Latency-sensitive applications, such as industrial control, traffic safety, medical services, and immersive entertainment depend on wireless connectivity with guaranteed, consistent network latencies as low as 1 ms. The optimal way to capitalize on the ultra-low latency response times 5G promises is to bring together fifth-generation cellular technology and multi-access edge computing (MEC), critical to enabling real-time services like vehicle automation and augmented reality. It is the key to successfully monetizing 5G-driven services and also driving substantial growth for the edge computing market.
However, a distributed MEC architecture (4G or r 5G-) is significantly different than a centralized one, and there are several important technology, security, and business challenges to overcome to successfully navigate the massive network transformation and a new role in the merging 5G, edge and cloud ecosystem.
Operators must weigh the latency requirements for different applications, space and power requirements for virtualized MEC platforms, security against an increasingly adept threat landscape, and how to profitably monetize the investment with partners.
Where is the Edge?
The location of the "edge" varies by service provider and application. The "edge" can include the core network (EPC), a few dozen RAN aggregation points or other points of presence (POPs), or thousands of cell sites, depending upon the operator strategy, the type of application or service, and the unique footprint of a service provider's infrastructure (i.e., co-location facilities, macro radio sites, and base stations).
The latency value proposition
Latency, much more than download speeds, drives the end-user perception of speed and the responsiveness of crucial applications, e.g., financial transactions. No wonder that enterprises are driving out latency from their network applications and workflows and so eager to explore options that might reduce latency, such as 5G, private networks, public edge cloud, and others. 5G combined with MEC will reduce average round trip latency to/from the device to under 10 milliseconds (ms) versus the average of 40-50 ms in 4G.
Space and power requirements strain MEC deployment
Even with the abundance of physical real estate that most operators control, many of these legacy locations lack the power, cooling, and other environmental characteristics needed to support power-hungry virtualized server platforms. In mobile networks, for example, operators have thousands of cell sites, but physical space is limited and may even be shared with other operators. The cost of energy already consumes about 5-7 percent of operating expenditures, according to McKinsey. The 5G new radio standard is more efficient per gigabyte than 4G, but many more cell sites will be required.
DDoS is lethal at the Edge
Security in MEC environments, especially DDoS protection, is a growing challenge, and it is much more difficult because of the number of locations and the evolving nature of DDoS attacks. It is relatively easy to protect a single centralized data center, but with dozens, hundreds, or even thousands of MEC locations, monitoring and defending each node becomes very difficult and requires higher levels of integrated automation for detection and mitigation.
For service providers, handling terabits of traffic every second, smaller, slower attacks are especially difficult to detect and mitigate. DDoS attacks that might have been lost in the noise in a high-traffic volume of a centralized data center, or EPC, can become lethal when targeting individual MEC nodes, 5G critical services, or specific customers, or used as a distraction for planting ransomware.
Security is essential for effective monetization
5G will support many life-critical and public safety applications–services that will also be important new revenue sources for operators. Thus, operators are increasingly turning their attention to the downstream impact on critical 5G services and applications. To gain enterprise credibility and increase 5G service revenue will require a strong security SLA.
The merging cloud, Edge, 5G ecosystem provides opportunities and risks
Many operators are addressing the complexity of edge deployments by partnering with large cloud providers competing for the same enterprise revenue with their own edge services. The cost of operating a 5G network and applications in the cloud can drop by 20-40 percent of traditional networks, according to financial analysts, making it highly attractive to margin-squeezed operators, yet they must determine how much they will be relegated to the role of commodity connectivity provider in these partnerships.
A critical juncture
5G combined with MEC promises exciting new applications and services with breathtaking response times and speeds. Operators must evaluate several business and technology options to capitalize on that opportunity.
The high costs of additional energy, re-architecting existing facilities, and improving security has caused many operators to be initially cautious in their MEC deployments, but this comes with risk. Low-latency applications are highly valued by enterprise and cloud providers and have moved quickly to offer lower-cost edge solutions to end customers as well as service providers.
Cloud, MEC, and 5G are closely intertwined, and the former technology-defined boundaries of ecosystem players no longer hold true. For operators to successfully monetize 5G, they must balance their most cost-effective options with strategic partnerships to provide low-latency, high-value solutions.
Terry Young is Director of 5G Marketing at A10 Networks.