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The Importance of Multi-access Edge Computing in a 5G World

By Iain Gillott

Multi-access edge computing (MEC) servers runs virtualized software on general-purpose computing hardware in edge nodes that can emulate parts of the core network, serve as reliable caching units, run virtualized applications from any number of an operator’s developer partners or a combination of these steps.


Mobile operators are preparing their networks for 5G. Part of that process includes moving to software-defined networking and network functions virtualization. Multi-access edge computing (MEC) and Central Office Re-architected as a Data Center (CORD) are two subsets of the overall shift away from the traditional network architecture to one that looks more like a data center.

Multi-access edge computing emerged on the wireless industry stage several years ago. It has the potential to be as disruptive a technology as anything that is being discussed today. In fact, MEC is quite likely to help realize the promise of 5G.

Simply put, MEC marries a radio with a data center-like hardware architecture. Today, that radio is LTE, but it could also be Wi-Fi, 5G New Radio or some combination of them all. The hardware component is a secure, virtualized platform that network owners can open up to third parties — content providers and application developers, for example. In so doing, the network owner allows content to be placed at the edge; that is, close to the end consumer of that content. That content can be anything — streaming video, augmented reality, location-based services, connected vehicle and internet of things applications.

By putting content and applications at the edge, the network owner can achieve operational and cost efficiencies while introducing new services, reducing network latency and, ultimately, improving the end consumer’s quality of experience.

iGR, my market strategy consultancy focused on the wireless and mobile communications industry, believes that operators will primarily deploy MEC to improve the function and efficiency of their networks — caching and local breakout, for example. Those same MEC units can be used as platforms on which other businesses could host and deliver their content and thus generate new revenue for the operators.

Defining 5G

Although MEC does not require a 5G network to be deployed, 5G is likely to need MEC, along with other virtualization solutions such as network functions virtualization and software defined networking.

That begs the question: What is 5G? According to the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance, “5G is an end-to-end ecosystem to enable a fully mobile and connected society. It empowers value creation toward customers and partners, through existing and emerging use cases delivered with consistent experience and enabled by sustainable business models.”

More specifically, the following points appear to represent the consensus view of what a 5G network should eventually be able to achieve:

·      1–10 Gbps connections to end points in the field (i.e., not theoretical maximum per-cell throughput, but actual end user speeds).

·      1 millisecond end-to-end round trip delay (latency).

With respect to mobile communications, cellular networks’ MEC has more to add in the realm of latency — reducing it — than it does in the case of raw throughput.

What is network latency?

Improving the latency of a network decreases the amount of time an end user has to wait for a response. Put another way, latency is the time the network takes to actually process the request. Each component in the network adds a little latency — the more hops there are in a network, the greater the latency.

Figure 1. How latency adds up. Source: iGR, 2017

Figure 1 illustrates how latency adds up per element introduced into the mobile operator’s network. Note that the total one-way latency caused by the network is approximately 35 milliseconds — a round trip is 70 milliseconds. This does not include time for any application processing that may be required at the data center. If the consumer is accessing a piece of data in particular that is in higher demand, the total latency may be longer.

Clearly, reducing LTE network latency from an approximate average of 70 milliseconds to 1 millisecond would require a massive amount of expense and effort — especially considering that the average fiber network’s latency is just shy of 20 milliseconds.

iGR believes that the 1-millisecond latency target for 5G only applies to the latency on Layer 1 and Layer 2 of the given mobile operator’s network. Once the subscriber steps a virtual foot off the mobile operator’s network into the public internet, latency could spike dramatically and for reasons completely outside of the mobile operator’s control.

This may argue, then, for applications and services that demand extremely low latencies to be tightly integrated into the mobile operator’s network. It may also argue for new architectures such as MEC, which can put both processing power and content closer to the end user.

What Is Multi-access Edge Computing?

MEC is led by an Industry Specification Group (ISG) within the European Telecommunications Standards Institute that has been set up by Huawei, IBM, Intel, Nokia Networks, NTT Docomo and Vodafone. Since late 2014 when the formation of the MEC ISG was announced, more than 50 companies have joined the effort to create an open standard for mobile edge computing. The MEC ISG has been generating considerable interest in the market, and participation in the effort continues to grow.

