What is the Edge and why are we all talking about it?

Building Blocks

The large number of instances associated with an Edge environment cries out for standardization. At the same time, flexibility is also important, because each location could be slightly different.

Against this backdrop, containerized data centers have emerged as an important solution for Edge applications. In the Edge context, containerized data centers offer the simplest way to roll out a product that is standardized from the first nut down to the last bolt almost anywhere in the world with just a little preparation.

When it comes to containers in this new context, two old acquaintances come to the aid of the vendors. On one hand, OpenStack [1] offers most of the functionality that a decentralized solution requires. A number of additional features, which the developers added to the software in recent years, come in handy, such as support for the Ceph virtual storage solution. Several telco companies are currently building OpenStack into their commercial Edge services.

Another option is to build a distributed setup with local Kubernetes clusters. If the application is really cloud-native and available in containers, Kubernetes appears to be the tool of choice, because it is still far less complex than OpenStack. However, if IaaS is on the list of requirements, Kubernetes will probably not be the ideal solution.

Industrial container systems are available in many sizes. Several hardware vendors provide data center products designed to support containerized environments. The customer receives a mini data center that already solves essential issues such as ventilation and the required racks (Figures 1 and 2). Once the unit is delivered to the site and configured, the only things missing are the grid and the network. Electricity is relatively easy to access in most places. As for the network, the promise of 5G wireless is the final puzzle piece that could lead to widespread migration to the Edge.

Figure 1: Containerized data centers are perfect for Edge: they can be delivered quickly, are versatile … © Rittal
Figure 2: … and can be set up virtually anywhere. You only need power and network connections. © Rittal

Edge and 5G

All the efforts to reduce latency by relocating hardware are of little benefit if networks are not fast enough to meet the challenge. Experts believe 5G wireless is the emerging technology that will meet the simultaneous demands of speed and mobility that will fuel the Edge revolution. With its palette of engineering tricks, 5G radically increases the bit rate for individual clients. 5G will offer the bandwidth to manage the flood of information from hundreds of thousands of autonomous vehicles.

5G also offers beamforming with multi-MIMO antennas: One 5G antenna can support several individual beams assigned to specific customers (Figure 3).

Figure 3: Beamforming in 5G offers the ability to connect Edge locations wirelessly just as easily as with copper cables. © Deutsche Telekom

Where Are We?

Most of the talk about Edge technology is still very theoretical, but the major cloud vendors are taking the Edge very seriously. As you could probably guess, much of the activity swirling around Edge computing is about cloud vendors with data center products maneuvering to form partnerships with wireless vendors who will provide the 5G wireless capabilities. Recent reports indicate that Google is in discussions with AT&T to collaborate on developing Edge services [2].

Verizon has already rolled out an ambitious Edge service in partnership with Amazon AWS. The Verizon Multi-Access Edge Computer (MEC) platform [3] is built on AWS Wavelength Edge computing technology. Verizon and other wireless providers have the advantage of being able to locate Edge services at the thousands of Service Access Point (SAP) and C-RAN locations that they currently operate to support their wireless telephone networks.

Rather than teaming with a telco, Microsoft Azure appears focused on keeping the Edge on premises. Azure Stack Edge [4] is an on-premises appliance that brings Edge services to the customer's home network, which would work well for a robotics solution but not for a disparate application like autonomous cars.

Given the excitement currently devoted to Edge computing, it is not surprising that almost every major telco and cloud vendor has some kind of product, service, or initiative with the term "Edge" in the title. All these services share the goal of decentralization, but the details vary widely.

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