Vapor IO interconnects its edges, looks beyond towercos for growth

We have often argued that mobile operators and tower operators have a clear advantage in the early years of edge computing, because they have a large number of sites which could support a distributed cloud in parallel with a distributed mobile network, improving the returns from their locations.

However, while architectures like ETSI Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) started with the assumption that telco sites would be the logical place to deploy a public edge cloud, in fact the edge is proving to be far more complicated than that. Edges will range from metro data centers to in-home servers over time, and so the range of locations, and the companies that own them and built them out, will necessarily diversify. Telcos and towercos should certainly leverage their sites and connectivity as strongly as they can, to generate new revenues on the back of the coming edge boom, but they will not be the only game in town.

That is clear from the story of US towerco Crown Castle’s alliance with edge data center start-up Vapor IO. When Vapor first came on the scene, its build-out of micro-data centers was closely tied into Crown’s cell sites. But now, the towerco has lost some of its enthusiasm for deploying edge nodes at the base of towers (see Wireless Watch October 30), while Vapor IO, though still working with Crown and other tower operators, is diversifying its range of partners.

Last year, Vapor CEO Cole Crawford said towerco sites did not always align well with all the edge services required and 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.

Now, the company has partnered with a non-telco player, colocation provider Digital Realty, to launch its Kinetic Edge Exchange (KEX) software-defined interconnection technology. The new partner will roll out KEX in its Chicago and Atlanta data centers first, and eventually in all of its US colocation facilities.

KEX is a natural extension of Kinetic Edge, which combines multiple, micro-data centers to create virtual ones. Adding KEX connectivity makes all the geographically distributed data centers in a given metro area appear as a single location.

KEX uses Vapor IO’s Kinetic Edge software-defined networking (SDN) fabric to enable and coordinate traffic exchange between the Digital Realty center and Vapor IO’s Kinetic Edge deployments. This allows operators, developers, content providers and other Kinetic Edge users to cross-connect, reducing the cost to peer and exchange data, while closer to the last mile wireless and wireline networks.

Endpoint workloads are processed at the Kinetic Edge sites, then passed to the Digital Realty data center for upstream workflow processing, data analysis and storage. The virtual cross-connects are controlled in software, so that they are automatically adjusted as traffic patterns change.

“It’s about having predictable, low latency”, as low as sub-30ms, said Vapor IO’s CMO, Matt Trifiro. He said the company aims to add other Internet exchange partners, which might even include data center collocation leader Equinix. The latter also has an SDN-enabled interconnection platform, but Trifiro insists the two are complementary, telling SDxCentral: “I think it would be very difficult for Equinix to compete with us with these smaller data centers, and we don’t intend to go into their business. We don’t run big data centers … Equinix is a very large player and we’d like to have a relationship with them because we have customers in common.”

Meanwhile, American Tower has been warming to the idea of edge computing as an extension of its cell site revenue model, despite early scepticism. It is also evaluating the potential to expand in the in-building neutral host market, an area where Crown is already present via its small cell activities. American Tower is particularly interested in the chance to leverage the CBRS shared spectrum, which is expected to count indoor enterprise private networks as a key use case.

The towerco’s CEO, Jim Taiclet, said on the firm’s recent quarterly results call that he is investigating the opportunity to “significantly expand” the addressable market for neutral host and private indoor networks by using CBRS. American Tower currently has 400 indoor distributed antenna systems (DAS) but it also holds the rights for thousands of US business properties, which could be equipped with 4G connectivity more cheaply by using CBRS.

“When you’re using traditional, even neutral host architecture that we have today under kind of a 4G regime with licensed spectrum, the carriers have to put a base station in the building, there has to be fiber wire throughout,” Taiclet said. “It’s a fairly expensive proposition to use the conventional technology.” CBRS would reduce this, especially when combined with alternative backhaul options.

“The scaling, we hope, can ramp fairly rapidly as to the addressable number of buildings in the United States you can get to with a CBRS, and ultimately 5G kind of technology because the cost per building will be lower,” Taiclet told investors.

He said American Tower is conducting trials with operators, but also with unnamed property owners and venues to assess 5G and CBRS.

By contrast, Taiclet sees little opportunity in the millimeter wave 5G spectrum, which is being used by three of the four national MNOs for some 5G. Fewer than 1% of American Tower’s 41,000 US macro sites are in areas with sufficiently dense population to make outdoor, mmWave small cells necessary or economically viable, the company says.