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May 27, 2020
Mobile network operators and their vendors have made it crystal clear that in order to realize the potential of 5G networks they need cloud computing capabilities at the edge of the mobile network, and now the list of companies talking about the network edge seems endless. A shorter list of companies is actually deploying cloud-based applications close to data sources. One of those companies, Packet, was recently acquired for $335 million by data center giant Equinix.
"Equinix is seen as a neutral, protected place for digital business," said Packet Co-Founder Jacob Smith. "Packet comes from a more cloud-first stance ... the wild, wild west of the world of the cloud is where Packet has been living."
What brought these two cultures together? Edge computing was a big driver. Equinix said it wanted to leverage the Packet offering to accelerate the development and delivery of its interconnected edge services. Packet's secret sauce is software that automates and orchestrates "bare metal" servers, and it has a history of deploying infrastructure exactly where customers want it.
"We did a lot of experimenting over the last two years at Packet at putting our cloud in very interesting places," Smith said. Those places included cell tower sites owned by SBA Communications and Crown Castle, via Crown’s edge computing partner Vapor IO. Packet executives had previously hinted at a deal with tower company American Tower, but Smith said the company has not deployed anything with American Tower.
However, Smith said Packet is less likely to work with tower companies going forward because, as part of Equinix, Packet is "in the real estate business," so tower companies could at times be competitors.
Packet, which is retaining its name and leadership, gains global reach and capital as part of Equinix, Smith said. Packet has already increased its headcount by more than 30% since the acquisition, which closed March 3. Smith is clearly excited about the idea of bringing software talent into the world of network infrastructure, and using the Equinix backing to accelerate this effort.
Meanwhile, Equinix gains a more customizable approach to shared infrastructure. "The main effort was to look at how they could provide compute, and that's because their customers, many of whom are service providers, are looking to be in more places," said Smith. But that doesn't necessarily mean a rush to deploy more servers at the bleeding edge of the network. Smith said Packet learned how vulnerable these installations can be when it deployed its first data center at an SBA cell tower site next to Gillette Stadium in Foxborough, Massachusetts. "Someone unplugged a generator one night," Smith remembers, a situation that highlights the difficulties in running unstaffed and unmonitored edge data centers.
Although Packet has worked with several mobile network operators, Smith said support of service provider 5G initiatives is not yet a huge part of the company's business. But becoming part of Equinix could change that over time. "A huge part of their business is serving the 5G and the telecom and wireless industry in general ... now we see a huge interest in what we're doing together," he said. Customers want to be "in more markets, with bare metal and virtualized network functions and pushing a network-focused workload."
Smith also sees private networks as a major growth area for the combined companies. "Certainly the traditional Equinix business knows private networks very well; it's kind of core to the value proposition," he said. "But if you're not a traditional buyer of that capability, you may never have even heard of Equinix, let alone known that there was a way you could have your own private network."
— Martha DeGrasse, special to Light Reading. Follow her @mardegrasse
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