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Telecoms on the edge: Is edge the answer to delivering 5G services?


John Hall, managing director at Proximity Data Centres, explores how edge colocation could be the answer to delivering 5G services.

According to Gartner, edge computing will account for 75% of enterprise-generated data by 2025. Today it only accounts for 10%. The huge increase predicted is largely down to the IoT applications that 5G is expected to enable, which in turn demand huge volumes of data to be processed at the edge.

5G’s small cell architecture and new mobile spectrums will deliver unprecedented low latency and increased bandwidth to support the addition of more and more edge devices for driving compute and storage much closer to the user. The fortunes of 5G, the IoT and edge computing are therefore inextricably linked.

With 5G’s comparable performance to broadband connections, mobile operators and carriers will be able to offer consumers much faster and more reliable applications such as for video streaming and gaming as well as boosting overall experience in terms of voice and data services.

And for business, industry and public services, the ability to wirelessly connect billions of remote edge devices worldwide for monitoring and controlling  an array of IoT applications in real-time – for smart cities, smart motorways, factory floor machinery, medical imaging systems, not to mention smart fridges and of course, the much-vaunted driverless vehicle. According to Gartner, last year, 57% of businesses are looking to 5G to support their IoT communications.

Data centres key

In practice much of 5G’s potential depends on data centres. This can only be fully realised by locating many more data centres much closer to edge devices, and adapting them to 5G’s short wavelength transmission frequencies which depend on the deployment of multiple small cells and antennas.

In reality, massive infrastructure is still to be deployed and developed in many countries, and to support 5G networks, regional edge data centres are still to be connected to cell towers with fibre optic cabling, including many in the UK. This is absolutely necessary to support 5G’s implementation.

In some cases, this will lead to micro data centres being connected at the base of cell towers for ensuring the critical sub-10 millisecond response times necessary for real-time applications such as autonomous cars and remote surgery.

At the same time, Tier III standard distributed edge data centres much closer to users and mobile 5G cells/micro data centres will be necessary – for supporting the low latency content delivery and IoT communications requirements of enterprises users and service providers.

Equally, edge data centre proximity is a must to process the data volumes that 5G will create through the proliferation of edge devices and sensors. Long-haul networks will be hard-pressed to handle these data volumes from network traffic and congestion perspectives, meaning much more processing of critical operational data must happen in local data centres. Only the less-time sensitive data will be sent back to centralised data centres for further analysis and archiving.

Furthermore, spreading the data traffic load by ensuring much shorter distances to travel between edge devices or users and nearby data centres will greatly reduce data backhaul costs – making the difference between using 10 Gb/s circuits instead of the 100 Gb/s ones typically needed in centralised computing architectures. 

The decentralised approach also goes a long way to addressing the security issues of many companies considering edge computing but who do not want their valuable IP being sent long distance via the public cloud.

Moving data closer to the edge means internal IT teams can reduce the amount of data they have to store at a single point which is crucial when addressing cybersecurity threat.  By working in a more distributed way and utilising edge data centres, organisations will be more able to focus on stopping the next attack, rather than scrambling to recover from the last one.

Move to regional colocation  

Traditionally, many larger telecom providers have operated their own data centres while also offering up spare capacity within their facilities to third parties for colocation. But more recently as the colocation data centre industry has continued to grow and competition has increased from dedicated colo providers, many telcos have divested large swathes of their estates. This is so they can focus on core business and maximise the returns on the massive network investments necessary, not least in ongoing 5G rollouts.

Recognising data centres are expensive to build, own and operate more telcos are therefore turning to colo data centre operators for data centre infrastructure to support their needs, including moving network operations towards the edge. The Huawei debacle and subsequent delay in roll out of 5G have also given CTO’s of the big carrier networks more time to assess how they are going to deploy their networks in future.

While often smaller than traditional facilities in terms of space and power capacity, these edge colocation facilities still have to be as reliable as larger centralised ones bearing in mind the mission critical applications they have to support.

This will require Tier III redundancy and availability at a minimum and highly scalable bandwidth to meet the intensive edge processing demands of new applications and technologies such as AI, AR and VR. With this, they must also be able to support decentralised public, private, and hybrid cloud infrastructure that can be distributed to the edge. Clearly, those data centres that aren’t yet ready for 5G must adapt and refresh as necessary.  

However, the actual location of data centres will determine their overall effectiveness in serving as low latency regional points of presence for centralised telco or indeed cloud scale facilities; being physically close enough for bringing data closer to devices, users and customers, for enabling real-time decision making, improved customer service and competitive edge for businesses.

And for consumers, an enhanced user experience. For telcos, their dilemma will be whether to build larger and larger ‘pipes’ back to hyperscale data centres or use highly connected networks of regional edge data centres to store ‘some’ of this data, the pay-off being between the cost of computing and storage at the edge versus increasing the size of their networks.

In summary, edge data centres will play a pivotal role in ensuring the whole of the UK – not just its major cities – is reaping the rewards of 5G. While centralised data centres still have a crucial role to play as the hubs of data distribution networks, it is fit for purpose, well-connected and energy efficient edge data centres that will continue to act as the local depots of data and low latency applications, for regions across the country.

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