An Inside Look at Verizon's Edge Computing Capabilities

Verizon has hinted at its interest in edge computing, but a comprehensive look at signals from around the company point to the potential for a broad and possibly lucrative deployment of the technology by the operator.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

February 20, 2019

9 Min Read
An Inside Look at Verizon's Edge Computing Capabilities

Verizon last month announced that it successfully conducted a test of edge computing on its 5G network. The company said it was able to cut latency speeds in half in the test.

The announcement was a signal by the company that it's interested in edge computing and is making progress in the area. But the reality is that Verizon already has a comprehensive view of edge computing, and has already deployed many of the systems and technologies that will be required to run serious, revenue-generating edge computing services.

Here are three key data points that, taken together, indicate Verizon has already made substantial progress toward commercial edge computing services:

  • Verizon already operates thousands of C-RAN and SAP sites (Service Access Point, or distribution switch locations) that can already potentially run edge computing services -- and the carrier can instantly deploy and manage edge computing capabilities to those sites through remote software updates.

  • Verizon is already in the process of developing tools for developers that will allow them to create services that could leverage the super low latency speeds available through an edge computing deployment.

  • Verizon is reportedly testing a cloud gaming service that, if commercially deployed, would stand as a shining example of the kinds of new, revenue-generating services that super low latency network operations -- powered through edge computing systems -- could support.

We'll get deeper into each of these items, but first, we need to set the stage a little bit. Additionally, it should be noted that it's still early days in this sector of the telecom industry, and as a result, some of the key elements in a full-blown mobile edge computing system -- like a widespread mobile 5G network and advanced network slicing -- remain on the horizon.

Verizon's edge computing story begins with what the company currently calls its "Intelligent Edge Network," or iEN in Verizon parlance. Verizon's iEN runs on an internal cloud network built by Verizon using commercial, off-the-shelf hardware. Inside that cloud, Verizon can run virtualized network functions that are managed by Verizon's OpenStack-powered virtual infrastructure manager.

Adam Koeppe, Verizon’s senior VP for network planning, explained that Verizon's edge computing test last month leveraged its iEN, including its cloud network and virtualized network functions, by installing multi-access edge computing software into the servers in one of the operator's C-RAN hubs in Houston. Alongside that edge computing software, Verizon also installed AI-powered facial recognition software. The edge computing test transmitted video of a crowd over Verizon's 5G network to the computing functions in the operator's C-RAN hub, which then quickly scanned the faces in that crowd for potential matches against a database. The goal of the test was to show that police could potentially use edge computing functions to quickly find someone in a crowd, rather than having to wait for that video to be sent to a geographically distant data center to be analyzed.

15 ms latency on a network slice
Koeppe said the latency speeds obtained through the company's edge computing test in Houston were 15 ms or half of what's available on Verizon's LTE network. While that's nowhere near the 5 ms promised by Verizon's Hans Vestberg during his CES keynote about 5G, Koeppe explained that 5 ms is obtainable today under specific network configurations that weren't used in this particular test. (Interestingly, Koeppe also said that Verizon employed a dedicated slice of its network for the Houston edge computing test -- he said the company manually programmed the slice for the test but, in the future, he said the operator would likely do so automatically and programmatically.)

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The edge computing test was successful, Koeppe said. He explained that Verizon already has thousands of C-RAN and SAP sites around the country where it can potentially replicate that same test -- locations that already run the operator's cloud and virtualized network functions. All Verizon has to do is remotely send the right software to the correct C-RAN or SAP computing location.

And that's the key thing about edge computing in general: It's a localized service. The only way to reduce latency speeds is to ensure that computing requests are crunched geographically close to the user and that they are not sent hundreds or thousands of miles away to a data center. Koeppe explained that it's those "hops" -- jumps across switches, interconnections and other network equipment -- that add to network latency. And removing those hops is the key to lowering network latency.

"In the context of the LTE architecture, all the way out you've got a cell site. Then with C-RAN you've got an aggregation point for fiber and baseband processing. And then all of those come back to what's called an SAP location. And they're distributed around the country," Koeppe explained. "And in that path, we've got multiple layers of very strategic locations that can be used for edge compute capabilities. So when you look at the use cases that will emerge with edge compute, whether they're a consumer or business driven, we feel we're in a very good position to then rapidly deploy architecture or network capabilities to meet those use cases because of the fact that we have the intelligent edge network already built."

