B2B) and business-to-consumer (B2C) markets. In China, all three leading operators have either begun large-scale, pre-commercial Edge cloud network construction or are engaged in pilot projects.

AT&T has recently announced work on network edge compute (NEC) in cooperation with Microsoft. The partnership will allow customers to use Microsoft Azure cloud services closer to AT&T’s network Edge locations focused on its 5G network. BT is increasing the number of its metro exchanges tenfold in anticipation of providing an expanded Edge computing service offering for retail, enterprise, and wholesale customers. Telefonica has developed plans for Edge services as part of its network transformation and service deployment and is currently reviewing and testing content delivery network (CDN), storage, video, and gaming applications. Verizon too is focused on developing Edge services that leverage its 5G network and is working with a range of partners and vendors.

In India, Vodafone Idea is reported to have the largest number of Edge cloud deployments in the country. The operator’s enterprise arm is expanding its Edge data centres outreach to 200 more locations. Recently, the operator launched a new platform in its Open Universal Hybrid Cloud, powered by IBM and Red Hat. The platform enables new distributed Edge computing capabilities that can seamlessly blend network and IT functions.

Reliance Jio is also betting big on Edge computing for seamless connectivity. In August 2019, Jio announced a host of digital services, including the country’s largest blockchain network, an internet of things (IoT) platform, and a CDN and Edge computing platform. Meanwhile, Bharti Airtel’s data centre and cloud subsidiary, Nxtra Data, operates 120-plus Edge data centres in the country. In February 2020, Bharti Airtel and Nokia partnered to offer private 4G network solutions to enterprises. The partnership will address the emerging requirements of enterprises across banking, financial services and insurance, ITeS, media and services, manufacturing and distribution through technologies such as Edge computing, cloud, IoT, AI and machine learning.

Role of cloud providers

Apart from telcos, public cloud providers such as AWS, Google and Microsoft are targeting the Edge computing market by developing scaled-down versions of hyperscale cloud infrastructure. For instance, AWS Outposts is a hybrid, scaled-down version of AWS’s hyperscale cloud solution, which supports a cloud provider’s environment in third-party data centres and other co-location spaces, providing fully managed, on-premises compute, storage, and processing functionality. Microsoft’s Azure Stack provides a portfolio of products that extends Azure cloud services from the data centre to Edge locations and remote offices.

Software-as-a-service (SaaS) providers too have started using Edge architecture for services, allowing customers to have hybrid arrangements with a mix of cloud-based, region-based, and on-premises deployments. A number of SaaS providers are promoting the use of hybrid deployments of certain SaaS enterprise resource planning applications in private data centres.

Issues and challenges

The addition of Edge computing to core networks poses several challenges, as the new set up is more complex than what regular data centre operators are equipped to deal with. The likely increase in the number of smaller data centres closer to end users would result in telcos or enterprises demanding a replication of the performance and security which they get in centralised data centres; this might be a challenge. Companies will also be faced with data centre infrastructure management challenges while making sure that the distributed IT facilities are secure.

The way forward

Net, net, the Edge presents a massive opportunity for stakeholders in the telecom sector. Industry estimates suggest that by 2022 about 75 per cent of data will have to be processed at the Edge. To tap this burgeoning opportunity, stakeholders such as telcos, cloud providers, towercos, data centre providers and application developers would need to follow a collaborative approach and devise a business model that helps in building an Edge ecosystem that is beneficial for all.