5G deployments are starting to expand beyond the few city-wide showcases of the last couple of years. And new use cases for consumer and enterprises are being developed all the time. But it will take the parallel implementation of edge computing in the next few months for 5G to truly reach its potential.
What is the edge? Where is the edge? How does it benefit 5G? What is the sum of these parts? Can we have one without the other?
These are valid questions as we move from initial limited implementations of 5G towards a future where it becomes essential not just for consumers and lifestyles, but businesses chasing market opportunities. As we move into that future, the defining characteristics of this first phase of 5G – as a high bandwidth mobile device services – becomes blurred while low latency, high-performance computing and other requirements come into play.
It’s here that the edge is important. But like Picasso crafting his first Blue Period impressions for an unsuspecting audience, there were many stages in development to go through before he would paint his later cubist and surrealist masterpieces.
Anyone looking at Picasso as a Single School painter without inspiration, is likely looking at 5G as high bandwidth mobile service without anticipating future use cases and the role edge will play in enhancing those.
Multiple edges, multiple 5G benefits
To the question of ‘what is edge,’ we can all agree that it represents a different location, service or architectural strategy or deployment depending on who we talk to; everyone has their own ideas and use cases. But one thing we do know is that spending on edge technologies is set to mushroom.
According to IDC, which defines edge computing as “referring to intermediating infrastructure and critical services between core datacenters and intelligent end points,” spending will increase to about a quarter of a trillion dollars in 2024, with a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 12.5% between now and then.
In Europe, where population density is grouped around big cities which are never relatively far from each other – compared to the US – I see more of a demand for edge computing based on application performance, user experience, or security and regulation. In the US, it really is a case of pulling data as close to the consumer of that data as we can, and that’s a tough feat when populations are more dispersed.
Nevertheless it’s helpful to simplify our divergent views on what constitutes the edge and describe it in two ways.
First, there’s the customer edge. I’d define that as being located in a single customer building, enabling service to a single customer or location. In this instance, that means that edge is focused on a specific use case or application, such as Smart Buildings or a private 5G cellular network.
Secondly, the network edge would be one geographical step back from that, for example within a metro network environment like London, New York, Chicago or Paris, where the network edge will supply a point of presence that will support multiple customers within a certain catchment area.
No real 5G without edge
Although 5G is being deployed, and is commercially accelerating more rapidly than any other of the previous mobile generations, it’s currently being justified on providing higher bandwidth to consumers. As an initial goal, that’s great because it proves out what we all thought about the concept of 5G a few years ago. But 5G is much more than that. In the mid-to-long term, there are so many more use cases and we’re right at the beginning of all of those.
For example, there is IoT in public and private enterprise cellular networks, IoT drones, Smart Cities, the Smart Factory and automated manufacturing processes, highly connected vehicles, remote healthcare and telemedicine, to name a few. But now, discovering use cases has become somewhat of a refactoring of the current mindset. And that mindset is being changed by edge.
That’s because all of these emerging 5G use cases hit a serious roadblock without edge. I think it’s this simple: if we want to step into the full development of the 5G era, then edge computing is imperative and is a critical succeed/fail factor, not just a standalone technology, bandwidth booster or a ‘nice to have.’
Specifically, edge really comes into play when leveraging factors like low latency and high-performance data processing over a cellular connection. You can have edge without 5G, but for these new 5G uses cases, you can’t have 5G without edge.
To be fair, edge can and will exist on its own, and enhance enough drivers for a subset of these use cases, without 5G. But absent of it, the momentum for edge will slow and maybe stall completely, because these two technologies are force multipliers for each other.
5G and edge, working together to transform the future
5G and edge are becoming real enablers for transformation, and it’s helpful to break that down into three categories where I think they will be most telling.
The first is operational transformation, where automation and orchestrating the whole data service and life cycle is essential. 5G is driving operational transformation, but that needs to happen in order to properly leverage 5G. The 5G access environment and use cases are becoming more complex, and so they increasingly rely on orchestration, automation and programmability in the network, and the operation of it. To monetize the combined 5G and edge proposition, there needs to be operational transformation, and this cannot be achieved through todays manual operational procedures. We humans just cannot keep up, and we shouldn’t try.
Next there is network transformation, where 5G has been architected as a service-based architecture, and is cloud native. Today’s network paradigm is to build on the network to serve high bandwidth services, another to serve low latency services, real-time computing and data processing, and so on; that’s no longer functionally or financially viable. We need one infrastructure which adapts to whatever the overriding service requirement is.
Finally, there’s business transformation, and meeting the necessity to permanently change the way we do business. That means getting the on-demand aspect of the service just right, enabling a faster turnup and turndown of enterprise services. Mobile service providers need to be able to scale-up and -down resources to meet the specific business challenges of their customers, and that’s not viable without edge.
The good news is that with the right underlying operational, network and business model in place, businesses are phenomenally more cost-effective, agile, and responsive to their specific market opportunities. It also positions them to be on a fast footing to adapt to future challenges even if those are yet below the horizon. And that really will prove the power of 5G and edge working together.