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18 February 2019

Kinetic Edge Alliance: latest sign that the edge is slipping through MNOs’ hands

As we have often argued in Wireless Watch, the edge computing trend has shifted significantly over the past year, and moved further away from the operators’ grasp. New alignments in the nascent sector reflect that, from the recent merger of the OpenFog Alliance and the Industrial IoT Consortium (IIC), to the launch of yet another grouping, the Kinetic Edge Alliance (KEA).

This is not an open source or industry standards effort like some of the other edge groups, but has been spearheaded by Vapor IO, around its own edge platform. This Kinetic Edge architecture supports multiple micro-data centers spread across a city, which can be combined into a single virtual facility with citywide coverage using software-defined interconnection.

As founder and CEO Cole Crawford explained: “We built Kinetic Edge for edge-native applications, which are more mobile and far more localized in their latency sensitivities … We wanted to create these hyper-local availability zones. We do that with multi-tenant shared infrastructure, and a software-defined mesh network, and by aggregating 10s, 30s, 100s of microcells into these PoPs [points of presence], which allows you to create a much more resilient, highly available architecture than if you were trying to create all of this in one building.”

Initially, Vapor IO’s business model was closely tied to mobile networks, and most deployments of its edge nodes were in conjunction with US tower operators, at cell sites. But recently it has been diversifying its model and working with enterprise-focused partners too. Its partnerships with Crown Castle and others will remain important, but the start-up has acknowledged that telco locations – cell sites and central offices – do not always align with the requirements of industries with the highest demand for edge services.

That is another sign that the telcos will not have the dominant role in the value chain which they had hoped for, as reflected in ETSI’s initial Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) architecture, which worked on the assumption that operator real estate, particularly cell sites, would support all the edge needs both of the MNOs themselves – bringing video streaming closer to the user, for instance – and of their enterprise customers. That is not coming to pass, partly because a lot of edge nodes need to be indoors, and operators have poor penetration of enterprise buildings. Now the operators will have to settle for a less prominent value chain position, and some will focus their edge efforts mainly on their internal requirements, to support video and interactive consumer services more effectively, rather than on expanding their B2B reach.

That also leaves telco-focused providers like Vapor IO looking to broaden their influence. The Kinetic Edge Alliance certainly lines up an influential range of supporters behind Vapor’s architecture and neutral host business model. They include five deployment partners and six technology partners. Among the recruits are:

  • The Deutsche Telekom spin-off, MobiledgeX, which is part of several open and standards efforts around the enterprise edge; and shows how a telco can, with some creative thinking, still have a strong role at the edge – by moving up the software and services stack rather than relying on physical locations and connectivity alone. It will provide automated workload orchestration tooling for provisioning and managing applications at the edge location nearest to a requesting device.
  • Federated Wireless, the most advanced of the spectrum access system (SAS) providers for the USA’s shared CBRS band. Shared spectrum is a key driver for deployment of private enterprise ‘sub-nets’, which can be built to support specialized enterprise needs, especially indoors; to provide multi-operator services; and, increasingly, to integrate edge computing with the local core and small cell RAN. For the KEA, Federated will bring software and systems for delivering 4G and 5G connectivity over CBRS to Kinetic Edge locations, including a set of pre-integrated wireless access points, end devices, and network functionality partners.
  • Packet, which provides a bare metal edge cloud platform and has cooperated with Vapor IO and others on producing the Open Glossary of Edge Computing under the auspices of the Linux Foundation.
  • Linode, which will extend its cloud computing infrastructure at Kinetic Edge locations.
  • StackPath, provider of an edge computing services platform called EdgeEngine, which will now support Kinetic Edge, enabling developers to deploy containers and virtual machines, as well as serverless scripts.

The technical partners will make their enabling technologies available for Kinetic Edge deployments. These include:

  • Alef Mobitech, with its edge architecture for MEC
  • Detecon International, another subsidiary of Deutsche Telekom, which focuses on edge as deployed by operators with 5G.
  • Hitachi Vantara, which provides technologies for data center infrastructure, edge-to-cloud data governance, and data-driven insights, including its Lumada platform for managing and acting on data from disparate sources.
  • New Continuum, which will cross-connect its West Chicago data center with the Kinetic Edge to provide local colocation capacity and a software-enabled internet exchange point (IXP).
  • n 19 IT equipment in Kinetic Edge Locations.
  • Pluribus Networks, whose network fabric for distributed cloud can span multiple Kinetic Edge (and non-Kinetic Edge) sites, and manage them as one fabric. It supports fabric-wide automation, multi-tenancy, granular telemetry and low latency network slicing, says the company.
  • Storage veteran Seagate, which will provide technical blueprints and deployment support for storage at the edge.

