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5G. Software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV). IoT. Edge computing. Much has been said about these technologies and the impact they will have on the telecommunications services of tomorrow. But it’s when they’re talked about together—as part of the broader digital transformation of service provider networks and business models—that things really get interesting. It’s a story that may impact every corner of the telecommunications ecosystem, from mobile network operators (MNOs), traditional service providers, and cable network operators to cellular tower companies, data center operators, managed services providers, and vendors. 

SDN and NFV hold the promise of replacing enormous networks of proprietary, single-purpose appliances with racks of off-the-shelf compute and storage platforms that are running software from a variety of vendors for a variety of services. Progress on this front has been slowed by several issues, leaving operators looking for their next opportunity. It has emerged in the form of 5G, and whether they are early adopters or taking a wait-and-see approach, every telco company is looking for its 5G play. 

Originally tapped for its tremendous speed and bandwidth and the cool applications 5G can enablehigh band, low latency applications such as autonomous vehicles, immersive virtual reality, and remote-controlled robotsthe latest generation of cellular mobile communications is now being considered as a connecting fabric for several computing trends. For users, both consumer and enterprise, it may mean more applications and better quality of experience (QoE). And for operators, it might be the impetus they needed to embrace SDN, virtualization, and edge computing.

The rise of the edge 

Edge computing means exactly what it says—compute power moving to the network edge, i.e., closer to the user. The goal: eliminate latency and congestion problems and improve application performance. In a recent Thought Leadership Council (TLC) survey, nearly 70 percent of service providers say they either already have, or plan to, move compute and application execution to the edge by 2020. Edge computing also has the potential to improve network security, increase scalability, and lower costs. 

It’s no wonder some of the world’s largest mobile network operators (MNOs) are already moving portions of their network functions closer to the edge with the goal of creating new vertical business opportunities, shortening provisioning, and making networks more agile. But they’re not the only ones sniffing around edge computing: cable operators, tower companies, vendors, and others are exploring how they can either use edge computing for their own networks, build mini data centers and provide the necessary fiber, power and cooling, or build the technology and solutions needed to make them operate.

Moving full-steam ahead

The industry is moving quickly—well, as quickly as it can considering the mishmash of standards and platforms available—to deliver a seamless edge experience. As the cloud migrates to the edge, simple and quick installations with compact footprints and in some cases, real-time requirements, will likely be needed to scale edge computing. The industry has sounded the alarm for cloud-native solutions to tackle this issue effectively.

Need proof that the industry has a keen interest in forging ahead with edge computing? A top-tier operator released a press release in January of this year, saying that it was able to cut latency in half with edge computing. It also spoke of increases in reliability, energy efficiency, and processing more data. 

The real winners in the digital transformation enabled by these advances are, of course, enterprises and consumers. Consumers should see improved application performance, and enterprises may see more actionable data from IoT devices in industrial settings, more timely processing of information, and the ability to deploy their remote workloads as cloud-native. 

Interested in more perspectives from companies championing the network edge? Red Hat has teamed with Light Reading on a new eBook: Telecommunications and the Journey to the Network Edge

About the author

Azhar Sayeed is responsible for developing and driving End-to-End solution architecture for Red Hat's Telcos and Communication Service Providers (CSPs) customers. He contributes to implementation architectures and develops solutions for OpenStack deployment for scale and hyperconvergence.

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