Vapor IO and VMware's Open Grid Alliance Aims to 'Rearchitect the Internet'

A group of vendors has banded together to form a trade association of sorts to define a vision for a distributed, edge-first internet.

Christine Hall

May 4, 2021

4 Min Read
A Vapor Edge Module at a cell tower (a rendering)
A Vapor Edge Module at a cell tower (a rendering)Vapor IO

It's often observed that if the internet was rebuilt from the ground up today, many things would be done differently.

Vapor IO, the startup that's been building edge data centers around the US over the last couple of years, is one company that's taking a stab at "rearchitecting the internet." It recently teamed up with VMware, Dell, DriveNets, MobiledgeX, and PacketFabric to create an organization called the Open Grid Alliance, whose stated goal is to formalize what that future architecture, a widely distributed, edge-focused network, looks like.

"It's about defining the the right way to do the edge," Kaniz Mahdi, VP of advanced technologies at VMware, told us. "If you were to just frame it in one sentence, that's what we're trying to do. There has been a lot of chatter and a lot of hype on what edge is, where it needs to be, what it will enable, and what it could do, but when you start to scratch the surface, you very quickly come to the realization there is no edge, because edge is everywhere."

The project is the brainchild of Cole Crawford, Vapor IO's founder and CEO. In a conversation with DCK, the Alliance's founders said that rearchitecting the internet doesn't mean tearing it down to start from scratch, but to make adjustments to enable it to handle uses that are already in sight -- things like autonomous cars and augmented and virtual reality.

Mistakes of the Past

Mahdi and Crawford see pervasiveness of the edge ("edge is everywhere") as a problem, mainly because edge locations are being treated as remote appendages of the cloud. 

"We've built the internet hub-and-spoke, like we built the airline industry," Crawford said. Airline passengers often have to fly hundreds of miles in the opposite direction from their destination in order to catch a connecting flight, and the same inefficiencies are built into the internet.

"Even though I live in Austin, I get on the internet in Atlanta," he said.

To connect to a LinkedIn data center in San Jose, California, about 1,700 miles from his home, Crawford said, his carrier first sends his data to St. Louis and then to Atlanta -- an 1,800-mile journey -- before it even reaches an internet onramp. By the time the data reaches its destination in San Jose, it will have traveled more than 4,200 miles -- nearly 2.5 times the distance from his home.

The hub-and-spoke design also means that when a server at an edge location needs to talk to a server at another edge location, it almost always must have that conversation through a centralized location, such as a cloud data center.

"There's a cost associated for that telco to provide that path for me," Crawford said. "The telcos did not invest in these big wireline backbones the way cloud has over the last 10 years, which means that they all have to meet in a big city, and there is a per-mile fiber cost for traffic shipped."

An Edge Data Center at Nearly Every Cell Tower

To address these issues, the Open Grid Alliance proposes scaling the edge horizontally, vastly increasing the number of small edge data centers along with the number of direct connects to the internet.

This would allow almost all internet traffic to travel more directly, and for uses like autonomous vehicles, where latency and connectivity are crucial, it would put compute close to everywhere. In addition, it would allow data to flow more directly from one edge facility to another when needed, without the need to be channeled through a cloud or on-prem data center.

This sort of horizontal scaling of the edge, with small prefab micro data centers located in urban parking lots or adjacent to existing cell towers, is also envisioned in the latest report from Cloud Native Computing Foundation's State of the Edge Project, which Vapor co-founded and where its chief marketing officer, Matt Trifiro, is a co-chair.

This undertaking would be massive, of course, leading us to ask if this meant something like a data center in a shipping container, Vapor IO's specialty, at nearly every cell tower that exists today.

"You're not far off," Crawford answered.

That, of course, would be good for Vapor's business and for the businesses of the other vendors that are part of the alliance. This makes this alliance look more like a trade association than some sort of foundation or think tank.

"We didn't turn this into an instant foundation," Crawford said. "People, I think, have foundation fatigue right now. This is a place to come do real work. I think we have the goal of actually building reference architectures, and that could be with one of us or that could be with other companies that don't include VMware and Vapor at all.

"We do want that networking to take place. We do want the conversation to have a home. But we also want to build solutions that can be consumed by the real world."

About the Author(s)

Christine Hall

Freelance author

Christine Hall has been a journalist since 1971. In 2001 she began writing a weekly consumer computer column and began covering IT full time in 2002, focusing on Linux and open source software. Since 2010 she's published and edited the website FOSS Force. Follow her on Twitter: @BrideOfLinux.

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