Edge Computing Players Move Beyond Tower Locations

The edge computing sector remains in flux: Players aren't interested in locating equipment at the base of every single cell tower anymore, and some (like Vapor IO) have delayed their data center buildout plans.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies

February 13, 2019

10 Min Read
Edge Computing Players Move Beyond Tower Locations

The edge computing industry apparently has learned that locating computing functions at the base of every single cell tower actually is cutting it too close to the edge.

As a result, much of the discussion about the near-term possibilities for edge computing is focusing on computing prospects in a city (like, anywhere in that city) rather than at the base of a specific cell tower.

Greg Pettine, the founder & EVP of business development of EdgeMicro , said the edge computing startup is no longer looking to build edge computing data centers at the base of cell towers, mainly because there isn't enough fiber in those locations to satisfy customers' edge computing requirements. Instead, he said the company is looking at other locations that are closer to major intersections of fiber, with plenty of network routing opportunities.

Similarly, startup Vapor IO also isn't putting its mini edge computing data centers at the base of every single cell tower. CEO Cole Crawford said that it's "not relevant to talk about sitting at the bottom of one tower." Instead, he said the company is talking about "tower-aggregated and connected, not tower-located" scenarios.

"We never actually said that they had to be located at cell towers," Crawford explained, noting that Vapor IO's first edge computing data center in Chicago is running inside a Distributed Antenna System hub with a significant amount of nearby fiber.

"It's not that being at the base of towers doesn't work," he added. "It's that when you go to a market and you're looking for the most optimal physical place you can be, when you're talking about the type of traffic that we expect to be talked about on the edge, you want to go to where you have multiple strands of fiber available to you so that you can spin up a number of different backhaul connections to a bigger, regional data center or enough strands of fiber that would allow us to interconnect our own physical real estate footprint with other Vapor edge modules or other Vapor locations."

Continued Crawford: "So it's not that towers are not the most optimal place, it's just they're a data point in about 104 data points that go into how we do site selection, of which power and fiber are two of the most critical."

Vapor IO's Matthew Trifiro clarified though that the company is "going as close to the tower as physically possible" in most cases, and that some of its sites are at the physical base of a cell tower. But he pointed out that wireless networks are increasingly designed to manage hundreds or potentially thousands of cell radios at an aggregation site, which is where Vapor IO is putting its edge computing functions.

This is the same approach that others are taking. For example, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE: VZ)'s Adam Koeppe said that the operator's recent edge computing test was physically located in one of the operator's C-RAN hub sites, not at the base of its 5G transmitter. (See Verizon Gets Serious About Edge Computing.)

Regardless, the rejection of individual tower sites as an ideal edge computing location is noteworthy considering such locations have long been trumpeted by players in the mobile space as well as those in the tower sector. (See Tower Companies Brace for an Edge Computing Bonanza.)

Putting edge computing at the base of cell towers did make sense, though. After all, the whole idea of edge computing is to bring computing functions physically closer to customers -- doing so can dramatically reduce the amount of time (latency) that it takes to conduct computing. Such a design would also mark a dramatic departure from today's computing paradigm, in which computing requests are sent hundreds or sometimes thousands of miles away to massive data centers that are typically located in only a handful of major US metros. But reducing the distance of that computing roundtrip is critical for some cutting-edge applications: For example, an 80 millisecond latency drag on a virtual reality game can make a user sick because what they see in the virtual environment won't immediately synch up with their movements.

And though individual cell tower locations may well end up hosting edge computing capabilities at some point in the distance future (if demand for edge computing explodes), those locations aren't working for most of today's edge computing players. That's partly due to the wireless industry's efforts to aggregate radio management at a central location, and partly due to the nascent status of the edge computing market.

Vapor IO's edge travails
In fact, Vapor IO's setbacks in its ongoing journey through the edge computing landscape are illustrative of not only the type of computing locations that players are eyeing, but also of the overall development of the space.

As CEO Crawford explained, Vapor IO did not reach its goal of building 27 edge computing data centers by the end of 2018.

So how many has the company built so far? Two.

That's because Vapor IO's initial edge computing business plan was funded via an investment from tower company Crown Castle International Corp. (NYSE: CCI) (thus giving Vapor IO access to Crown's tower sites). But that plan fell apart last year, partly because of timing. "I think the market was still trying to find its balance," Crawford said. "We also wanted the market to catch up."

