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16 March 2020

GSMA-led edge initiative aims for global reach, but history is against it

At the last count, there were at least 10 operator-driven collaborations focused on edge computing. Some, like the Asia-centric Bridge Alliance, are very tactical, looking to extend existing relationships for roaming, cross-billing and other core processes to the edge and Internet of Things. These are extremely important for helping operators build a global, relatively seamless connected edge presence (see introduction), but do not address the more thorny issue of creating a global developer base and service platform on top of that framework.

Here there are open source initiatives like Linux Foundation’s group of edge projects, some of which, like the AT&T-initiated Akraino, are telco-focused. There are projects that were started by individual vendors or operators, like Deutsche Telekom’s MobiledgeX and Ericsson’s EdgeGravity, which are starting to attract broad operator backing. And there are more formal operator groupings including those linked to ETSI Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC), creaking a bit but still a cornerstone of the operator interpretation of edge computing.

The latest is under the auspices of the GSMA, and so will be bolstered by the broad influence and membership of that alliance, though it is unlikely to break away from one of the biggest problems that has affected operator edge to date – being too wedded to very traditional, MEC-centric views of the edge architecture and business model, and to the value of MNOs’ locations. Instead, operators need to think outside the box and more like webscalers, open source projects or the Industrial IoT community, all of which are more focused on the IEEE standards and OpenFog than on telco-originated standards.

So, reaction to the announcement that Telefónica, KT of Korea, China Unicom, Japan’s KDDI, the UK’s BT/EE and Australia’s Telstra are working together is diluted by the fact that they are clinging to MEC as the foundation of their efforts, rather than just a useful set of APIs within a larger landscape (the way that even the ETSI MEC group itself now presents itself when pressed).

The operators have signed a memorandum of understanding (MoU) to collaborate on the “multi-operator edge computing experience”, under the auspices of the GSMA’s Operator Platform project. The aim is to ‘monetize’ the edge, the founders said, by orchestrating telco capabilities and assets such as edge computing and network slicing, and making them available globally by interconnecting MEC platforms.

The GSMA says the work will result in the creation of the Telco Edge Cloud Platform by the end of the year. This claims it will do almost exactly what operator initiatives, many of them GSMA-driven, have been promising for years. This is to give operators a strong position in the applications value chain, especially in the B2B world, by enabling developers to leverage capabilities inherent in a well-controlled carrier network.

In the areas of security, location awareness, QoS control, latency control and others, the argument is that a carrier network can deliver far better consistency and quality than the general Internet. Exposing these capabilities in a standard way to developers via open APIs would put the operator’s network at the heart of the software platform, and attract a broad base of partners and applications. That, in turn, would enable the telco to have a high value role rather than just providing commoditized connectivity (or, in the case of edge, locations and micro-data centers).

All these arguments have weight, but the fear is that the GSMA and others have been pushing them for 15 years, and yet have still seen most of the developers and application revenues gravitating towards the over-the-top and cloud providers. The Wholesale Application Community (WAC), another GSMA project, failed back in 2012, and came at the end of a line of operator efforts to control their own platform destiny in the face of the challenge from Google, Apple and Facebook. But WAC, SavaJe, LiMO, Joint Innovation Lab and many others were always coming from too far behind the established commercial offerings, and without sufficient support from the big web and device players.

The edge market is immature, and the webscalers do not hold all the cards, as their eagerness to partner with telcos for their 5G and locations indicates. So the window of opportunity for the operators may be bigger than in those previous examples, even if the focus on a rather inward-looking landscape – telcos and MEC – may be self-defeating.

The GSMA says its platform will make network capabilities such as low latency, compute and storage available in a standard way to developers and software vendors as they develop applications for enterprises. It will provide trusted data protection, sovereignty mechanisms and carrier grade reliability for those applications. And it will leverage the interconnect mechanisms developed as part of the GSMA’s MultiOperator MEC program.

