Merger of OpenFog and IIC bodes ill for operators’ role in the edge market

Netflix’s VP of networks, Dave Temkin, poured cold water on the wave of edge computing enthusiasm when he said there was “no performance or cost benefit to be gained by a few milliseconds [of reduced latency]”. This would have come as a blow to many organizations which tout content delivery as the core use case for edge computing, especially when deployed by telcos.

However, what such comments should really do is push all stakeholders to be more precise, and more realistic, in their claims. Video on demand does not need edge computing, especially when companies like Netflix have done a lot of work to mitigate the effects of latency on their user experience. Live streamed video, or content based on virtual reality, would be a different story, especially for users on a wireless network. Other, industrial and IoT use cases will require even lower latency, and will rely on edge computing for other reasons too, notably security, privacy, local control of data, and reduced cost of transporting information to the cloud.

Most of these use cases have something in common with those for 5G, whose best attribute is also low latency – they are not fully proven as yet. The enterprise interest is real, but business cases – for those enterprises, and for the edge and connectivity providers, have not been fully made. So 2019 will not be the year of massive breakthrough for 5G or edge computing, but it will be the year when a great deal of work is done on solidifying the business models – and accepting that, by contrast with 4G or, indeed, the public cloud, those will be highly fragmented between different industry sectors and applications.

This is one of the challenges for mobile operators which want to achieve a significant place in the value chain in 5G or edge computing. They will need to address many different sets of requirements and groups of stakeholders, which will fragment their investments and their business model. That will be alien to a group which has basically pursued two models, voice and data, both with very broad applicability.

For the same reasons, many initiatives in edge computing will be driven by enterprise – and the same will be seen, to a lesser extent, in 5G, where many industries are pushing for private networks and even their own spectrum.

In the less developed market for edge computing, we are still at the stage where alliances and standards groups are behind many of the developments, but it is already notable that representatives of vertical industries outside telecoms and cloud are taking an active role. Success for operators, then, will be about absorbing the requirements of other sectors and not just understanding how to support them, but also engaging in active partnerships with them.

The risk that, rather than being trusted and essential partners, operators will be sidelined in the value chain, was seen at the turn of the year with the creation of a mega-alliance focused on edge computing, mainly for the IoT. This merges two highly influential groups, but both only marginally influenced by operators – the OpenFog Consortium (OFC) and the Industrial Internet Consortium (IIC). The combined organization will increase the momentum behind edge computing specifically in the IoT world, which is the one where operators say they have the biggest challenge to make a business case.

The OFC was set up to create an open platform based on the fog technology originally devised by Cisco. This defines a framework for filtering, processing and analyzing data at the edge, to reduce strain on the central cloud and associated connectivity. While the telecoms industry was focused on an alternative approach, ETSI’s Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC), OpenFog took a broader view, defining a platform which could be adapted for any industry, and which allowed the edge to be placed anywhere from near the data center to the ‘extreme edge’ or device. The broader applicability of this framework, compared to MEC, was seen when the IEEE adopted OpenFog as the basis of its 1934 edge computing standards, while MEC is now looking mainly at APIs (application programming interfaces) rather than a full architecture.

Meanwhile, the IIC was initiated by US industrial giant GE, which has also distanced itself from telcos in other aspects of its broad-based Industrial IoT strategy – including in its plans to acquire its own spectrum licences in the 3.5 GHz CBRS band. GE itself is going through a turbulent phase, but the IIC remains powerful, and has grown to be a broad industry alliance, very much led by the needs of manufacturing and other heavy industries. Telcos can take part, and AT&T is the leading participant from this sector, but their role is clearly confined to connectivity, rather than taking the anchor role in the value chain as they would have done in the MEC view of the world.

So now these two organizations are joining forces. They already have a crossover of major members, such as Cisco and Microsoft. “By expanding our pool of resources and expert collaborators, we will continue to accelerate the adoption of not only fog, but a wealth of technologies that provide the underpinnings to IoT, AI and 5G,” wrote Matt Vasey, chairman and president of the OFC, in a blog post about the merger.

Forthcoming work will focus on the increasing ability for machines and devices to have their own computing and storage resources – as smartphones, of course, already do – and to be somewhat autonomous and self-aware. “Robots, drones and self-driving cars are early indicators of small and mobile clouds. Distributed intelligence that interacts directly with the world and is immersive with all aspects of their surrounding is the concept behind fog,” wrote Vasey.

Although the groups each initially appeared to address a different sector and platform, their merger is logical given the inter-dependence of edge and the IoT, and the common challenges for both. The groups have also shared a similar overall approach, looking to reduce risk for enterprise adopters and so accelerate uptake, by developing common specifications and testbeds based on real world requirements. OpenFog has developed a full architecture, but not an academic or bluesky one – and the fact that this will underpin IEEE standards, making fog nodes and devices interoperable, is its most significant contribution to enabling a low risk, standards-based, mass-scale edge platform.

In 2019, the merged organization plans to increase investment in international testbeds and working groups, to remove its somewhat US-centric image, and to create new technical committees focused on horizontal features, but also on specific requirements for vertical markets. The combined consortium will continue with its core work of identifying prototype use cases in order to define best practice in terms of architecture for each sector. It also aims to add compliance and certification programs to its testbed activities, in which it will no doubt be helped by its close association with the IEEE, and its official standards body processes.

In the same week, another new edge group was announced, this one specific to Europe. The Edge Computing Consortium Europe (ECCE) consists, initially, of 18 vendors and other organizations, which plan to create a standard reference architecture and technology stack targeted at operators, smart factories, and other major Industrial IoT verticals.

The founder members are Huawei, Analog Devices, ARM, Bombardier, B&R Automation, Harting IT, IBM, Intel, robotics firm Kuka, National Instruments, Renesas Electronics, Schneider Electric, Software AG, Spirent and TTTech; plus three research organizations from Germany – Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems (Fokus), German Edge Cloud and German Research Center for Artificial Intelligence (DFKI).

The group’s opening statements say that it predicts that 75% of enterprise generated data will be created and processed outside data centers or the cloud by 2025, up from less than 20% today.