ETSI's mobile edge computing (MEC) specifications group wants to be the 'center of gravity' as fog computing spreads across the communications sector, but it could get sidelined.

Iain Morris, International Editor

September 28, 2016

11 Min Read
Will ETSI Lose Its Edge as Fog Rolls In?

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.

Figure 1: 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

The edge gets foggier
With a collaboration agreement in the works, ETSI MEC and OpenFog are still at the engagement-party phase of their relationship, smiling coquettishly for the cameras and dreaming of a wonderful honeymoon. But their tie-up undoubtedly faces uncertainties, given their markedly different agendas and views about distributed network architecture (as the table below shows).



Focus on RAN [radio access network] cellular network access

Access node/network connection agnostic, fully supporting cellular, unlicensed radio, wireline and optical interconnects

Focus on the RAN edge, adds computing in a single layer of nodes in the RAN

Horizontal architecture for distributed computing, storage and networking services across cloud-to-thing continuum

Focus on mobile service providers, uses mobile carrier models

Physical and logical hierarchy of fog nodes with north-south, east-west and diagonal connectivity: covers edge but also access and things in IoT intermediate layers between edge and cloud

MEC focuses on moving applications into the RAN, which requires many of the functions the OpenFog RA [reference architecuture] provides (e.g., distributing software/apps to edge nodes, orchestrating resources to support applications, managing the lifecycle of the software/apps distributed to the edge, and securing these distributed systems)

Multi-tenant service models, virtualization, orchestration, management, uses enterprise and web-scale models

MEC can right-size the OpenFog RA to work inside RANs and for its newly expanded multi-access scope to support the fog-related functions MEC requires

OpenFog is an SIG [special interest group] that partners with multiple SDOs [standards development organizations] to cover fog computing standardization needs across multiple disciplines, can leverage MEC technologies and APIs [application programming interfaces]

Source: OpenFog.

Sprecher is at pains to emphasize that ETSI is a specifications group, while OpenFog and Open Edge Computing are not. The idea is that ETSI takes into account those groups' ideas and needs when designing its specs.

But this could move the ETSI group a long way outside its comfort zone.

Addressing "multi-access" requirements will be challenging enough. ETSI concedes that its roots and expertise are in the mobile industry, and that fixed-line technologies represent unfamiliar terrain. At least this name change will appeal to both OpenFog and Open Edge Computing, and it might attract operators such as Deutsche Telekom into the fold. (See ETSI Gets Edgy About Mobile.)

For OpenFog, though, "edge" is still just one part of the bigger story, though not quite as narrow a focus as "mobile." Fog computing is supposed to allow processing and analytics to be done at any point in the network between the core and the very limits of the network edge, depending on requirements. "While MEC is focused on the RAN [radio access network], fog includes access, edge, and the devices themselves," says Steve Vandris, a board member for the OpenFog Consortium. "It distributes computation across all these nodes."

Networks based on fog-computing principles are typically thought of as a "distributed cloud." As Vandris describes it, the entire network essentially becomes a data center, with the attendant capabilities.

This obviously goes several steps further than the ETSI MEC group was originally planning. Because resources in a fog network will need allocating more dynamically, an "orchestrator" will have to understand the capabilities of individual "fog nodes" and then decide where to place computation, according to Vandris. Fog players will have to ensure that applications can run in the cloud or at a variety of edge locations without any software tinkering, he says.

Want to know more about cloud services? Check out our dedicated cloud services content channel here on Light Reading.

Even so, OpenFog is keen to make use of the application programming interfaces (APIs) that ETSI MEC is developing. "Hopefully we'll be able to have architecture that can go from mobile to fixed and all the way back into the cloud with consistent APIs," says Vandris. "We'll be working technically at the API level with MEC to define all those things."

Indeed, in certain respects, the alliance makes good sense. It could provide a spur to the Internet of Things, which both ETSI and OpenFog regard as one of the main use cases for a more distributed network architecture. "From the MEC perspective, OpenFog is an application, while from OpenFog's perspective MEC is about infrastructure," says Gabriel Brown, a senior analyst with the Heavy Reading market research business. "If OpenFog can write to MEC's APIs, it can carry on developing its own system architecture but make use of the MEC environment."

