Nobody has the foggiest about the edge

Cisco once tried to popularize fog computing as an alternative to the edge. If you’ve never heard of it, you are not alone. For a short period, fog computing gave rise to a new industry group called the OpenFog Consortium (because the industry needed another group with open prefixing its name), but this was eventually absorbed into a bigger association known as the Industry IoT Consortium. Mentioned zero times at Informa’s edge event in London this week, fog computing has evaporated like morning mist.

Pity, because it is a better description of the edge than “the edge,” as well as being a metaphor that suitably captures the industry’s befuddlement in this area. As an expression, the edge really doesn’t make any sense at all, suggesting networks have a firm boundary like a baseball field. If they do, it is the coverage limit in rural areas – and that’s not the sort of place where someone would necessarily want to put a lot of computing power. Fog, by contrast, alludes to the drift and dispersal of IT resources across the entire network – from central data facilities to user gadgetry.

No one in telecom is very clear if this decentralization makes sense or what form it could take. Typically, operators favor centralization. “We don’t want to put a lot of edge clouds out there,” said Terje Jensen, the head of network architecture at Norway’s Telenor, during a presentation at Informa’s London event. “We want to centralize as much as we can.”

Dotting the landscape with “edge centers,” even if it means kitting out existing premises, would probably not be cheap. Operators would presumably have to invest in additional server equipment and software licenses, at least. Unsurprisingly, then, the cheerleaders for this rearchitecting of the network include equipment vendors like Intel and software developers, whether big or small. Intel estimates the “edge silicon” market will be worth $65 billion by 2024 (it’s unclear if this means cumulative industry revenues by then, but Gartner put annual semiconductor sales at $595 billion last year).

Puking in the metaverse

There are a few reasons why an operator might do it, conceded Jensen. The most exciting is all about service improvement. By shortening the journey for a data signal between the customer and the site, an operator could reduce latency, a lag that might interfere with more advanced applications. Otherwise, virtual reality would be disorientating enough to have headset wearers puking over their omnidirectional treadmills after just a few seconds in the metaverse.

But the metaverse remains science fiction, and operators do not want to build the low-latency infrastructure for it if all the additional revenues end up with Facebook or other members of Big Tech. Today’s latency-sensitive applications do not need an edge site for every town. Three UK believes it can address customer needs for “reduced latency” through a network comprising just three big data centers and 19 edge facilities.

Unglamorous assistants

That makes it even harder to envisage an edge deployment numbering hundreds of sites in a particular country. If an operator could use those sites for both DU functions and other IT resources, the business case would undoubtedly be stronger. But operators increasingly look like the unglamorous assistants to Big Tech on the customer-facing side, clinging on where they can. Amazon does not require a telco partnership to sell AWS to a business or Amazon Prime to a household. Does it need one to sell edge services?

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New Technology Era

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