NOTE: For the purposes of this article, we use the term Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) since we are discussing mobile network operator use cases.
The dawn of the Internet of Things (IoT) age — powered by low-latency sensitive applications — has been hotly anticipated the last few years. It’s finally here and its use cases vary enormously. From robotics to autonomous vehicles, from drones to smart homes, and even eHealth — the common thread between these applications is their reliance on large levels of data transfer and subsequent processing. One thing has become abundantly clear: cloud services can’t compute the levels of data created by mobile devices and other sensor-embedded objects fast enough to provide a real-time response.
This is due to the latency created by the distance between the cloud and the device. Latency is a major threat to the viability of these new kinds of applications, but fresh approaches have emerged to address the challenge of providing computing functionality not in the cloud but closer to the edge of the network. This could be the edge of the central offices of telco operators, enterprise data centers, regional data centers, or even at the device level.
Mobile Edge Computing negates the latency associated with backhaul to the cloud by conducting a portion of the storage, data transfer, and computing at the network “edge”. In doing so it enables a wide variety of applications, where every millisecond counts. These include applications such as driverless vehicles, others that include the digitization of utilities such as the electric grid, and technologies like virtual reality and augmented reality (VR/AR). Robotics and immersive media will similarly flourish in a low-latency environment enabled by developing intelligence at the edge.
The distribution of computing to edge devices is becoming more relevant because of the ability of modern computing hardware equipped with powerful processors to deliver this intelligence. At the same time, applications are virtualized and can exist without any direct dependency on the hardware. Containerization has enabled the mobility of applications around data centers, and therefore they can be moved even closer to the device. All of these technologies together make mobile edge a compelling technology for the low-latency, data-intensive applications.
Projections for the mobile edge market are strong. The compound annual growth rate (CAGR) stands at around 35 percent, but some analysts predict it could grow to 50 percent in the coming years. Network equipment manufacturers and network providers must be prepared to adapt their business models to keep pace with innovation.
In addition to the emergence of mobile edge, cloud computing itself has moved toward a marketplace model where developers are able to share innovation through micro-services which can be consumed by other application developers via APIs. For example, complex machine learning based cognitive algorithms can be now consumed through APIs.
The network equipment providers and service providers — who should be right in the heart of this disruptive API and algorithm economy — are facing challenges that could not only define their future, but also the future of 5G and IoT. Mobile edge currently lacks a developer-centric ecosystem, which is stifling innovation. Mobile operators could provide this, along with a platform and architecture suited for cloud native development, in order to leverage the vast development community who are part of the API and algorithm economy to build an edge application portfolio.
What if Mobile Operators Don’t Take the Initiative?
Operators are at a crossroads, and the story might sound rather familiar. Operators have the geographic, vast subscriber base, and topological reach to connect devices online — all thanks to their infrastructure. Infrastructure is their beachfront property.
One might conclude that mobile edge is a natural progression for them. 5G could generate nearly $250 billion in revenue, according to ABI Research, but the key question is who will benefit?
The over-the-top media service (OTT) have been encroaching on operator revenues for years. First, OTT’s consumed operator’s voice revenues, then messaging revenues. Now they are consuming its data, connectivity, and perhaps the edge computing ecosystem could be next, making the stakes higher for all involved. Mobile edge holds the key to operators’ ability to monetize 5G, and it is vitally important that they unlock the potential of this ecosystem.
Here are three ways that operators can focus efforts on fostering a developer-centric ecosystem that will give mobile edge the edge.
Setting standards: “Be the change you wish to see” is an adage that operators would do well to embrace. The architecture for mobile edge has caused some confusion. Some companies are unsure about which route to the mobile edge they should take, not to mention how to choose between the competing standards, security protocols, hosting, and monitoring solutions. And that’s without examining what’s known as fog computing, an approach that shares similarities with the mobile edge but also differs in key areas.
Mobile operators have the opportunity to provide clarity to developers and enterprises and it starts with the creation of a robust ecosystem. This is one very important step to take in order to attract developers who wish to capitalize on edge computing, but are currently put off by the sheer array of options they face.
Build it and developers will come: Application developers for edge devices have a decisive role to play here. It will come as no surprise that the likes of Amazon provide developers with easy and flexible access to the cloud, innovative software solutions, and monitoring systems that give developers complete control. Operators can do better than this and there are several strings to their bow. The architecture for the ecosystem needs to be robust so that developers can migrate easily with very little friction, avoiding vendor lock-in concerns that have characterized the growth of cloud.
Operators pride themselves on quality of experience (QoE) for their subscribers, and the term “carrier-grade” still denotes the most robust version of a technology. These values are needed in the mobile edge ecosystem and operators must ensure they carry them over. Operators must also have the correct frameworks in place to integrate automation, orchestration, etc. with end-to-end visibility in order to maximize the service. This needs to be deployed right across the user, developer and operational layers and from networking and applications to cloud native architectures. It also needs to incorporate business models and ideation.
A model for innovation: One business model that could attract developers and appeal to operators is similar to the current cloud-based business model — only it’s larger in scale. Developers come to the operators to monetize their applications that connect to millions, even billions of devices. Operators in turn are able to secure revenues from developers and from end users of those devices. Success in mobile edge could pave the way for a number of welcome scenarios for operators. For instance, it could enable a marketplace where developers would share services and technologies with other developers and leverage APIs and connectivity to create even stronger and more profitable edge-based applications.
5G and MEC, inextricably linked as they are, will herald a wave of innovation. It’s up to mobile operators what part they play in that revolution. Currently, they are sitting in prime real estate — ready and able to provide connectivity, zero latency, and a robust and attractive ecosystem. No new market is without its risks and challenges, but mobile operators may well need to ask themselves if they can afford not to embrace the mobile edge. As the saying goes: nothing ventured, nothing gained.