Late last year, South Korea's SK Telecom (SKT) offered a possible glimpse of the 5G future in the industrial world. At an automotive factory in the country, cameras installed near conveyor belts were snapping super-high-resolution photos of car parts. The images were then sent over a 5G connection to the cloud, where artificially intelligent computers would scan them for defects. (See South Korea's 5G Lead May Bring Industrial Advantage.)
Such applications of 5G hold far more economic promise than super-charging a mobile-phone connection does. But if 5G is to flourish in this industrial setting, it will require more than just a new radio technology. Data centers will be needed to harvest and process a mountain of information. The applications that give 5G its industrial raison d'ętre may demand huge investments in artificial intelligence.
Step up Vodafone Group plc (NYSE: VOD) and IBM Corp. (NYSE: IBM). At its most aspirational, the partnership the telco recently announced with the US IT giant is all about combining network and IT capabilities to support a new wave of industrial applications. Watson, IBM's artificial intelligence, could search for glitches in an SKT-like example. IBM's data center technologies could store and process information much closer to the factory premises than was previously possible. That, in turn, could help to reduce the signaling delay on Vodafone's 5G network, allowing connected robots to function smoothly. (See IBM, Vodafone Strike $550M Cloud Deal.)
This all potentially lies in the future, says Bill Lambertson, IBM's director of cloud industry solutions. "Vodafone recognizes that enterprise clients will want to leverage 5G and deploy workloads and applications closest to the data sources," he explains. "Some things can be delivered with existing technologies, but some will have additional benefits as 5G is rolled out."
So far, the telecom industry has done a bum job of coming up with viable 5G applications outside the usual smartphone-obsessed consumer market. IBM and Vodafone are hoping to change that. A next step for the companies will be to work on developing both industry-specific and more broadly applicable technology services. These would combine 5G and other network technologies with best-of-breed cloud services, according to Lambertson. "Watson, IBM Cloud and Blockchain from IBM may all be a part of that, but it would also use technology from Microsoft Azure, Alibaba and Amazon Web Services," he says, referencing several of the world's hyperscale cloud companies. (See 5G Stuck in Slow Lane Beyond Consumer Biz.)
Under a strategy disclosed to Light Reading, IBM and Vodafone now plan to collaborate with a set of "lighthouse customers," or early adopters, on identifying possible services and figuring out if these can be scaled. Those efforts will entail a full assessment of the connectivity and cloud requirements in each case. "The network and the cloud really have to work together on performance monitoring to understand the behavior of applications and their impact," says Lambertson. "That's getting harder for customers as they use resources from many different entities."
In the meantime, IBM has been trying to address some of the challenges involved in running IT applications at the "edge" of the network, much closer to the end user. In October, it took the wraps off a new platform it calls the Multicloud Manager, which is based on Kubernetes, an open source cloud technology, and designed to support applications in multiple cloud environments. "Enterprise clients can now develop cloud-native applications using a standard set of tools and deploy those applications anywhere -- in public and private clouds and at the edge," says Lambertson. Previously, running applications across these different environments would have thrown up various security and operational hurdles, according to IBM. (See Is IBM Late to the Multicloud Party?)
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