While this year presented many challenges, we’ve also seen great resiliency and innovation from the entire ecosystem – from users to network providers to application providers. Despite being forced to move quickly into a near-shutdown environment, businesses across every industry were able to quickly transition to remote operations relatively seamlessly, thanks to the reach and agility of multi-access connectivity networks. Future challenges might be aided by 5G and edge cloud.
With recent studies showing that up to 30 percent of the workforce will still be working remotely through the end of 2021, the lines between enterprise and consumers have permanently blurred. As working from home becomes the new norm, there is a change in traffic patterns, and enterprise customers, by extension, now need to be served at home as well. This means service providers should prepare to architect their networks and services around this new reality, designing for far better experiences for users, wherever they might be.
To solve for this, 5G and the distributed edge cloud have become an even more prominent part of the service provider’s move to cloud-native network architectures to deliver secured and assured service experience at much faster speeds and lower latency while bringing agility for the unknown. The edge cloud will not only become the new point of service delivery and experience but also the point of innovation and monetization, allowing various ecosystem players such as content providers, Hyperscalers, and enterprise application providers to work together. Together 5G and the edge cloud will define the next era of networking. Here’s how.
5G needs edge cloud
While the applications for edge clouds have been in demand even before 5G, they only offered limited services running on few edge locations to enable a handful of low-latency experiences. What 5G brings is a whole new set of low-latency applications that require the edge clouds to scale. These range from AR/VR/MR for at-home retail, tourism and entertainment experiences, cloud-gaming for near tactile gaming experiences, and remote-controlled industrial operations. Not to mention, private 5G enterprise networks powered with their own suite of edge-delivered applications.
Besides user applications and services, the distributed edge cloud is also the home for hosting disaggregated 5G network functions, such as the User Plane Function (UPF) or even virtualized Radio functions like DU, CU, and Radio Intelligent Controller/RIC. Edge Cloud is an important element to bring E2E network slicing to life as well. 5G essentially helps to open up the edge cloud so it can not only realize new application/service experiences but also monetize the investments. Clearly – 5G and edge cloud go hand in hand.
Designing a perfect edge cloud for 5G
The edge cloud placement could be anywhere near the far edge (i.e., near the base-station), or near the centralized edge or any data center/POP in between, depending on the use-case. Irrespective, the edge cloud must be purposefully designed for enabling the right economics so that it can eventually be realized at thousands of locations. This requires an open, “platform-first” approach to designing the HW-SW-cloud stack for the edge while optimizing for space and power constraints. More importantly, it requires a fully secure and automated cloud-native architecture that is embedded and consistent across all edge locations.
From an application perspective, it is not enough for them to be cloud-native – it requires a whole new class of ‘edge-native’ applications that are purposely built to run on the edge as opposed to being rewrapped for the edge. Edge-native applications should use the open APIs provided by edge cloud platforms, embrace automated management and control, and bake in security at the application, user, and infrastructure level – avoiding connectivity and security hurdles later in the development stage. They should also be written to be easily scaled up, down, or out via platform-enabled automation tools. Understandably, they should be lean applications with a small footprint and minimum dependencies that can be easily moved from one edge cloud to another given the mobility of end users, versus being traditionally designed to be "in one place."
As 5G and the cloud become increasingly embedded into future devices and applications, it is important for companies to keep the edge in mind at the development stage to avoid future limitations.
Driving a future of innovation with 5G and edge cloud
With 5G, the need to operationalize the edge cloud has never been clearer. The key question is build-first and then monetize or monetize-as-you-build. This is where ‘managed edge-cloud’ models become relevant that allow service providers to start with pre-integrated cloud-agnostic, managed edge pods that already host early edge applications such as CDN at key locations near dense populations. And over time, allow them to scale with new edge pods in a tiered approach. At the end of the day, the managed edge pods allow them to host any cloud-provider application or own 5G application/functions while still retaining control and value from their prized edge location.
Service providers who continue their investment in edge clouds will be well-positioned for unlocking the full potential of the future Cloud + 5G + AI era. Deploying all three of these technologies collectively will usher in not only the next generation of services but do so with assured service experience they can monetize, with on-demand economics that makes their business sustainable and with an open and agile network architecture that allows them to navigate the unknowns.