Fueled by vendor innovation, interest in 5G wireless networks and edge computing is growing, but IT leaders must first evaluate the cost and efficacy of these converging technologies before committing.
Businesses are intrigued by the convergence of 5G wireless networking and edge computing to fuel their enterprise applications. And while the market for such capabilities remains nascent, IT leaders should prepare for the arrival of these technologies, which are maturing rapidly thanks to telco operators and cloud software makers, experts say.
5G comprises next-generation wireless internet standards and technologies capable of running up to 20 times faster with 120 times less latency than 4G. Edge computing, which often connects to but is not a replacement for cloud computing, also reduces lag time by processing compute and storage on or close to endpoints deployed outside the data center, shortening the roundtrip that data needs to travel to help apps respond more rapidly to queries.
Together, 5G and edge could fuel a greater number of wireless devices in an internet of things (IoT) network and provide considerable processing horsepower for applications requiring real-time access to data, such as analytics, machine learning (ML), artificial intelligence (AI), virtual reality (VR), self-driving cars and robotics, according to Deloitte, which projects the market for edge products will top $12 billion in 2021
The COVID-19 pandemic is also spurring rapid development of 5G and multi-access edge computing (MEC) deployments as businesses look to differentiate in speed of service and low latency, says Thierry Sender, director of IoT and real-time enterprise product strategy at Verizon, who credits SaaS providers with “recognizing where the puck is going” by ensuring tight integration of network and compute to support next-generation apps.
Public 5G or private 5G?
Verizon, AT&T, Amazon Web Services, Microsoft and other vendors are jockeying for position to establish use cases and best practices for 5G and edge networking, says Gartner analyst Bob Gill. IT leaders have a lot to consider before deploying 5G and edge networks, including whether to connect to a public 5G network or invest in a private 5G network.
This decision is largely a cost-benefit analysis, Gill says. An enterprise located in a major metropolitan area may find it easier and more cost-effective to connect to a public 5G network, while an enterprise with campuses in more rural areas may find it easier to stand up a private edge network. 5G also affords companies greater control over physical and cybersecurity requirements.
Verizon, AT&T and others offer both public and private solutions.
On the public front, Verizon is pairing its 5G Ultra Wideband network with AWS Wavelength, which moves compute and storage to the edge of the network, to build new drone applications. Skyward, a Verizon company that provides software and consulting for companies that use drones commercially, has attached a VR camera to a drone that sends the video content over 5G and MEC to viewers on the ground. Verizon and AWS are undertaking such public rollouts across dozens of U.S. cities.
The private 5G network is gaining more steam. Verizon and Microsoft are combining the carrier’s private 5G edge network with Azure cloud services to help companies address privacy and security needs as they build applications. For example, logistics company Ice Mobility is testing Verizon’s 5G and MEC with Azure to help with computer vision assisted product packing.
IBM is partnering with Samsung to run applications designed for industrial manufacturing environments on Galaxy 5G mobile devices with IBM’s network management, hybrid cloud and edge computing technologies to improve operational performance, increase worker safety and reduce downtime, says Craig Wilson, vice president of the global telecom industry at IBM. Wilson says that IBM is partnering with more than 40 other companies on 5G edge solutions.
AT&T is also in on the private action. IBM is testing the carrier’s private 5G MEC network to see whether it can enable researchers to remotely adjust locations of IoT network devices in a laboratory. Another test would enable a systems administrator to remotely rewire machines in a data center.
CIOs eyeing 5G
The frothy announcements have Kris Singleton watching 5G edge developments closely. The CIO of Enseo, a provider of streaming media and other technology services for hospitality chains, says she is interested in upgrading the company’s hardware and software to accommodate 5G and edge technologies when they become more widely available.
The key is enabling the upgrades without significant capital investment, while also respecting the requirement for contactless services during the pandemic. To that end, Singleton prefers over-the-air firmware upgrades that she can push out to media devices operating on its clients’ properties versus sending out field technicians to swap out older hardware.
The architecture of chipsets in the company’s media boxes will make it easier to enable 5G, Singleton says, adding that partnerships with Broadcom, Cisco Systems, Aruba and other vendors in the hardware and networking ecosystem are critical in this regard. Enseo is also working with AT&T on capabilities that will bring data and analytics closer to end users and at sub-millisecond speeds. Also a possibility: using edge computing to automate control of lighting, temperature and humidity in its clients’ rooms.
Recommendations for IT leaders
You’d be forgiven for assuming all of those lofty experiments are precursors to a massive 5G and edge network rollout. While the ramped-up innovation cycles are fomenting a strong push for 5G and edge, the infrastructure isn’t broadly available.
“It’s still early for most CIOs to be heavily invested,” says Gill, with the caveat that IT leaders in the manufacturing and retail industries are among the leading adopters.
Gartner analyst Nick Jones offers the following playbook for CIOs:
- Use the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP)’s 5G release schedule, which charts anticipated progress over the next few years, to identify future innovation opportunities and estimate when it might be possible to pilot or deploy them.
- Assess the impact of your local operator’s 5G strategy on existing systems that depend on 3G and 4G.
- Collaborate with local cellular operators to understand their plans for 5G release 16, which is currently under way, and beyond. Participate in early-access programs and innovation labs.
- Identify situations when construction may need to accommodate future 5G deployments and ensure that the necessary infrastructure is available.
The bottom line: 5G and edge are coming, and CIOs need to be ready. With tech stalwarts blazing the trails, CIOs must ask themselves whether it is better to be a fast follower or to wait until the technologies hit the mainstream. To help assess this, Gill recommends that IT leaders weigh app use cases against the cost to deploy them.