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10 May 2019

Vapor IO links to AWS at the edge – operators need to do the same

The biggest question facing operators as they devise their strategies for edge computing is whether the cloud giants will be competitors or partners. In the centralized cloud, the scale of Amazon AWS and Microsoft Azure is hard to beat, but as the cloud is distributed to ever-more dispersed locations, the distributed nature of a telco’s network and sites mean it has more to bring to the table.

An operator might partner with AWS or Azure, providing locations and high-quality connectivity, while the cloud company brings its services and brand. As services become more personalized and differentiated, the operator might increase its place in the value chain by supporting network slicing from data center to edge. Those slices might call up resources from multiple networks and multiple clouds, helping to push the webscalers down the value chain.

[This is a reduced version of an article that ran in Wireless Watch, written by our Research Director, Caroline Gabriel. If you are interested in more of this analysis, be sure to sign up to a trial.]

There is still a major risk though. The webscale companies are better skilled than most telcos at managing advanced digital platforms and they have better brand relationships with consumers and businesses. In a complex, sliced environment they might well be the parties to seize control of the orchestration of the slices, reducing the operator’s assets of sites, connections and spectrum to mere plumbing.

But if the operators do not partner, they face a head-to-head battle. They would be well placed to dominate edge-based services for their own existing consumer bases – using their central offices or cell sites to deliver personalized, high quality video over low latency connections, for instance. These are services they already offer, and the relationships with content providers like Netflix are relatively well established. Increasingly, Netflix, Amazon and others are not content to be purely over-the-top but are investing in infrastructure such as content delivery networks (CDNs), directly or through alliances with operators.

However, the biggest market and biggest source of growth in edge computing will be in the enterprise, industrial and IoT sectors, where the edge location will less commonly marry up with the telcos’ sites – many will be on-premises, which means MNOs will regret their failure to invest in better indoor coverage. Here, the established relationships are often with the cloud providers, and Amazon and Microsoft have been very active in getting affordable, deployable edge nodes into their corporate bases.

Also, if the operators snub the webscalers, they may see other companies stepping into the breach, providing sites and connectivity on a neutral host basis, aided by the rise of shared spectrum. Some of the tower operators and the wholesale fiber providers are interested in the idea of adding edge nodes to their neutral host infrastructure portfolio, leveraging their existing locations to emulate the model of a company like Equinix in the cloud data center.

Crown Castle has been the most active of the towercos in this regard, and has worked closely with a neutral host edge infrastructure start-up, Vapor IO. Now Vapor IO is showing the way that, we believe, the telcos and neutral hosts will need to go at the edge – working with AWS and Azure, not against them.

Vapor IO said it now offers a direct connection between its edge computing nodes, called Kinetic Edge – many of them located in Crown Castle sites and supported by Crown’s fiber – and AWS’s cloud data centers. A “straight fiber line” from a Vapor micro-data center to the AWS cloud would reduce latency and make it easier for customers to decide, on the fly, which data needs to be processed and stored locally and which needs to be sent to the central repository. Developers will have access to the full suite of AWS cloud services and can create applications which split workloads between the edge and the central cloud.

The service was jointly developed with Crown Castle and initially uses the towerco’s high speed Cloud Connect fiber-based links, which support one or more links of 50Mbps to 500Mbps, to implement AWS Direct Connect, which Amazon offers as a private connection from a customer’s location to the AWS cloud services. This is an alternative to routing traffic to AWS over a public Internet connection.

Another option for this kind of alliance in future might be SiteWise, a way to link industrial and IoT gateways to the AWS cloud, which can be run on edge servers, third party gateways, or Amazon’s own edge box, AWS Snowball.

“Over the past two years, we’ve been working very closely with Vapor IO to build out their Kinetic Edge using our real estate and fiber assets in many US cities,” added Phil Olivero, VP of technology at Crown Castle. “Chicago, the world’s first Kinetic Edge city, proved to be the ideal location for us to connect the Kinetic Edge directly to AWS. As Vapor IO rolls out the Kinetic Edge to new cities, we plan to extend our Cloud Connect to also connect to AWS in those locations. This will empower our mutual customers to build high-performance edge-enabled mobile applications using AWS.”

Vapor IO’s CEO Cole Crawford claimed that the connection will be like a hotline for developers, ensuring a high speed path between the smaller firm’s localized computing services and Amazon’s centralized ones.

That will unlock new applications that are best run by splitting workloads and data between the mobile edge and centralized locations, delivering a seamless end-to-end experience. “By directly connecting AWS services to applications at the Kinetic Edge, we’re bringing the full power of the cloud to the last mile wireless network, delivering the foundation of a true edge-to-core architecture for developers,” said Crawford.

Despite the closeness to Crown Castle, Vapor IO is likely to develop similar capabilities with other site and fiber partners. It also has agreements with other tower companies, like SBA, to locate its edge hardware on their sites, and Crawford said it would work with other fiber owners, like Zayo, to ensure its growing network of micro-data centers always has connectivity to AWS.

And the firm acknowledged earlier this year that, despite its close ties to towercos, their sites did not always align well with all the edge services required. Crawford told LightReading that 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.

One company which voiced support for the Vapor IO announcement was another start-up, Network Next, which recently raised seed funding of $4.4m to work on edge-based mechanisms to speed up online and mobile gaming services by reducing latency. It works with game creators and content delivery networks, and CEO Glenn Fiedler commented: “Our customers run a massive number of game servers on AWS and we work with them to improve performance for mobile clients. As gaming companies increasingly look to bring high speed multiplayer games like Fortnite to mobile platforms, our sophisticated edge processing connects players back to AWS in the most optimal fashion, giving a true edge-to-core experience.”

This example shows the budding complexity of the edge cloud landscape, with many types of company looking for well-positioned, neutral host infrastructure on which to run their edge services – but also needing very good connectivity back to the central cloud.

In February, Vapor IO created the Kinetic Edge Alliance, looking to accelerate the spread of its particular architectural approach, which 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. The firm itself plans to have 80 such cities in play by the end of next year, but progress could be even faster with a broader ecosystem, and even if third parties licensed the architecture for their own build-outs.

Crawford said at the time: “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.”