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Edge Computing Groups Wrestle With Interoperability

Iain Morris

BERLIN -- MEC World Congress -- Interoperability has emerged as a huge concern for the different industry groups working on standardized approaches to edge computing.

The proliferation of groups tackling the edge-computing challenge has exacerbated concern about fragmentation and the risk that incompatible technologies and techniques begin to appear.

Standards group European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and an industry association called the OpenFog Consortium this week said they would collaborate on defining the application programming interfaces that will link computing assets to the applications that need to use them. (See Edging Closer: ETSI & OpenFog Team on Edge Computing APIs.)

But as alternative groups such as the Open Networking Foundation, Open Edge Computing and the Telecom Infra Project (TIP) also eye roles in the edge computing drama, industry executives have voiced some anxiety.

"There is more work that needs to be done on interoperability testing between these different systems," said Steve Vandris, the board director of the OpenFog Consortium and a director of IoT and 5G solutions in Intel Corp. (Nasdaq: INTC)'s datacenter network solutions group, during this week's MEC World Congress in Berlin. "We need to create open interfaces to ensure there is interoperability. Interoperability testbeds are the next goal."

OpenFog differs from ETSI on how it thinks telco networks should be redesigned to address new opportunities and improve efficiency.

ETSI is largely focused on shifting IT resources out of centralized data centers, where they are typically housed, and relocating them at aggregation points much closer to end users. OpenFog has presented a much broader vision of "fog computing" in which computing nodes are distributed throughout a service provider network -- from the core to the end-user devices themselves.

Complicating matters even more is the ONF, which -- through its CORD and M-CORD initiatives -- is exploring ways of turning operators' central offices into data centers using white box equipment and open source software tools.

And there is also Facebook's Telecom Infra Project (TIP), which believes the use of open source technologies could dramatically reduce the costs of equipment used in telco networks. TIP is now working with operators including the UK's BT Group plc (NYSE: BT; London: BTA) on edge networking technologies.

The different groups, and particularly ETSI and OpenFog, have repeatedly insisted they are addressing different requirements and not in competition with one another.

In principle, this sounds reasonable. Commenting last year on the blossoming relationship between ETSI and OpenFog, Gabriel Brown, a principal analyst with the Heavy Reading market research group, said: "From the [ETSI] MEC perspective, OpenFog is an application, while from OpenFog's perspective MEC is about infrastructure. If OpenFog can write to [ETSI] MEC's APIs, it can carrying on developing its own system architecture but make use of the ETSI [MEC] environment." (See Will ETSI Lose Its Edge as Fog Rolls In?)

But not everybody is convinced that different groups will be able to harmonize their efforts and prevent incompatibility.

During a day of workshops at the MEC World Congress, one delegate -- who identified himself as an employee of Chinese equipment giant Huawei Technologies Co. Ltd. -- expressed misgivings about interoperability.

"It bothers me that the approach to that is not very systematic," he told other workshop attendees. "When we talk about interoperability a good starting point would be where it is needed. What are the reference points and interfaces? Who is in charge of defining something in that particular interface?"

Pressed for more detail on how fog computing would interact with other systems, Frank Michaud, a member of the OpenFog Consortium and a technical leader at Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO), said: "My view is that we have a precise fog architecture and on to that we are mapping the APIs of [ETSI] MEC and will do that with other consortiums so that hopefully we get one story. We need a unified story on fog and edge."

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Even within ETSI, there is still some overlap between the efforts of the edge-computing group and those of another group working on network functions virtualization. ETSI had hoped to resolve these during Phase 1 of its edge-computing project, which has now wrapped up, but they will have to be dealt with as part of the Phase 2 work now underway, said Alex Reznik, the chair of the ETSI edge-computing group and a solutions architect at Hewlett Packard Enterprise .

Potentially more problematic is the lack of coordination with the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) specifications body, the group working on the development of 5G standards.

However, Reznik says he is reasonably confident that the 3GPP will adopt ETSI's work on APIs during the standardization of 5G.

"There may be overlap but what I expect is that they will expose services in a way that is complementary to what [ETSI] MEC has done," he said. "When they go to APIs I hope they will follow our guidelines as different services are exposed."

— Iain Morris, News Editor, Light Reading

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