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Nobody Has the Foggiest About the Edge

Nobody Has the Foggiest About the Edge

Does edge computing decentralization make sense? What form should it take? What role is left for network operators?

Cisco once tried to popularize fog computing as an alternative to the edge. If you've never heard of it, you are not alone. For a short period, fog computing gave rise to a new industry group called the OpenFog Consortium (because the industry needed another group with open prefixing its name), but this was eventually absorbed into a bigger association known as the Industry IoT Consortium. Mentioned zero times at Informa's edge event in London this week, fog computing has evaporated like morning mist.

Pity, because it is a better description of the edge than "the edge," as well as being a metaphor that suitably captures the industry's befuddlement in this area. As an expression, the edge really doesn't make any sense at all, suggesting networks have a firm boundary like a baseball field. If they do, it is the coverage limit in rural areas – and that's not the sort of place where someone would necessarily want to put a lot of computing power. Fog, by contrast, alludes to the drift and dispersal of IT resources across the entire network – from central data facilities to user gadgetry.

No one in telecom is very clear if this decentralization makes sense or what form it could take. Typically, operators favor centralization. "We don't want to put a lot of edge clouds out there," said Terje Jensen, the head of network architecture at Norway's Telenor, during a presentation at Informa's London event. "We want to centralize as much as we can."

Dotting the landscape with "edge centers," even if it means kitting out existing premises, would probably not be cheap. Operators would presumably have to invest in additional server equipment and software licenses, at least. Unsurprisingly, then, the cheerleaders for this rearchitecting of the network include equipment vendors like Intel and software developers, whether big or small. Intel estimates the "edge silicon" market will be worth $65 billion by 2024 (it's unclear if this means cumulative industry revenues by then, but Gartner put annual semiconductor sales at $595 billion last year).

Puking in the metaverse

There are a few reasons why an operator might do it, conceded Jensen. The most exciting is all about service improvement. By shortening the journey for a data signal between the customer and the site, an operator could reduce latency, a lag that might interfere with more advanced applications. Otherwise, virtual reality would be disorientating enough to have headset wearers puking over their omnidirectional treadmills after just a few seconds in the metaverse.

But the metaverse remains science fiction, and operators do not want to build the low-latency infrastructure for it if all the additional revenues end up with Facebook or other members of Big Tech. Today's latency-sensitive applications do not need an edge site for every town. Three UK believes it can address customer needs for "reduced latency" through a network comprising just three big data centers and 19 edge facilities.

Other UK operators seem in broad agreement. "The fiber lengths are not as long as in the US and the incremental benefits of latency are quite small compared with large countries," said Viraj Abhayawardhana, who works in network strategy at BT. Vodafone UK, which partners with AWS at the edge, expects to make do with a handful of edge sites, at most. So far, it has deployed only one, while its German sibling operates three.

Business customers, however, might want data processing to be done locally, according to the BT executive, at least partly to ensure they comply with data sovereignty laws. But this does not sound like an especially convincing "use case" for the telco edge. For one thing, sovereignty concerns tend to be national, not more localized (any UK data center would probably do for a UK business, regardless of location). And a company seriously worried data could fall into the wrong hands seems likelier to have its own private cloud. There could still be opportunity for a telco – but it is less clear.

The other main reason for investing in the edge is about internal efficiency. In France, Cellnex, an infrastructure owner, is helping to shift parts of a radio access network (RAN) that Bouygues operates into 100 edge facilities, for instance. But this is about centralization rather than decentralization. IT resources in the RAN usually sit at the bottom of a mast. A "cloud RAN," as operators call it, means sucking them into a smaller number of facilities and using less IT equipment. Without suitable fiber connections back to the masts, latency becomes an issue.

For this reason, Tommi Uitto, the head of Nokia's mobile business, thinks many operators will consolidate only their RAN central units, responsible for the functions that are not latency-sensitive, and leave the so-called distributed units (DUs) at masts. "The DU must be no more than 20 kilometers away from the cell site because it has real-time-sensitive functions," he said during a recent interview. "In practice, it might not make sense for anybody to build a new grid of this type of edge sites, and that is why we believe most DUs will actually reside at the cell site."

Unglamorous assistants

That makes it even harder to envisage an edge deployment numbering hundreds of sites in a particular country. If an operator could use those sites for both DU functions and other IT resources, the business case would undoubtedly be stronger. But operators increasingly look like the unglamorous assistants to Big Tech on the customer-facing side, clinging on where they can. Amazon does not require a telco partnership to sell AWS to a business or Amazon Prime to a household. Does it need one to sell edge services?

Read the rest of the article at Data Center Knowledge's sister publication, Light Reading.

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