The Mobile Edge Cloud Breaks Out

Smart City 3

By: R. Scott Raynovich

BARCELONA -- Mobile World Congress 2019 -- After experiencing four days of sustained hype about how mobile broadband evolution and 5G will transform the world, it's helpful to stay an extra day, drink some strong espresso, and ruminate on what just happened. 

At the show, there was plenty of chatter about the potential for augmented reality, virtual reality, retail artificial intelligence (AI), 5G broadband, and whatever else the mobile network might deliver us over the next five years, but it won't happen without a new infrastructure that is robust and flexible enough to quickly roll out new services and then handle the onslaught of mobile data.

One the key themes reinforced here at the largest communications technology show in the world is the emergence of the Mobile Edge, comprised of cloud-native infrastructure and software, which has the promise to finally revitalize the communications industry.

"The edge belongs to the new economy," said Cole Crawford, the CEO of Vapor IO, which builds mobile edge colocation and interconnection infrastructure. "The telcos are in the process of finding out where they want to play in this new economy." 

The largest telecommunications providers have started the process with something they call network functions virtualization (NFV), the transformation of their massive and complicated networks from proprietary, hardware-based provisioned systems into more flexible cloud-like platforms that can be programmed and automated with software. But NFV has been disappointing for many -- taking too long to take shape and suffering many setbacks, delays, and doubts. NFV is still suffering an identity and confidence crisis. As 5G gets rolled out -- perhaps more slowly than people believe -- it will push the virtualization revolution forward, to the Mobile Edge Cloud.

Maybe it's NFV done right? Right now, NFV appears to be in a gestational change, a messy evolution from proprietary networking infrastructures to the cloud world. 

One vocal leader of this shift is Jason Hoffman, the CEO of MobiledgeX, a company that is building a mobile applications and services marketplace. Hoffman believes the importance of the mobile edge is that it provides a new breeding ground for applications and services that are closer to customers. He describes these as "availability zones" for mobile services. 

“We love the mess, we don’t want people to have uniform infrastructure," says Jason Hoffman, CEO of MobileXEdge. "We pay less for it and make more on it. It's like AirBNB -- the more townhouses there are, the better for us."

What is the Mobile Edge?

So, you, ask, isn't the Mobile Edge NFV? No, it will be NFV done right, springing up organically from startups and cloud-tech visionaries who build new platforms rather than planning them with European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) diagrams through the telco bureaucracy.

The telcos aren't out of it yet. They can help by building cloudy service hubs in the central offices, as they have so proselytized. But there will be a wide-ranging emergence of other Edge Cloud infrastructure and applications. Some examples of potential technology segments that will build the edge ecosystem include the following:

  • Mobile cloud application hubs, built by incumbents such as Amazon and Microsoft and startups like MobiledgeX. 
  • Micro mobile data centers, being built by the likes of Vapor IO and EdgeConneX.
  • Mobile cloud software stacks, such as those offered by Metaswitch and Saguna.
  • Mobile SDN and networking fabrics from the likes of VMware, Pluribus Networks, and Kaloom. 
  • Mobile colocation services from companies such as Equinix and Ericsson's Edge Gravity. 

Think of the new Mobile Edge cloud as offering the same functionality as webscale and enterprise clouds, only optimized for mobile. It's glue that holds together the network between the mobile RAN and core switching infrastructure.  

Catalyst for Telco Cloud Migration

The exciting thing about the Mobile Edge is that it's a catalyst to push the communications industry more forcefully toward cloud-native technologies ranging from SDN to microservices. 

"Cloudification is part of 5G," says David Reekie, Chief Scientist of Metaswitch, a communications software provider. "The 5G network will be pushed out to the edge and it will be running in a lot of places, running as cloud-native network slices."

This will provide a big boost to technologies that have embraced cloud-native technologies. It explains VMware's big bets on telecom and a new market for SDN. 

Business questions aside -- such as how much money will be invested and what kind of profits this will produce -- technology infrastructure providers are preparing for a big shift, and there's a growing amount of buzz and investment going into players that address the shift to the mobile edge.