The infrastructure that will be required to enable all the things 5G promises to enable, from pervasive VR and AR to autonomous vehicles, goes well beyond new antennas on rooftops and cell towers. It will need new fiber lines, computing, storage, networking equipment, sensors, cooling systems, power, enclosures, physical security… you get the idea.
Keith Rutledge, general manager of Compass Datacenters’ EdgePoint business, likened the scale of the buildout of infrastructure to support the digital future we’ve been promised for years to that of the electrification of the United States in the first half of last century.
The cost it will take “to wire this country up for autonomous systems and immense connectivity” will likely make it the most expensive infrastructure build-out ever undertaken in the country, he said Monday to an audience at the Data Center World conference in Orlando.
No single government or company can do it alone, Rutledge stressed. Like electrification or railroads, it will require collaboration between numerous private and public organizations.
Compass, a Dallas-based data center developer and operator, is part of a pilot project in Texas that will offer an early glimpse of what these public-private partnerships may look like in the future. Together with the Texas Military Department (sort of an outsize National Guard), numerous companies, including Compass, are deploying “a couple dozen” PINNs, or Public Infrastructure Network Nodes, and a data center at the department’s Camp Mabry installation in Austin, Rutledge said.
Compass EdgePoint is providing the edge data center element of the project.
PINN, Autonomy Institute's Architecture of the Last-Mile Edge Computing Node
The program is meant to develop a variety of “autonomous solutions,” with a lot of focus on autonomous vehicles. The project is being driven by the edge cloud startup EDJX and Autonomy Institute, an association with members from companies and government organizations that is arguing for standardization of the 5G connectivity and edge computing architecture around PINNs, a concept it created.
It describes PINN as “the first unified open standard to incorporate 5G wireless, edge computing, radar, lidar, enhanced GPUS, and intelligent transportation systems as a single unified system.” A PINN is basically a high-tech pole with things like radio, camera, and sensor equipment built in, computing equipment at the base, and LED lights on top for street lighting.
Autonomy Institute expects PINNs to one day enable “optimized traffic management, autonomous cars, industrial robotics, autonomous delivery, drones that respond to 911 calls, automated road and bridge inspection, smart city, and national security applications,” the organization said in its announcement of the pilot project earlier this year.
A city the size of Austin (population roughly 1 million) would need a network of about 500 PINNs, Rutledge estimated. Every 500 PINNs would also need four to five data centers to manage them. They may replace some cell towers, he pointed out, but they aren’t meant to replace all the towers.
Autonomy Institute plans to expand its PINN pilot to other major US cities and eventually to other countries.
Networks of Small Data Centers for Edge Computing Underway
There are of course others who are also building edge data centers and who have different ideas of what this next generation of networks will look like. Austin-based Vapor IO has been building distributed clusters of small data centers (each about the size of a shipping container) in metros around the US. The data centers are tethered to cell towers, with some located at the base of a tower and some not far from one. Denver-based EdgeMicro has also been busy deploying its version of edge computing facilities around the country.
All the various players in this space seem to agree that there will have to be common frameworks for many elements of the edge and 5G infrastructure, and multiple projects to develop those frameworks are in progress.
Vapor, for example, earlier this year partnered with a number of other vendors, including VMware and Dell, to launch the Open Grid Alliance, whose goal is to establish a formal architecture for the highly distributed network of the future. That alliance, however, appears to be focused more on the way edge and core data centers are interconnected rather than the architecture of end nodes through which data enters the backend network infrastructure, such as Autonomy Institute's PINNs.