The aim of the Alliance for Vapor IO will be to increase the momentum behind its Kinetic Edge platform and make this a default option for many edge deployments in different industries and locations, thus accelerating its progress by reducing its reliance on cell towers, improving its chances of getting to scale.

In an interview with LightReading recently, Crawford, spoke in very different terms about the relationship between micro-data centers and towers, compared to past discussions. He said it was “not relevant to talk about sitting at the bottom of one tower”, but instead to focus on “tower-aggregated and connected, not tower-located” scenarios. In fact, the firm’s first edge data center in Chicago is in a DAS hub which, unlike some cell towers, has significant amounts of fiber.

Another edge neutral host, EdgeMicro, has also moved away from the idea of building its nodes at the base of cell towers, because there is often insufficient fiber.

Crawford added: “It’s not that being at the base of towers doesn’t work. It’s that when you go to a market and you’re looking for the most optimal physical place you can be, when you’re talking about the type of traffic that we expect to be talked about on the edge, you want to go to where you have multiple strands of fiber available to you so that you can spin up a number of different backhaul connections to a bigger, regional data center or enough strands of fiber that would allow us to interconnect our own physical real estate footprint with other Vapor edge modules or other Vapor locations.”

Not that Vapor IO is entirely turning its back on the telco industry. Crown Castle is an investor and still plans to use the Kinetic Edge platform for its own expansion into neutral host edge services. The KEA members still see telcos as strong potential members, and deployers of services on their platform.

For the KEA as a whole, the thinking is that a joint effort by a variety of partners, which can offer an end-to-end solution based on pre-selected and pre-integrated elements, will give the edge computing market a shot in the arm, and place their offerings at the heart of that accelerated uptake.

Deployment partner companies will jointly roll out equipment and services, integrating their respective elements with the Kinetic Edge and coordinating their build-outs so that the resulting infrastructure platform is uniform and well integrated, and makes it easy to deploy new applications.

Only this multi-partner approach will address all the requirements, said Crawford, claiming: “It takes a village. It takes a number of companies building this.”

The initial focus is on the USA, and in particular on reaching 30 large metropolitan markets. The first markets, to be deployed under the auspices of the KEA this year, are Chicago, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Dallas, Los Angeles, and Seattle. Chicago is already Vapor IO’s first city of deployment, mainly in partnership with Crown Castle – two of its sites are online there and a third will be added over the next two months.

Since the 30 metros cover about 50% of the population, that would result in true critical mass for edge computing; attracting a broad developer and enterprise ecosystem and ensuring most industries had neutral host edge sites in easy reach. That would also reduce the first-stage cost and risk for industrial adopters, while allowing them to start their deployment on a Kinetic Edge platform and then extend it indoors for particular low latency or high security applications. This approach could help to ensure that the cloud giants do not snap up the entire enterprise edge market for themselves – AWS, in particular, has been very active in extending its cloud services to industrial premises, and even presenting edge compute as a bridge for nervous companies, from private inhouse data centers to the public cloud.

So the cloud giants are not present in Kinetic Edge (or many of the edge computing alliances). Nor, with the exception of Deutsche Telekom’s two units, are the telcos, which raises the concern that they will fail to find a strong position in the rapidly developing enterprise edge landscape. Instead, most of the new edge alliances are geared to driving a unique ecosystem for the emerging edge market, populated by edge specialists and virtualized data center innovators.

Some operators remain adamant that they will lead the edge market, though many of them are active only in ETSI MEC rather than the broader, more open communities like LF Edge. There are exceptions of course, like AT&T, but even DT and MobiledgeX are keen to make a strong connection between their roll-outs and the parent telco’s sites. In markets where DT has networks and central offices, MobiledgeX would usually anchor its infrastructure to those properties, said the spin-off’s CEO Jason Hoffman. One reason for joining the KEA is that, in the USA, DT’s T-Mobile unit is infrastructure-light, and there is uncertainty over whether it will be allowed to merge with Sprint, and how that might affect its future pattern of locations. That led MobiledgeX to focus on alternatives, and particularly the synergy between edge compute and the CBRS ‘innovation band’.

The dream of a natural fit between operators’ properties and the looming edge computing boom lives on then – even if activities like the KEA and LF Edge groups, and the IEEE’s selection of OpenFog as its edge interoperability standard, suggest a lot of the value will flow to other industries.