Challenges in realizing the promises of the holistic edge

One thing that appears certain is that the holistic edge will manifest as a somewhat diverse beast that will present far-reaching challenges for innovators well beyond the relatively simple solutions of today.

abstract wireless communication network
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Cloud providers such as Amazon, Google, Facebook and Microsoft are already rolling out distributed cloud infrastructure. Whilst the central cloud is established as an integral part of current and future networks, there are key issues that make the central cloud simply not the solution to several use cases.

  • Latency, also known as the Laws of Physics: The longer the distance is between two communicating entities, the longer the time it takes to move content there. Whilst the delay of reaching out to the cloud today might be tolerable for some applications, it will not be the case for emerging applications that will require nearly instantaneous responses (e.g. in industrial IoT control, robots, machines, autonomous cars, drones, etc.).
  • Data volume: The capacity of communication networks will simply not scale with the insane amount of raw data that is anticipated will need ferrying to and from a remote cloud center.
  • Running costs: The cost of a truly massive computational and storage load in the cloud will simply not be economically sustainable over the longer term.
  • Regulatory: There are and will very likely be new constraints (privacy, security, sovereignty, etc.) which will impose restrictions on what data may or may not be transferred and processed in the cloud.

So it certainly does make sense to distribute the cloud and interconnect this distributed infrastructure together with the central cloud. This process has already begun. One good tangible example is Amazon’s launch of the AWS GreenGrass (AWS for the Edge) product and their declared intentions to use their Whole Foods Stores (in addition to the small matter of selling groceries) as locations for future edge clouds/data centers. In general, cloud providers, perhaps driven by their real estate choices, have a relatively conservative view of the edge, restricting it to a point of presence typically 10 to 50 km from the consumer.

Carriers have a slightly deeper view of the edge

Traditional telcos have not exactly been sitting idle in this space. They have of course been looking into economical ways of supporting 5G with its wide range of use cases, and the edge has emerged as their sweet spot to leverage and monetize. Telcos already have infrastructure in place densified down to the level of small cells some few hundred meters apart, which will only expand to another level in 5G as millimeter wave access gets deployed. Looked at from an IT point of view, each access node is a potential distributed compute node. Even more, the terminal device itself with its growing surrogate networking and compute capabilities is certain to only develop as a further IT asset to be leveraged at the edge.

In the telecommunications world, there is really no boundary as to where the edge stops. The edge is a much more holistic trend. It can go all the way down from aggregation points, to access points, to terminal devices, to even particular chips inside the terminal device. The range of an edge node can be as small as a few tens of meters! From a terminology point of view, some might prefer to differentiate a non-data center view of the edge as the fog, but functionally speaking they are basically the same, simply more or less capable distributed computing and networking nodes strategically positioned to ensure some target level of service.

The holistic edge is not likely to stand still

One thing that appears certain is that the holistic edge will manifest as a somewhat diverse beast. The early incarnations that are manifesting today do not appear much different than the cloud provider view. However, in time, the edge will move deeper, creating new challenges for innovators. I would expect such challenges to include:

  • Mobility: edge nodes will eventually start moving around (e.g. in a car, a train, a drone, or in your pocket!) and will redefine the mobility management challenge for a new generation.
  • Power management: enabling battery-powered nodes to become hosts (edge nodes) implies management challenges that are not accounted for in today’s technology where edge nodes are typically continuously powered.
  • Ownership issues: with the edge progressively spanning more and more infrastructure and terminals nodes, it is highly likely that the edge will not always have the same owner. This will introduce new technical, regulatory and business challenges.
  • Heterogeneity: inevitably, the holistic edge will come in all shapes and sizes with different capabilities and characteristics. Integrating all these possibilities & permutations into something coherent & predictable will present another major challenge.

Realizing the promises of the holistic edge

The realization of the holistic edge presents a major goal for the research and standardization community. This goal is a holistic edge solution where edge nodes, mobile or stationary, power constrained or not, from one owner or many, are easily leveraged to deliver a unified service capability. Many of these challenges are being explored in the research community and in industry forums like ETSI NFV and ETSI MEC. ETSI MEC is currently transitioning to a second phase of activity, and one of its main areas of focus will be the so-called “Multi Access Edge.” As the name suggests, the focus here will be in many of the areas I have just outlined. One tangible use case that is being explored is that of a user starting a game at home over a Wi-Fi connection served by a local edge server and then transitioning to a different edge server in the cellular network. Sounds trivial, but this use case simply would not work using today’s technology. This is just one of many such advanced use cases that are being explored and will define the holistic edge of the future.

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