Great technical battles emerge and settle themselves as evolution dictates what must happen. At the dawn of the electric age, alternating current (championed by Nicolai Tesla) battled direct current (pushed by Thomas Alva Edison). Tesla won.
A similar foundational debate emerged once it became clear that the internet was going to be huge. Should intelligence be located in the core or at the edge? Influential technologist George Gilder argued that most of the heavy lifting has to be done at the edge. A network, even operating at the speed of light, can’t support massive amounts of real-time applications and millions of users if data has to traverse great distances.
The debate has real consequences, since locating intelligence in one place or the other empowers or neutralizes different players and industry segments. The evolution of the internet during the past few years has driven intelligence farther and farther from the core. It’s only a bit of an oversimplification to say that the edge is winning.
Last month, Occams Business Research and Consulting released a report that says that mobile edge computing (MEC), driven by demands of 4G and 5G networks, will enjoy a worldwide compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 50.2 percent from this year through 2023. The report seems to narrowly focus on mobile. More generally, the signs are that networks are undergoing something akin to centrifugal force: Things are spinning so fast that the intelligence is being forced outward.
The Internet of Things (IoT) is a key driver of the network utilization pattern Occams found. Doing things locally achieves two goals: It reduces network congestion and allows speed-intensive tasks to be supported.
The exact definitions vary, but the key is proximity. Data Center Knowledge, in a story about AT&T’s edge computing plans, featured commentary from Christian Renaud, the IoT Research Director at 451 Research. The bottom line is that real-time applications (Is it safe for the autonomous vehicle to switch lanes? Does a safety sequence at a nuclear power plant need to be triggered?) have very low tolerance for delay. They are also mission-critical, and the less exposure to the network they have, the better:
New categories of applications — from data analytics using information from industrial sensors to upcoming consumer devices like VR headsets — are pushing the demand for compute that’s closer to where data is produced or consumed. “This is because of applications like autonomous vehicles co-ordination — vehicle to vehicle and vehicle to infrastructure — or VR, where because of the demands of your vestibulo-ocular reflex for collaborative VR, there are fixed latencies you have to adhere to,” he explains. In other words, a VR headset has to render images quickly enough to trick the mechanism in your brain responsible for moving your eyes to adjust to your head movements.
Tech Republic also looked at AT&T’s edge plans. It also mentions virtual reality and augmented reality (AR and VR), adding robotics, autonomous vehicles, improved data processing, and oversight of these functions as potential beneficiaries of the move to the edge. Network virtualization, which AT&T is pushing aggressively, plays into this trend as well, the story suggests.
The industry is starting to get serious about managing the edge. Yesterday, The Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC), an organization that works on industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) issues, announced a memorandum of understanding jointly with the Edge Computing Consortium (ECC). The two groups will identify and share IIoT best practices, collaborate on test beds and research and development projects and work on standardization, the press release says.
The core versus edge debate is decades old. What has become apparent during the past couple of years is that the edge will win.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.