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As a result, Vapor IO sought more financing for its plans, and in September of 2018 managed to raise a Series C round of funding led by Berkshire Partners, with Crown Castle also participating. (Vapor IO did not disclose the amount of money it raised.) "That changed the way were were going to go to market," Crawford said of the new funding.

Under Vapor IO's new edge computing deployment plans, the company now expects to build computing locations in six metro areas this year -- three in each city -- with the goal of eventually expanding to 30 metro areas. Those initial areas will include cities such as Seattle, Atlanta, Los Angeles and Pittsburgh -- locations that, Crawford said, are outside the handful of metro areas that already host major data centers.

Next page: Federating the edge

Federating the edge
And, to further goose the edge computing market, Vapor IO today announced its Kinetic Edge Alliance (KEA) with participation from the likes of Federated Wireless , StackPath, Linode, MobiledgeX Inc. , Seagate Technology LLC (Nasdaq: STX), Pluribus Networks , Packet , Alef Mobitech and Detecon International. The alliance is "committed to driving the broad adoption of compute, storage, access and interconnection at the edge of the cellular network, simplifying edge computing for the masses," according to the companies.

Importantly, this kind of federation in edge computing is what some analysts have been calling for in the space. "The answer [to the edge computing problem] seems to be some form of software edge-federation or edge-brokering layer, which can tie together a whole set of different edge resources, and hopefully have intelligence to deal with some of the network-access complexity as well," wrote analyst Dean Bubley of Disruptive Analysis in a recent post to his site. "I've been coming across various companies hoping to take on the role of aggregator, whether that's primarily for federating different telcos' edge networks (eg MobiledgeX), or helping developers deploy to a wider variety of edge-datacentre and other locations (eg Ori)."

However, to be clear, the only company in Vapor IO's new Kinetic Edge Alliance that's actually physically building the necessary edge computing data centers is Vapor IO. And Crawford acknowledged that the company would need to raise more money to reach its buildout goal of 30 metro markets.

Vapor IO isn't alone in trying to stimulate interest and demand in edge computing. EdgeMicro, for example, just last month built a test edge computing data center immediately outside of Flexential's massive data center in Denver. EdgeMicro's edge computing data center is basically a handful of computing racks stored inside a big steel shipping container, like the kind of shipping containers that can be placed on cargo ships, railroad cars or 18-wheelers, with power and fiber routed into it from Flexential's data center.

Companies that include Akamai, StackPath, BitBox, Cisco, Fiber Mountain, Flexential and Megaport are participating in the test (though EdgeMicro is financing the effort).

Startups like EdgeMicro and Vapor IO also aren't alone in the edge computing game. For example, Ericsson and Intel this week announced a new multi-year collaboration to align their ongoing development efforts in and around software-defined infrastructure, part of which includes the ability for service providers to "successfully deploy open cloud and NFV infrastructure, from centralized data centers to the edge." (See Eurobites: Ericsson, Intel Combine on Software-Defined Infrastructure for 5G.)

"It is about efficient distributed compute processing in 5G, which will be important for services at the edge," explained Strategy Analytics analyst Sue Rudd of the new Ericsson/Intel partnership.

"While edge discussions often focus on the workloads and locations, management is a big deal ... and it's critical to actually make it all work. Nice to see a focus on it," Peter Jarich, head of GSMA Intelligence, said of the deal.

Waiting on operators
While vendors continue to jostle for position in a market that many see as potentially explosive -- the global edge computing market is expected to post a compound annual growth rate of 41% through 2023, according to the latest market research report by Technavio -- there's one thing they all agree on: They need operators to participate.

"It's certainly our desire to onboard the mobile network operators," Vapor IO's Crawford said. "I think that we've got a really solid offering for the mobile operators."

He added: "We're here with an olive branch to anybody that sees the kinetic edge as being a viable solution to solving their first-party or third-party customer requirements, the telcos included."

Similarly, EdgeMicro's Pettine said that he's working to ink interconnection deals with mobile operators for edge computing services. He said such interconnections are critical to prevent mobile data requests from first traveling to an operator's central switching station and then to their ultimate destination. For example, he said that, without an interconnection deal, an EdgeMicro computing request in Denver could first be sent to AT&T's switching center in Dallas, thus completely eliminating the latency speed gains obtained by physically locating an edge computing processing center in Denver.

Although operators like AT&T and Verizon have demonstrated their interest in edge computing services, so far EdgeMicro and Vapor IO haven't been able to sign deals with big mobile carriers. Thus, it remains to be seen whether operators like Verizon and AT&T will agree to play ball with edge computing vendors -- and if so, how.

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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