Two industry trends with significant momentum are on a collision course. One is the cloud, which in pursuit of low-latency/high-bandwidth applications is moving out of the datacenter and towards the edge. The promise and potential of applications ranging from Internet-of-Things (IoT) to Immersive UIs, Public Safety, Autonomous Vehicles, and Automated Factories, has triggered a gold rush to build edge platforms and services. The other is the access network that connects homes, businesses, and mobile devices to the Internet. Network operators (Telcos and CableCos) are transitioning from a reliance on closed and proprietary hardware to open architectures leveraging disaggregated and virtualized software running on white-box servers, switches, and access devices.
The confluence of cloud and access technologies raises the possibility of convergence. For the cloud, access networks provide low-latency connectivity to end users and their devices, with 5G in particular providing native support for the mobility of those devices. For the access network, cloud technology enables network operators to enjoy the CAPEX & OPEX savings that come from replacing purpose-built appliances with commodity hardware, as well as accelerating the pace of innovation through the softwartization of the access network.
It is clear that the confluence of cloud and access technologies at the access-edge is rich with opportunities to innovate, and this is what motivates the CORD-related platforms we are building at ONF. But it is impossible to say how this will all play out over time, with different perspectives on whether the edge is on-premise, on-vehicle, in the cell tower, in the Central Office, distributed across a metro area, or all of the above. With multiple incumbent players—e.g., network operators, cloud providers, cell tower providers—and countless startups jockeying for position, it’s impossible to predict how the dust will settle.
On the one hand, cloud providers believe that by saturating metro areas with edge clusters and abstracting away the access network, they can build an edge presence with low enough latency and high enough bandwidth to serve the next generation of edge applications. In this scenario, the access network remains a dumb bit-pipe, allowing cloud providers to excel at what they do best: run scalable cloud services on commodity hardware. On the other hand, network operators believe that by building the next generation access network using cloud technology, they will be able to co-locate edge applications in the access network. This scenario comes with built-in advantages: an existing and widely distributed physical footprint, existing operational support, and native support for both mobility and guaranteed service.
While acknowledging both of these possibilities, there is a third outcome that not only merits consideration, but is also worth actively working towards: the democratization of the network edge. The idea is to make the access-edge accessible to anyone, and not strictly the domain of incumbent cloud providers or network operators. There are three reasons to be optimistic about this possibility:
- Hardware and software for the access network is becoming commoditized and open. This is what ONF is working towards, and as a key enabler for Cloud, Telecommunications, and Cable companies, it provides the same value to anyone.
- There is demand. Enterprises in the automotive, factory, and warehouse space increasingly want to deploy private 5G networks for a variety of physical automation use cases (e.g., a garage where a remote valet parks your car or a factory floor making use of automation robots).
- Spectrum is becoming available. Countries are making unlicensed or lightly licensed spectrum for 5G deployments available. The US and Germany are first movers in this arena, with other countries soon to follow. This means 5G should have around 100-200 MHz of spectrum available for private use.
In short, the access network has historically been the purview of the Telcos, CableCos, and the vendors that sell them proprietary boxes, but the softwarization and virtualization of the access network opens the door for anyone (from smart cities to underserved rural areas to apartment complexes to manufacturing plants) to establish an access-edge cloud and connect it to the public Internet. We expect it to become as easy to do this as it is today to deploy a WiFi router. Doing so not only brings the access-edge into new (edgier) environments, but also has the potential to open the access network to developers that instinctively go where there are opportunities to innovate.