In short, MEC provides cloud-computing capabilities and an IT service environment at the edge of the mobile network — or any network. Each of these MEC servers can be placed where small cells would be likely to be placed or at other locations — central offices and head-ends, for example.

Each of the MEC servers runs virtualized software on general-purpose computing hardware that is contained in a secure form factor. These edge nodes can emulate parts of the core network, serve as reliable caching units, run virtualized applications from any number of an operator’s developer partners or a combination of these steps. Each MEC also provides low latency, high bandwidth and real-time access to radio network information.

Figure 2: Reduced latency with apps/content server at the network edge.

All of these capabilities are either built into the hardware of the base station itself or into a box that is collocated with, and connected to, the base station. As Figure 2 shows, by moving the content and apps server closer to the edge of the network, latency is reduced considerably. Applying other techniques, together with MEC, will allow mobile operators to further reduce latency and get much closer to the goals of 5G.

Iain Gillott is the founder and president of iGR, a market strategy consultancy focused on the wireless and mobile communications industry. The company researches and analyzes the effect new wireless and mobile technologies will have on the industry, on vendors’ competitive positioning and on its clients’ strategic business plans. Visit www.igr-inc.com.


Edge Computing May be Disruptive Technology, Key to 5G

By Iain Gillott

Multi-access edge computing (MEC), which emerged on the wireless industry stage several years ago, has the potential to be as disruptive a technology as anything that is being discussed today – 5G New Radio, NFV/SDN, C-RAN. In fact, MEC is quite likely to help realize the promise of 5G.


Simply put, MEC marries a radio with a data center. Today, that radio is LTE, but it could also be Wi-Fi, 5G New Radio or some combination of them all. The server component is a secure, virtualized platform that network owners can “open up” to third parties – content providers, application developers, etc.

iGR, a market research consultancy focused on the wireless and mobile industry, has recently published a new market study that analyzes multi-access edge computing, including the architecture, the potential use cases, the pros and cons of the solution, and potential U.S. enterprise spending from 2017 to 2026.

By putting content and applications at the edge, the network owner and the enterprise can realize operational and cost efficiencies. And that content can be anything – streaming video, augmented reality, location-based services, connected vehicle, and Internet of Things (IoT) applications.

iGR’s new market study, MEC: U.S. Enterprise Spending on the New Small Cell Market, 2017-2026, provides a model of how much U.S. enterprises will spend over the next 10 years on MEC-based solutions.  The market study also details the MEC architecture, the requirements for its deployment and MEC’s potential use cases.

Iain Gillott is the president and founder of iGR. 

Edge Computing: Amazon Leads the Way, Wireless Will Follow

June 22, 2017 — 

By Ernest Worthman —

Executive Editor, Applied Wireless Technology —

It is no secret that edge computing is going to be a vital component in 5G. In fact, edge computing is being seen as one of the top enabling platform for 5G, Why? There are several reasons but one big one is that much of 5G is expected to run in the mmWave bands – at least fixed point-to-point (P2P) and point-to-multipoint (P2MP). But these two scenarios are ideal for the edge.

This is significant for the Internet of Everything/Everyone (IoX). Many of these devices are low power and need local nets to connect. Edge cells are idea for that. So far there has been a lot of talk about edge computing but little implementation. There are many reasons for that as well, but one big one here is putting enough intelligence into edge networks. That has been a bit of a challenge. Now, as small cells and DAS have seen significant technological progress in the last couple of years, that technology bump is coming to the edge.

One need only to look at some of today’s tech leaders. In this case, Amazon. The dominant online retailer has developed a platform, called Greengrass, which is an Amazon Web Services (AWS) platform that enables running run code at the network edge just like running it on the AWS cloud. This, of course, is proprietary and only given to AWS clients, but the fact that it is available speaks volumes.

This is, kind of, the model we can expect to see. Amazon does it with cloud servers, but in the 5G realm, this kind of approach should work extremely well. Edge clients, regardless whether they are part of the cellular network, an iteration of Wi-Fi, MulteFire or whatever, will benefit from the bump in technology. The theory is that, as it becomes possible and practical to embed more functionality at the edge, this will allow IoX devices to perform more complex, data-intensive operations. This, in turn, will ease the load on the core (because data won’t have to make the round trip for processing there) and bring communications to near real-time in many cases.

