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18 July 2019

AT&T says its edge project with Microsoft makes the business case for 5G

One area where it makes sense for operators and cloud providers to work together is in the emerging market of edge computing. Both have advantages to press in an area where the value chains remain very uncertain. The telcos offer a distributed network of locations and connectivity on which an edge network can be overlaid for at least some applications, particularly those based on mobility and public platforms, such as video delivery and gaming.

The webscalers have cloud platforms and are established in the enterprise side of the market, which is more focused on on-premises edge nodes and indoor locations. While MNOs are weak indoors, webscalers have relied on a few centralized data centers, not a distributed system.

The synergies seem clear, though there will be a delicate balance to strike between the commercial interests of both sides, which will sometimes conflict. But AT&T has often led the way in terms of how to cooperate with cloud giants, and so avoid being eclipsed by them in an increasingly cloud-based telecoms world. Many of its joint cloud activities have been with AWS, but this month it was talking up an edge cloud test carried out with Microsoft – whose Azure unit, with its strong established base in the enterprise, has perhaps not had to try as hard as AWS to pursue new markets, but which is showing strong interest in the telcos now.

The two companies said they improved network performance by over 50% by deploying Microsoft’s cloud services at the edge of the network. Ofer HaCohen, director of the AT&T Foundry in Israel, said this test alone could make the business case for the telco’s 5G network (the operator has a series of Foundries, labs where it works with partners and developers to test new use cases, and where it has conducted many edge-based trials.)

“It opens up so many opportunities and use cases,” HaCohen said. “From a Foundry perspective, one of our key missions is to create synergy and drive innovation by working very closely with the ecosystem around 5G and edge, and to see how these new, cutting-edge technologies can be leveraged to create business value and benefit to our customers.”

The partners started work earlier this year to test the use of Azure to bring edge computing capabilities into AT&T’s 5G network in order to reduce latency and improve performance by bringing cloud services closer to end users. AT&T set up an edge computing environment in its Cloud Foundry in Plano, Texas and also worked with the Israel Foundry to test the network.

The use case which featured in this trial was drone detection and tracking, working with local drone monitoring start-up Vorpal. Vorpal’s software ran on Azure edge cloud, delivered through the Plano test environment, to track four drones.

HaCohen explained: “The discussion was: what if we can take more compute at the edge of the network with low latency and bandwidth? How can we enhance their business? We saw this vast uplift in performance that they can benefit from, specifically in an area — drone monitoring — where low latency is needed for near real-time monitoring.”

The edge environment saw between 40% and 50% better network performance compared to testing in the public central cloud, and speed tests showed latency levels between 24 and 40 milliseconds, with very low variance, which is just as important for services that require consistent quality of service.

HaCohen said AT&T and Microsoft will continue working with Vorpal and other start-ups to test new use cases for the edge cloud/5G combination. “This is just the tip of the spear,” he said. “There’s so much more that can be done, and the more use cases that we create the more customers can see how they can take advantage of these new technologies.”

In another edge partnership, AT&T has been working with HPE to accelerate enterprise adoption by combining the telco’s connectivity with HPE’s infrastructure.

“AT&T’s software-defined network, including our 5G network, combined with HPE’s intelligent edge infrastructure can give businesses a flexible tool to better analyze data and process low latency, high bandwidth applications,” said Mo Katibeh, CMO of AT&T Business.

Another operator which has been pushing the edge cloud into telco services is Deutsche Telekom, which founded the MobiledgeX organization three years ago to help make edge computing easy to use and access and to accelerate its uptake. Throughout its life, MobiledgeX has been conducting interviews with enterprises – about 200 so far – about their likely applications for edge computing. The surveys found that the most viable use cases in the near term are considered to be multiplayer and cloud gaming, V2X communications, and Industrial IoT.

This assessment was made based on nine market and edge-related factors. The former are market opportunity, venture capital activity, maturity/time-to-market, and network coverage needed. The edge factors are criticality of latency, volume of data exchange, geospatial knowledge requirements, hyper-local grouping demands and data residency requirements.

Among all the use cases identified, the top 15 also included video surveillance, unstaffed traffic management, and vision and camera-related applications.

Now MobiledgeX is encouraging larger-scale sharing of enterprise experiences and requirements via a new interactive tool called Edge Navigator, and aims to create a “living model” based on its own and third party insights, as well as giving developers access to its code and resources through a new early access program.

Eric Braun, CCO of MobiledgeX, said: “We intend this collaborative endeavor to help the global edge ecosystem contribute to a public knowledge base where resulting data and insights can be debated, enhanced with other market findings, and most importantly, acted upon for a smoother path to edge success.”

However, the sheer number and diversity of use cases identified by such research programs – many specific to one vertical – makes the business case a tough one to make for telcos. Operators are used to building one network to support a huge variety of applications and users fairly generically, but in the enterprise markets which account for much of the edge opportunity, each sector and even each organization will have its own priorities and requirements for the network and the edge cloud.

Operators need to identify and prioritize the edge services they can support effectively in the short term and go after industries with the most immediate needs, says ABI Research. Otherwise, says analyst Don Alusha, they risk being superseded by the cloud giants, and that would “seriously devalue 5G and the future of mobile service providers in general”. Despite the uncertainties, the company forecasts that the penetration of edge servers in telecoms infrastructure could add up to a $54bn opportunity by 2024.