The problem with distributed computing, as with distributed anything, is finding the appropriate system of governance. A management model for distributed computing may be emerging, though it might not be the one telcos were hoping for.
Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) was pitched like this: Virtualization can make a selected part of a very broad and distributed data center cloud look like the entirety of an enterprise data center network. Already, this seems like a trick that Amazon AWS, Microsoft Azure, Google Cloud, and the others pull off with ease.
“The key element in the MEC architecture is the MEC host,” stated a 2018 white paper published by the European standards group ETSI [PDF]. The paper went on to define a MEC host as “a general-purpose edge computing facility that provides the computing, storage and other resources required by applications such as IoT data preprocessing, VR/AR, video streaming and distribution, V2X, etc.”With a bit of marketing prestidigitation, the telecommunications industry could get into the cloud data center game without having to follow the lead of Equinix, Digital Realty, and their ilk, and enter the commercial real estate market. They could use the real estate they already own or lease for their base transceiver stations (BTS), subdivide their data center installations amongst a plethora of smaller buildings (micro data centers, or µDC), and leverage the fiber optic data network they’re already building to provide the backhaul they need for 5G Wireless, to provide the virtual connections these facilities would need, so they appear contiguous to commercial customers. A highly diversified network of prefabricated tool sheds could appear no different to the customer than a hyperscale cloud facility.
Or, as is their wont, telcos may take MEC in an entirely different direction, both physically and virtually speaking. With the flip of a switch called local breakout (LBO) — a physical switch that they own — they could direct traffic into their own facilities, which are not “micro” by any means. Those facilities could then serve as gateways to familiar public cloud services, as has been the case for Verizon with AWS’ Wavelength service since late 2019, and AT&T with Google Cloud the following March.
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“You have to be able to provide the same types of capabilities you would have in a traditional data center hosting environment,” explained Thierry R. Sender, Verizon’s director of edge computing strategy. “I wouldn’t necessarily say it’s a colo. . . but it’s a full-on data center environment.”
To become a phenomenon with anywhere near the scale of cloud computing, edge computing needs to be scalable. Whatever ends up being responsible for orchestrating the system’s workloads needs to perceive the system as a whole as something more than the sum of its parts. That’s hard when your deployment facilities are small by design, and separated by hundreds of miles of fiber optic cable, the vast majority of it linking BTS facilities to one another, rather than customer premises.
It might make sense — perhaps — if dozens, and potentially hundreds, of smaller facilities throughout the world were capable of being networked together. You could use every edge collectively like one big cloud, or selectively like a cafeteria, depending upon the requirements of each workload at the time. Or perhaps, alternately, it might be more convenient for telcos in particular if all the edges were conveniently folded into one giant shape, and co-located — to borrow a phrase — in one or two existing facilities.
Not everyone bought into the 5G MEC pitch. An edge-merging capability such as this would need to rely upon a degree of service-provider agnosticism that security-intensive telcos simply cannot permit.
Network slicing is the subdivision of physical infrastructure into virtual platforms, using a technique perfected by telecommunications companies called network functions virtualization (NFV). As originally conceived, NFV was a way for the functions that telcos made available to consumers through their own data networks to become portable and deployable on-demand at or near the customer’s point-of-contact. It was telcos’ first attempt at putting edge computing to work for them.