Of course, this won’t work for all scenarios, but developers say that a significant proportion of current functions, that are routed to the core and back, can be handled by intelligent edge platforms.

One of the big advantages to this is the real time element, which can have significant implication for things like medical emergencies and other critical use cases. A second big advantage is cost. Edge computing significantly reduces the hardware requirements of the core as well as improving efficiency at the edge, which reduces costs.

A second benefit is the ability to use the edge to manage IoX devices. Functions such as updating can be performed with minimal, or no downtime or use of core resources. This is especially advantageous with large numbers of devices by running updating functions locally.

There is no doubt about the significance that edge computing will bring to both the IoX and 5G. All that is left is to see how it will come together.

Edge Computing Coming to Tower Sites; Crown Castle Buys In

June 22, 2017

By J. Sharpe Smith

Senior Editor, AGL eDigest

Remember when we all thought that 4G LTE technology with its antenna-mounted amplifiers spelled the doom of size-able equipment enclosures at the base of cell towers? Well, think again. Project Volutus was unveiled yesterday by a company called Vapor IO, which wants to build a giant network of distributed edge data centers at the bases of thousands of cell towers, which will be directly connect to wireless networks.

Removing all doubt that this is a big deal for towers, Crown Castle International, the nation’s largest provider of shared wireless infrastructure, has made a minority investment in Vapor IO to accelerate the project’s development and deployment.

Making Towers a key to 5G

Edge computing has always been part of the 5G game plan. No matter the bandwidth or the protocol, if a smart phone or robot or connected car cannot quickly access the Cloud for the needed data it will not perform at the needed latency goals of 5G. But now a company, Vapor IO, has stepped up with technology that pushes access to the cloud to the edge of the network.

“There’s a new class of applications—including IoT, virtual reality, autonomous and connected vehicles, and smart cities—where the existing model of large, centralized datacenters just won’t work,” Vapor IO said. “These applications need compute and storage to be located more closely to the device or application. The round trip back to a centralized data center takes too long and the amount of data that needs to be transferred is too large.”

Project Volutus is a collocation and “data center as a platform” service, which is a fully-managed micro data center at the base of the cell tower, literally at the true edge of the wireless network. It combines Vapor IO’s hardware and software with the network of cell towers and dense metro fiber to build and operate distributed edge data centers in major metropolitan locations.

“Project Volutus combines edge co-location with remote operations, intelligent cross-connects to wireless networks, and direct fiber routes to regional data centers and peering interconnects,” the Vapor IO said. “It provides point-to-point, multi-point and mesh tower-to-tower connections, bypassing the multi-hop high-latency backhaul of the legacy wireless networks and delivering low millisecond round trips.

Project Volutus uses Vapor IO’s “Vapor Chamber,” an energy-efficient rack and enclosure system designed for edge environments. Ecosystem partner Intel is supplying its FlexRAN and Multi-access Edge Compute (MEC) software libraries to provide an agile virtualized radio access network (vRAN) foundation platform for Project Volutus.

“By collaborating with wireless carriers and telecom equipment manufacturers running vRAN and MEC in Vapor Edge Computing locations, we can bring the network closer to the mobile user,” Caroline Chan, VP of 5G Infrastructure Division of Intel.

Project Volutus will be available for early access in Q3 and multi-city rollouts are targeted to begin later in the year.

Future Estate Communications Solutions 

The next generation of wireless networks will drive the need for all different types of communications assets: from macrocells, small cells and DAS to fiber optics, centralized RAN (C-RAN) and data centers. In a recent interview, officials from Digital Bridge said they are intent on amassing a variety of assets to serve all carriers’ needs, as well as Cloud and content players.  Wholly-owned subsidiary Vertical Bridge has accumulated assets in buildings, rooftops, utility attachments and macrocells all as part of a turnkey real estate communications solution.

“I take it personally when people call us a tower company. We are no longer a tower company,” Bernard Borghei, senior VP, operations and co-founder, said. “We are a real estate solution provider. We have all these different types of assets to meet the demands of today’s advanced technology leading into 5G and beyond.”

Even the real estate under suburban towers may come in handy as locations for micro data centers as wireless providers push their data centers closer to the edge of the network, according to Alex Gellman, Vertical Bridge CEO and co-founder.  “If C-RAN is to be located at specific sites, we look at marketing the land under our sites for a C-RAN hub,” he said.