Although 5G was the star of the show at MWC 2019, edge computing also generated a lot of buzz. Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) will create faster, more efficient and intelligent networks and will drastically improve the performance of applications where latency and bandwidth are critical such as connected industrial robots or autonomous cars. When combined with the lightning speeds and capacity of next generation mobile networks, MEC will transform how we capture, hold and add value to our data and unlock new possibilities for digital businesses.
Unlocking the potential of edge
Edge computing gives businesses and developers more choice for where to run their workloads, depending on their specific latency, bandwidth and data sovereignty requirements. Certain applications, such as gaming, Augmented Reality (AR) or Virtual Reality (VR) and video analytics, perform much better when processing and rendering are performed immediately. A recent joint neuroscience study by Vodafone and Ericsson showed that even a relatively quick round trip over the internet from the device to the public cloud can introduce enough latency to make an AR user feel motion sick.
Traditionally, developers have been given a choice:
Run your workload on the device itself (on premise or on the device edge) with the cost, battery, mobility and device design compromises that entails
Run your workload in the public cloud, where latency delays can potentially impact performance.
MEC is a technology which gives developers the best of both worlds – minimal latency, since the workloads are run from the edge of the operator’s network, with no compromise on device costs, battery life and form factor.
MEC brings compute power closer to the end users of digital content and applications with the same agility, scalability and flexibility that customers enjoy from the public cloud. This ability to make near real-time decisions locally creates new possibilities, especially when combined with other new technologies like IoT or 5G. For example, with MEC’s low latency you could optimise production in an IoT-enabled smart factory, or even instantly halt activity when a potential safety incident is detected before any harm is done, by using data analysis and machine learning at the edge.
Edge brings digital services to the next frontier
Over recent years the cloud has revolutionised the way developers build and deploy applications. At the same time, advancements in network technology are driving end-users to mobile devices. However, due to the physical constraints of today’s cloud and network infrastructure, even the most advanced cloud applications can offer end users a mixed experience due to latencies that can range from 50ms to more than 200ms. This performance gap degrades the user experience and slows the take up of the next wave of interactive applications. This is where MEC comes in.
By moving compute power, data storage and management on the edge, MEC enables data to be collected, analysed and then acted upon locally without needing to cross the network to a central datacentre or cloud. There are a growing number of sensors and devices that are always-on and continually sending more and more data – and super-fast, high capacity 5G will only see this sharply increase. Much of this locally generated data will be used primarily to generate local decisions. With MEC, these devices can predictably make automated or real-time responses in milliseconds.
MEC is an essential component for unlocking the benefits and potential of 5G, IoT, SDN, cloud and other innovative technologies to create truly intelligent communications solutions that drive tangible outcomes. Shifting resources and decision-making to the edge will enable new scenarios such as:
Autonomous vehicles able to automatically decelerate when they sense a human within a set distance
Real time video analytics that can immediately identify security threats
Gamers using headsets that can wirelessly livestream Virtual Reality games with no latency
Next generation retail and stadium experiences with superior consumer experiences and enhanced security
Empowering employees in the field with augmented reality tools for maintenance and repair.
MEC also helps reduce the strain on overburdened networks and protects essential services from outages or dependency issues in the event of an ISP failure or cloud server downtime; as well as enabling more flexibility for data privacy and local hosting of data. With local decisions at the edge, the cloud may not need all the data you generate immediately – or even at all. Non time-critical data can be streamed to the cloud in batches when bandwidth needs aren’t as high, improving performance and saving money.
Vodafone: leading on the edge
Vodafone has been active in shaping the standards and technology for edge, running trials, and identifying early use cases in conjunction with our 5G labs. One example showcased at MWC 2019 in February was Continental and Vodafone working together to increase road safety by combining 5G, cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) and MEC technologies to create a digital shield to prevent accidents on the road.
Although widescale adoption is still a way off, developers will soon start to embrace and create new use cases for distributed low latency applications. In the meantime, Vodafone has been driving ‘dedicated edge’ to bring the concept to life for our customers.
Dedicated edge involves deploying a MEC instance at a customer site, combining a private mobile network with low latency computing to help drive innovation, speed and efficiency. For example, in the past, driving new digital capabilities on an oil rig or legacy power plant would have been a challenge due to lack of connectivity and disparate IT systems.
Soon, thanks to 5G, MEC and IoT technologies, working with the latest AI and augmented reality applications, engineers will be able to pinpoint and resolve faults on equipment in minutes rather than hours, potentially saving millions in lost productivity. Ultimately, MEC helps businesses to place their intelligence where it’s need to drive better business outcomes.
As MEC emerges, you will need to radically rethink how you architect your business’ IT estate and applications. Vodafone and IBM’s new venture is focused on helping businesses deliver innovation faster and succeed in a digital world.
By Jennifer Gill Didoni, Head of Cloud Co-creation, Vodafone Business