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Humans Will Kill You at the Edge

Make a mess of automation and telcos will destroy the business case for edge computing, says ETSI. But telcos desperately need standards to crystalize before they can move ahead.

Iain Morris

September 19, 2019

4 Min Read
Humans Will Kill You at the Edge

LONDON -- Edge Computing Congress 2019 -- Damn those infernal employees, gobbling up cash and demanding benefits. Telcos making investments in new "edge" facilities will have to "minimize the need for a human presence" if they are to have any chance of making a profit, according to Alex Reznik, who leads the edge group for the European Telecommunications Standards Institute, one of the main standards bodies in edge computing.

Automation done badly could destroy the business case for edge computing, Reznik told attendees at this week's Edge Computing Congress in London. "If you don't get automation right it will kill you. This is anything but a usual cloud," he said.

The logic is clear. While the hyperscale web giants have constructed a few very large data centers that can be staffed at reasonable cost, operators are looking to build hundreds of edge facilities per national territory. Maintaining a workforce across this footprint would come at a potentially crippling expense.

But automating network operations is not easy. For one thing, telcos are far more heavily regulated than cloud providers and forced to meet service obligations that do not affect the likes of Amazon and Google, making full automation a risky step. "No one runs 911 call center applications on AWS," said Reznik. "You are talking about a different type of infrastructure and different types of SLAs [service level agreements]."

Moreover, in some areas, the technologies and systems that operators need to automate their networks are still relatively immature. A mushrooming of standards bodies and open source groups trying to find answers has led to complaints about the fragmentation of industry efforts. Melissa Evers-Hood, the chair of the Linux Foundation's "LF Edge" group, says at one time she counted 43 edge initiatives in the open source community alone. "There is lots of fragmentation and we need to figure out where we should be partnering," she said during a conference presentation.

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ETSI is a part of this. It is not and never will be an open source group, said Reznik, but aims to play a critical role in establishing APIs [application programming interfaces] that companies can use to avoid an interoperability headache. "People take OpenStack [a cloud computing platform] and adapt it to their needs and what is the result? You have lots of APIs that are similar but not the same, and so every time they must be instantiated with a different provider there is a porting effort. It is a problem that has to be solved."

Whether it comes from ETSI or another organization, a standardized approach to edge automation is high on the list of telco requirements. Concern about the total cost of ownership associated with edge computing has clearly stopped many telcos from taking the plunge while demand for edge applications remains so uncertain.

The danger of inaction is that telcos miss out, ceding further ground to Internet companies that also have edge ambitions. Figuring out how to work with these players will be a challenge for the telecom operator community. But if slow progress on standardization holds back the telcos, their role in the edge could diminish. That puts Reznik and his team under huge pressure.

Major telcos are at least under no illusion about the predicament they face. "We need to work at the speed customers are expecting," said Juan Carlos Garcia, the senior vice president of technology and architecture for Spain's Telefónica. "If we don't do that we'll not be a part of the business."

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— Iain Morris, International 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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