The latter point is an important one, which highlights the upside of having the GSMA pulling the strings – its expertise in instituting frameworks to which just about every MNO will sign up, based on its original raison d’etre in roaming, one of the key reasons that the cellular model flourished rather than alternatives based on other wireless technologies.

The resulting platform will be deployed in various European markets first and then gradually extended to be ‘global’. The founding operators want “one point innovation, global replication”, said Zhang Yunyong, president of China Unicom’s research institute. The project will “improve the expansion of the international edge cloud market space in the future”, he added.

Although operator-driven, the resulting edge cloud platform would be open and inclusive of all stakeholders, claims the GSMA. That means other multi-operator platform initiatives like MobiledgeX could make use of the same resources and APIs if they chose – offering the prospect of a unification of all the MNO edge projects, though past history suggests that will be hard to achieve in practice.

“It is essential for enterprises to be able to reach all of their customers from the edge of any network,” says Alex Sinclair, the GSMA’s CTO. “Based on the GSMA Operator Platform Specification, Telco Edge Cloud will provide enterprise developers and aggregators with a consistent way to reach connected customers.” The joint work is based on the Operator Platform described in a new document from the GSMA ‘Operator Platform Concept Phase I: Edge’.

In the early stages, the operators say they want to test the functionality of edge computing and assess how easy it really is to interconnect networks and develop applications on the kind of scale the webscalers enjoy in the cloud. The group will get feedback from operators and developer communities to identify gaps and new requirements, and share these with the GSMA Operator Platform project., a

Then there will be a four-stage plan:

  • development of basic edge computing capabilities – such as interconnection of MEC platforms, smart edge discovery and smart resource allocation, to optimize the provisioning and delivery of edge services over a global footprint
  • development of mobility features and evaluating a use case in which end customers move from one geographical point to another
  • making services available to roamers, to enable the use of edge when customers moves from their home network
  • development of federation capabilities.

The group is working with French engineering consultancy Altran to demonstrate federation between various operators’ edge computing platforms so that customers can deploy applications and workloads across each operator network and access a global footprint.

“We aim to provide a reference model the industry can build on and developers and enterprises can take advantage of,” said Jongsik Lee, SVP and head of infra R&D at KT.

s well as contributing to standards organizations and open source communities.

Telstra’s group CTO, Håkan Eriksson, said: “Telstra is a strong believer in a multi operator edge environment that makes applications globally accessible and portable, offering the scale needed for a faster and wider adoption of a telco-based edge cloud service.”

“We are making available to the industry the means to build and deliver a global telco-based edge cloud service, providing the necessary mechanisms that complement current MEC standards to enable the federation of operators’ edge computing platforms,” added Juan Carlos García, SVP for technology and ecosystem at Telefónica.

“With this, telcos will be able to deliver a universal edge computing service that will facilitate application developers and enterprises the deployment of their services globally through a simple and single interface.”

MobiledgeX and VMware cooperate to enable telco edge:

Deutsche Telekom’s edge computing spin-off, MobiledgeX, has announced that it will work with virtualization major VMware to help bring new revenue-generating services to the wider telco community.

The two organizations will cooperate so that VMware’s 5G-ready Telco Cloud platform will work with the MobiledgeX Edge-Cloud R2.0 to support new applications. The combination will also enable operators to reduce network, infrastructure and operational costs, they said.

VMware and MobiledgeX are certifying the MobiledgeX Edge-Cloud R2.0 offering to run on VMware’s Telco Cloud platform, to enable CSPs and their customers to push services and applications to the edge. They will also work with leading software developers and channel partners to integrate vertical industry-specific applications.

MobiledgeX is working with MNOs to develop and deploy a cloud platform that will reach deep into the networks to leverage their capabilities, exposing APIs to developers and bringing those services close to end users.

At the same time, VMware has been adapting its virtualization and automation suite specifically for MNOs, to accelerate virtualization of the networks.