Indeed, Koeppe added that the operator's 5G network is just a piece of a much bigger puzzle: "It's funny because, you know, we've talked previously about the intelligent edge network. There are multiple parts to that. One of those capabilities is edge compute. And the reason we got so excited about this type of test is because it actually brought two together, you got our 5G radio access network, and you had some edge compute capabilities, brought together within our cloud platform on the intelligent edge network."

This is something Verizon is working on now. For example, a recent job posting for the operator hints at "the migration of existing wireless edge routing functions, such as the Choke Router and the Provider Edge (PE) Router, into the new iEN Multiservice Edge Router being placed in all the SAP locations in 2019."

Next Page: Getting developers at the edge

Opening edge computing to developers
Now, here's where things get interesting. Verizon Digital Media Services (VDMS) -- a Content Delivery Network (CDN) started by Verizon in 2013 to handle video delivery -- is already working on ways to expose Verizon's edge computing functions to developers. "Developers need to be able to have their applications move as needed between the 5G/MEC layer, CDN, and public cloud data center based on factors like cost and load. To do this, we need a simple language to define the entire ecosystem," wrote Dave Andrews, VDMS' chief architect, on the company's blog.

Specifically, Andrews announced the company's new EdgeCast Compute Control (EC3), an evolution of the company's existing EdgeControl platform for developers that essentially provides options to developers for how they might want to handle computing resources both in centralized locations and at the edge, closer to the user.

"This kind of solution isn’t just an option. We can expect developers to demand it. The various edges with their various capabilities will eventually come together to create something that is much greater than the sum of its parts," concluded Andrews. "The sooner we can develop a cohesive system that provides an intuitive interface to developers that enables them to manage the additional complexity of computing across multiple edges, the faster we’ll start seeing the emergence of a whole new generation of world-altering applications."

However, a Verizon representative cautioned that much of the operator's efforts in the edge computing space, at least initially, will take place with enterprises and not necessarily with developers targeting the consumer space.

Further, Verizon Digital Media Services is by no means the first company to talk about how network operators might expose latency functions to developers, either those in the enterprise space or the consumer space. For example, Deutsche Telekom's MobiledgeX is in part developing technologies to "make sure any edge services offered seamlessly integrate into existing ways of developing and do not add any additional operational burden than already existing in best practice cloud-based design workflows."

And just this week MobiledgeX announced its new Edge-Cloud R1.0 with DT in Germany, described as "the world’s first public mobile edge network deployment" with openings for developers.

Edge computing for cloud gaming?
How might the larger Verizon corporation show off the mobile edge computing capabilities it's working on? How about by jumping into the video game industry, which according to some estimates is approaching $20 billion in the US?

According to a report from The Verge, Verizon is deep into testing a "Verizon Gaming" service. The site reported that the streaming gaming offering uses the Nvidia Shield set-top box paired with an Xbox One controller, and provides access to 135 games.

The key part of this setup is that the games are not stored on the Nvidia Shield; instead, they're stored in the cloud, presumably in the Verizon cloud and in a location that would be near enough to a user that they could access the super low-latency speeds necessary to stream a video game like Battlefield V. That's first-person shooter video game that requires a consistent, reliable and responsive connection that rewards players' snap reactions.

"For Verizon, cloud gaming could be a showcase for 5G broadband both in the home and on the go," The Verge notes. "The low latency and fast data speeds of 5G could solve for many of the hurdles that game streaming apps -- such as Sony’s PlayStation Now -- are dealing with today. And it’s easy to envision Verizon Gaming being an add-on to the company’s home internet or mobile data services."

Koeppe and Verizon, in general, aren't commenting on Verizon Gaming or much beyond the immediate results of the company's edge computing tests in Houston. But, in assembling the data points -- ranging from Verizon's 5G Home service, to the thousands of C-RAN and SAP computing locations Verizon already operates, to its reported interest in super low latency services like cloud gaming -- it's clear that Verizon may already well be positioned to create some intelligent and potentially revenue-generating services with its edge network.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

About the Author(s)

Mike Dano

Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading

Mike Dano is Light Reading's Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies. Mike can be reached at [email protected], @mikeddano or on LinkedIn.

Based in Denver, Mike has covered the wireless industry as a journalist for almost two decades, first at RCR Wireless News and then at FierceWireless and recalls once writing a story about the transition from black and white to color screens on cell phones.

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