Edge cloud still on the far horizon
- By Stephanie Kanowitz
- Jan 19, 2021
Despite being one of the most talked-about technologies for smart cities, edge cloud is unlikely to make a major impact this year, a new report predicts.
There are two main reasons, said Dominique Bonte, vice president for verticals/end markets at ABI Research, which published the report: “68 Technology Trends That Will Shape 2021.” One is a need for more time for cities to lay a technological foundation for using edge cloud, and the other is a lack of awareness about the technology.
“While there is clear potential for low-latency edge cloud use cases, such as safety and security operations, including real-time hazard alerts and closed-loop emergency response modes, road intersection remote traffic management, and the operation and remote control of autonomous assets like drones, robots, and driverless vehicles, the awareness about this new technology with both city governments and information technology services providers remains very low,” Bonte wrote in the report.
Edge cloud is different from the edge and from cloud. The edge means having compute power closely linked to the end device, such as inside a vehicle or traffic light, so that it can process the information without sending it to a remote server. Cloud is any compute capability that sits at the server, which could be in a data center. It’s removed from where the need for intelligence is, which means cloud has longer latency.
“The roundtrip delay could be a second or more, which precludes use of regular cloud for mission-critical applications, and that’s where the edge cloud comes into play,” Bonte said.
With edge cloud, the processing happens inside a telecommunications network and inside a distributed cloud located close to the end-user device, but not at it. Edge cloud brings the server capacity within the city so that anyone wanting to use it would connect with servers situated within a few miles. As a result, the latency is a fraction of a second, enabling smart city applications.
For example, if cities can aggregate the information from surveillance or traffic cameras from entire neighborhoods, rather than from just one block or street, they can apply the resultant information to emergency response modes. If the cameras pick up suspicious activity, for instance, they can trigger flood lights to turn on.
Similarly, with sensors that can pick up gas leaks, nearby clouds can process and analyze the data and use it to automatically close down parts of the gas-distribution network.
The game-changer that will enable use of edge cloud is 5G. “The real revolution here is the arrival of low-latency 5G cellular connectivity,” Bonte said. “What previously would have happened at the edge … could actually now happen inside the networks, so still close to the end device but nevertheless within a telecommunication network.”
Telecommunications and cloud service providers are already working on edge cloud solutions. In February 2020, nine telecom operators in Europe and Asia joined together to develop an Edge Compute architectural framework and reference platform, with support from GSMA, a wireless industry group. The organization also launched an Operator Platform Project, which would allow applications to run in close proximity to its users.
A 2018 Federal Communications Commission whitepaper on 5G edge computing stated that edge clouds would be deployed at different levels of distribution. “Metro-level edge clouds, both network operator-owned as well as operator-neutral entities, will host low-latency broad-based consumer and enterprise applications,” it stated. “Far-edge clouds will be located within a few 10s of [kilometers] of end users in network central offices or cell towers and will host ultra-low-latency and/or high-reliability applications.”
“Despite the fact this is a really important, fundamental change in how cloud will be used, it will take a lot of time before this is actually available for use by city governments and other entities within cities,” Bonte said. “This is a huge implementation in terms of bringing equipment inside the carriers’ network.”
Plus, there’s the second challenge of awareness. Even when the equipment and services are available, cities need to know how to use them. Bonte expects to see edge cloud gain momentum by 2025.
“The magnitude of this should not be underestimated because it really means that the cloud players – [Amazon Web Services] in particular – look at this at a huge opportunity to expand and extend the scope of what their cloud data centers can accomplish,” he said. “We really literally see an explosion in the number of use cases and also the value.”
Stephanie Kanowitz is a freelance writer based in northern Virginia.