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8 February 2019

Linux Foundation’s LF Edge looks beyond telcos for a common framework

Conventional standards bodies are often at their weakest when two separate worlds converge. When the mobile network also became an IP and data network, it required a massive adjustment by its core standards body, the 3GPP, and uneasy cooperation with previously alien groups like the IETF (Internet Engineering Taskforce, the main Internet standards body).

Into that breach, proprietary solutions can too easily step, but so can open source initiatives. As these start to have the same influence in telecoms as they have already had in the data center, it is no surprise that the Linux Foundation (LF) is building a power base in some of the new intersections – particularly between the telecoms network and the cloud. In the mobile world, the element of cloud convergence which promises to spawn the most interesting new business models is the edge cloud, and the LF has established its latest umbrella framework in this area, bringing together several projects and 60 founding members into LF Edge.

This is a relatively new approach by the Foundation, which has started, in recent years, to group and coordinate its projects in categories, to avoid duplication of effort, accelerate progress and encourage maximum participation. Other groups include the Cloud-Native Foundation, the LF Networking Fund and the Deep Learning Foundation. Now it has added LF Edge, predicting that about 20bn edge devices will be in use by 2020.

The new structure establishes a common administrative structure to help coordinate and rationalize LF’s various edge projects (though it is always voluntary for any project to join one of these new groupings, or Foundations). LF Edge is described as “an umbrella organization to establish an open, interoperable framework for edge computing independent of hardware, silicon, cloud, or operating system”.

Three existing edge-related projects will move under the auspices of the new framework. These are the AT&T-initiated Akraino Edge Stack, EdgeX Foundry (originated by Dell), and the Open Glossary of Edge Computing. They will be joined by two brand new projects – Home Edge Project and Project EVE.

The broad remit for LF Edge is described as addressing “non-traditional video and connected things that require lower latency, faster processing and mobility”. This will be done via a unified software stack, supporting and drawing on all the involved projects, which does not just cover the telco edge, but also that of the cloud and the private enterprise.

This sees the Foundation taking a broad view on the perennial question ‘where is the edge of the network?’ The traditional telco approach, epitomized in ETSI’s Multi-access Edge Compute (MEC) architecture, likes to see the network edge conveniently in terms of existing telecom infrastructure topologies. So the edge is a central office, a cell site, at a stretch it might be a city small cell. If that view prevailed, operators would be in pole position to deploy edge applications and monetize their existing sites, benefiting from the much-vaunted confluence of telco real estate, low latency 5G and distributed cloud resources for storage, analytics and content management.

But in fact, there are many reasons to want to move data processing to the edge, beyond lower latency and more efficient mobile resource usage. Many enterprises are interested in edge compute to keep their data secure or under their control, or to reduce the cost of transporting huge amounts of data to the central cloud, if most of that can be filtered, and stored or discarded, where it is collected.

Most of these enterprise uses will take place indoors, often on industrial premises, but the edge can be taken even further – into the home, to support secure and intelligent local use cases such as interactive VR; into the car or train; even into the end device.

The LF Edge view is that each of these has certain advantages in enabling edge-centric services – telcos are best placed to deliver highly mobile applications, an may argue that their control of 5G will also put them in pole position for many low latency services. However, the best location for a given app may often be within a company data center itself, so it is important that there is a common framework which can span edges that are owned and deployed by a range of organizations, including webscalers, operators and enterprises themselves.

LF Edge aims to tie these edges together to create greater harmonization across industries, and so accelerate deployment of edge devices to reach that projected 20bn figure by the end of next year. With most of those devices being related to IoT applications, there is no chance of reaching such ambitious numbers if the issue of fragmentation is not more effectively addressed. There are hundreds of IoT services which could be enhanced by moving data and analytics closer to the device, and connecting them by high quality mobile links. But if each one has its own software stack and ecosystem, there will be very little scale and little attraction for developers, hardware makers or service providers. In particular, it is urgent to have a common template for identifying and guarding against security and privacy risks in the IoT.

“The market opportunity for LF Edge spans industrial, enterprise and consumer use cases in complex environments that cut across multiple edges and domains,” said Arpit Joshipura, general manager of The Linux Foundation.

On the smart home front, the new Home Edge Project is based on seed code contributed by Samsung Electronics, which clearly has a keen interest in boosting its position in this value chain. It is a major supplier of connected home appliances and media equipment, as well as smartphones, but has been outstepped by Amazon and Apple when it comes to intelligent home applications, especially those controlled by smart speakers. By defining the rules for a new AI-assisted home edge, Samsung may hope to improve its influence – its edge work has been geared to low latency applications like VR gaming, to high security in the smart home, and to responsive AI apps from home robots to intelligent content management.

The other new LF Edge initiative is called Project EVE (Edge Virtualization Engine) and its starting point is code contributed by cloud developer Zededa. The aim is to create an open and unified edge architecture that can support all kinds of hardware, connectivity and software, whether on-premise or in the cloud. This agnostic approach, say EVE members, effectively removes the rigid perimeter and provides a more flexible edge with multiple security layers.

It is important for telcos to let go of their dreams of dominating the edge services market, at least once they move beyond applications in which they have incumbent advantage anyway, such as video caching for smartphones, or highly mobile edge apps. But overall, telcos will only be one group of companies able to monetize the combination of edge compute and connectivity, as LF Edge’s broad focus shows (despite strong involvement of operators like AT&T).

This is also at the heart of the OpenFog specifications, which had their roots in the data center rather than the networking world (they were originally defined by Cisco), and which are now the basis of the IEEE 1914 standards for interoperable edge computing systems. To push that point home, OpenFog recently merged with the Industrial Internet Consortium, to focus on an important driver of edge services, the Industrial IoT, with its requirements to support huge numbers of devices, all generating data that needs to be analyzed; plus to enable low latency and high security.

However, unifying efforts like that merger, and LF Edge, are treading a delicate line between addressing fears of fragmentation, and appearing to behave like a traditional standards body. Linux Foundation insists that projects will keep their independence and that no project has to join its frameworks – each one will decide if and when to take part.