In many ways, large telcos today are looking to answer similar questions web giants looked to answer years ago. They need a lot of data center footprint to make the next generation of applications on their networks happen, and they’re figuring out the best ways to go about it.
What’s different is the nature of the data center footprint they need. Instead of enormous campuses the likes of Facebook and Google have been building for themselves, carriers (and others, including the likes of Facebook and Google) now need a large, highly distributed network of small-capacity data centers that will put compute infrastructure as close as possible to as many wireless users as possible.
These so-called edge data centers will help deliver content and applications of the future – applications that are expected to become possible with the arrival of 5G wireless networks – but also ease congestion that already exists on carrier networks thanks to all the content people are consuming on their smartphones.
Building out such a network of data centers is far from trivial, both in terms of cost and complexity. A new partnership between edge data center builder Vapor IO and bare-metal cloud provider Packet aims to build a new business by solving those cost and complexity problems so that network operators don’t have to. They want to do at the edge the same thing Amazon Web Services did when it lowered the barrier to entry infrastructure costs used to present for software startups.
Vapor has talked about building a network of edge data centers at the bottom of wireless towers and leasing colocation space in those facilities before. What’s new is the plan for Packet to turn those edge data centers into mini-cloud availability regions, with hardware and connectivity optimized for wireless network use cases and for enabling software-based network functions and management capabilities necessary for 5G.
The partners say incumbent carriers will find the service attractive because it replaces the enormous capital investment required for building this infrastructure on their own with an operational expense in the form of monthly usage-based service fees. The value proposition is similar to today’s public cloud services, but it’s aimed at very specific types of end users and optimized for their highly specialized use cases.
“If you just want to put two special boxes in every city that matters in the world, I want to be able to make that happen for you,” Zachary Smith, Packet co-founder and CEO, said in an interview with Data Center Knowledge.
The compute boxes are just one part of the vision. The cloud service will be part of Project Volutus, the edge colocation service Vapor announced last year. It’s rolling out Volutus in partnership with Crown Castle, the largest operator of wireless towers in the US, whose infrastructure is used by all the major carriers. (Crown holds a minority stake in Vapor.) The Vapor data centers will be placed at Crown’s towers, ensuring the shortest possible distance between a user’s device and the service provider’s computing infrastructure.
In addition to the incumbent carriers, Vapor and Packet are targeting any companies that need computing infrastructure at wireless towers. These could be the cloud giants, who are increasingly accumulating their own network infrastructure, for example, or international telcos that need to serve clients in the US but don’t have infrastructure there.
While he imagines most telcos will use their own networks to get to these edge locations, part of the Volutus model is providing lit fiber services if the client needs them, Cole Crawford, Vapor founder and CEO, said. The facilities will be where the carriers’ Radio Access Networks (RANs) interconnect with the internet.
Vapor’s edge data centers will be shipping container-like modules housing the company’s unique cylindrical pods, called Vapor Chambers. The six-rack pods are designed to maximize power and compute density and cooling efficiency. The company has also developed a host of data center management software, which it will use to manage the infrastructure that will house the future edge cloud service.
Flex, the hardware manufacturer Vapor has partnered with previously, will produce the hardware, which will be compliant with Open19, the open data center hardware standard that came out of LinkedIn in 2016. The standard specifies server chassis form factors and backplane power and network connections but doesn’t cover the components inside.
The “physical form factor that gets deployed out to the environment is standardized,” Crawford said. That means a custom Packet box can go into thousands of locations, while Smith only needs to worry about what goes inside the chassis, he explained.
The partners plan to deploy the first “5G-as-a-Service” site later this year in Chicago. Vapor announced earlier that Chicago would be the first site for its colocation-at-the-edge service. At the time, the company also announced a new architecture it named Vapor Kinetic Edge. The idea is to build edge data centers at several cell-tower sites around a city and interconnect them to form a virtual data center that’s distributed enough to provide low-latency connectivity to the computing infrastructure anywhere in the city. The future cloud service will leverage the Kinetic Edge infrastructure, the companies said.