The challenge for the two groups will be to put these ideas into practice effectively, while ensuring that different views about edge computing do not cause any rupture.

Next page: In the hot seat or at the edge

In the hot seat or at the edge
Formalized just a few days ago, ETSI's relationship with Open Edge Computing is only slightly more advanced than the OpenFog collaboration. With a vision that is somewhere between those of ETSI and OpenFog, Open Edge Computing aims to connect telcos with cloud providers, IT companies and other stakeholders. It does not believe ETSI -- "a standards body close to telecom," in the words of Rolf Schuster, the organization's director -- can fulfill this role.

Nevertheless, Open Edge Computing already claims to have built bridges with ETSI MEC. Its current mantra is that edge computing needs a "globally agreed access mechanism," independent of underlying technology, to guard against fragmentation and attract developers. Accordingly, it has developed its own "Open Access API," based on the OpenStack cloud-computing technology, and hopes this can be developed in conjunction with ETSI. It is also due to launch an edge-computing test facility in Pittsburgh, dubbed the "Living Edge Lab," that might benefit from ETSI's involvement.

All that said, ETSI is now in the unenviable position of having to reconcile interests that will not always neatly align. It will probably take several years for OpenFog to realize its goals, not the two years by which the MEC project has just been extended. And other groups may want a seat at the table: ONOS has been developing frameworks and specifications for its CORD (Central Office Rearchitected as a Datacenter) and M-CORD (Mobile CORD) projects that have been attracting interest from network operators, but these distributed networking initiatives currently remain on the outside. "It is too early for me to comment," says Sprecher, when quizzed about ETSI's relations with ONOS/CORD.

Figure 2: In the ZoneETSI's PoC zone at the recent Mobile Edge Computing Congress in Munich featured several examples of the way edge computing could be used.ETSI's PoC zone at the recent Mobile Edge Computing Congress in Munich featured several examples of the way edge computing could be used.

It is not as if the mainstream mobile challenges are diminishing, either. France's Orange (NYSE: FTE) last week expressed concern that 5G specifications might eventually supersede the work of the ETSI MEC group. Others are worried about its overlap with another ETSI ISG addressing network functions virtualization (NFV), as the two groups have notable overlap yet do not appear to be collaborating as closely as might be expected. (See Telcos Give Vent to Edge-Computing Anxiety.)

In an effort to prevent unnecessary duplication, and remain in the hot seat, the MEC group has been funneling ideas into the 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) , a cellular standards group, and liaising with the NFV ISG. But marginalization is a threat, and ETSI cannot simply rely on being a specifications group to ward this off. Other parties could always expand into its domain.

In an even bigger upheaval, the whole concept of specifications and standards development, in the traditional sense, might begin to seem obsolete. After all, web-scale giants such as Google (Nasdaq: GOOG) and Facebook , which are starting to develop their own access network technologies (even if they currently lack much edge infrastructure), do not wait for standards to lumber into view before launching new services. "The way standards are developed these days is different," notes Heavy Reading's Brown. "There is less appetite to spend two or three years developing a specification and then a couple of years building a product."

The jockeying between different edge-computing interests seems to mirror the jostling between players old and new in a communications market fast changing beyond recognition. ETSI's ability or failure to establish itself at the intersection of these interests could determine whether it remains at the center of gravity on edge computing, or if other players ultimately take charge.

— Iain Morris, Circle me on Google+ Follow me on TwitterVisit my LinkedIn profile, News Editor, Light Reading

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About the Author(s)

Iain Morris

International Editor, Light Reading

Iain Morris joined Light Reading as News Editor at the start of 2015 -- and we mean, right at the start. His friends and family were still singing Auld Lang Syne as Iain started sourcing New Year's Eve UK mobile network congestion statistics. Prior to boosting Light Reading's UK-based editorial team numbers (he is based in London, south of the river), Iain was a successful freelance writer and editor who had been covering the telecoms sector for the past 15 years. His work has appeared in publications including The Economist (classy!) and The Observer, besides a variety of trade and business journals. He was previously the lead telecoms analyst for the Economist Intelligence Unit, and before that worked as a features editor at Telecommunications magazine. Iain started out in telecoms as an editor at consulting and market-research company Analysys (now Analysys Mason).

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