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Will ETSI Lose Its Edge as Fog Rolls In?

Iain Morris
9/28/2016
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As a general concept, edge computing is all about deploying IT resources much closer to end users, at the network's periphery, and is set to play a key role in next-generation, increasingly virtualized networks.

It should also provide a significant boost, and create many new business and development opportunities, for the technology community: The introduction of edge computing on a broad, international scale will require astronomical capital investments and the development of a vast array of new applications in the coming years.

That much seems clear. How the communications networking sector deploys, pays for, manages and builds a business case around edge computing assets, without creating a next-generation mess, is far less so.

As a result, multiple industry groups, with related goals and varying degrees of overlap, are working on frameworks, concepts, strategies and, in some cases, technical specifications related to distributed IT assets. Their aim is to encourage a range of companies, enterprises and organizations -- including mobile and fixed network operators, municipalities, large enterprises and web-scale giants -- to develop edge computing deployment strategies that will benefit the entire ecosystem, from individual end users to the very largest asset-based players.

So which industry bodies should network operators, their technology suppliers and the rest of the edge computing hopefuls turn to as they formulate their strategies?

The European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) has been one of the most active players in this area over the last two years. Its Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) Industry Specifications Group (ISG) now hopes to finalize a first set of specifications by March 2017. During the Mobile Edge Computing Congress earlier this month in Munich, Nurit Sprecher, the group's chair and principal architect, described ETSI as "the center of gravity" when it comes to edge computing developments.

On the Edge But In Control?
Nurit Sprecher, chair of ETSI's MEC ISG, is confident the specifications group can work productively with OpenFog and the Open Edge Computing group and, well, be at the center of the edge.
Nurit Sprecher, chair of ETSI's MEC ISG, is confident the specifications group can work productively with OpenFog and the Open Edge Computing group and, well, be at the center of the edge.

A bold claim, perhaps.

As the figurehead for the ETSI group, it's no surprise that Sprecher feels the need to champion its importance. But that group, formed in late 2014, has addressed just one part of the edge computing sector, related to the radio access network and licensed spectrum environments.

There is much more to edge computing, however, than deploying IT and cloud assets at basestations and aggregation points in mobile access networks. And with so much uncertainty in the market, it's not surprising that other industry associations, with a different take on the challenge, have been popping up like beer tents at Oktoberfest: The OpenFog Consortium and the Open Edge Computing group are two emerging organizations whose visions of edge computing, as far as some are concerned, have greater relevance than the work the ETSI MEC group has done so far.

There's also the issue of industry support: While the ETSI MEC group has been increasing its membership, many potential participants are missing. For instance, Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC), Europe's biggest vendor of network equipment, is not involved (it has declined to say why); Deutsche Telekom AG (NYSE: DT), a major telco with edge computing ambitions, is another absentee. Asked why, the German operator told Light Reading it thought ETSI's mobile-only focus was too narrow.

Encouragingly, the ETSI group is trying to adapt to the demands of the market and operators such as Deutsche Telekom. Having just secured a two-year extension for its project, the MEC group has taken industry feedback on board and is now including fixed and unlicensed wireless technologies, such as WiFi, in its specifications development work. To reflect that enlarged role, it will next year change its name to "Multi-Access Edge Computing." (See ETSI Drops 'Mobile' From MEC.)

It is also forming alliances with the OpenFog Consortium and Open Edge Computing. That outreach needed to happen: Both of those groups have a more expansive vision of distributed computing and have already attracted support from some big hitters in the IT world. Microsoft Corp. (Nasdaq: MSFT) and Dell Technologies (Nasdaq: DELL) are members of OpenFog, for instance, but not of the ETSI MEC group. Had the latter remained aloof, it would have risked being sidelined.

That threat has not entirely disappeared, though. Even with its broader remit, the ETSI group is still focused on edge computing. As its name implies, OpenFog is instead concerned with fog computing, which encompasses the full range of distributed IT capabilities, from centralized data centers right through to the smallest connected assets housed at machine-to-machine communications modules. That bigger picture more accurately portrays the strategies of many industry players.

Next page: The edge gets foggier

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