CDN giant Akamai believes it will play an important role in edge computing for 5G.
"I do think people are really starting to realize just how important our edge platform is," Akamai Co-Founder and CEO Tom Leighton said during the company's most recent quarterly conference call with analysts, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript of his remarks. "And I think 5G is going to help enable a lot of these applications that people are talking about now."
In a subsequent interview with Light Reading, Akamai Fellow Vinay Kanitkar opened up about Akamai's views on edge computing, including its work with 5G operators on various edge computing tests and trials.
Interestingly, both Kanitkar and Leighton pointed out that edge computing is nothing new to Akamai. Kanitkar explained that the company introduced technology almost 20 years ago that allowed customers to run Java applications on edge computing infrastructure. "It turns out it was a bit too early for edge computing," he acknowledged.
More recently, Akamai has been pushing its "IoT Edge Connect" product that essentially allows IoT customers to run computing processes on equipment physically near where their IoT service operates. Such a setup reduces the amount of data that must be transmitted over a network because services like security and storage can be processed locally, or "at the edge." A wide range of other IoT players offer similar services under the "edge computing" banner.
But Kanitkar said that Akamai has been working to take a further step into edge computing in 5G specifically by working on edge computing standards and, more importantly, by running tests and proof-of-concept offerings inside wireless operator networks. He said the company's edge computing designs can reduce latency on wireless networks from 70-100 milliseconds down to 10 ms -- a key requirement for real-time services ranging from virtual reality to autonomous vehicles.
So where are wireless network operators in their edge computing efforts? "There's a lot of economic and capability and technology-selection conversations and experiments going on now," Kanitkar explained. "A lot of these are experimental."
And in terms of physical edge computing sites, Kanitkar said that operators are hoping to eventually expand to thousands of locations -- "but they have tens right now."
Despite that situation, Kanitkar said that he does not expect operators to use neutral, third-party edge computing facilities to build out their computing footprints, at least not anytime soon. "If the big operators don't agree to actually peer with each other there and terminate their traffic there, then those data centers actually serve no purpose," he said. "Because a data center at the edge is just a building. What makes it special is that the actual network owners and the content owners, or proxies for content owners like Akamai, are actually in that facility and can interconnect with each other."
That argument represents a challenge to companies like Vapor IO and EdgeConneX and others that are investing in edge computing facilities around the world with the idea that operators will eventually use them for local processing.
Instead, Kanitkar believes that operators will first work to build out their own edge computing facilities, where companies like Akamai will run their software. In this scenario, which Kanitkar said Akamai is testing with unnamed operators today, the company would run its own application inside of an operator's edge computing location. That would allow Akamai's customers to use that application to run services like data aggregation and security filtering.
In that respect, Kanitkar explained such a setup would operate much like Akamai's existing CDN services do today, where the company uses data centers around the world to store video content so that it can be distributed more quickly.
After that initial phase of edge computing, Kanitkar said he believes the next step for Akamai in edge computing in 5G would likely involve customers creating their own cloud computing instances and giving those instances to Akamai to run at edge locations. In that scenario, "we're essentially acting as the operating system for that application," Kanitkar said.
So why would operators want to work with Akamai in edge computing? Kanitkar said it's because Akamai can bring in the customers that already use Akamai products and that don't want to develop a separate relationship with a new company like Verizon. Customers "want to have the minimum number of relationships for the maximum reach. They don't want to have to deal with five different companies with their own troubleshooting environments," he said.
Finally, Kanitkar offered a cautionary warning to edge computing speculators: "It's good for all of us to look at this very, very carefully, and in some sense be skeptical," he said. "I'm not sure the skepticism is about whether it will happen, but I think it's more about the timeframe in which all of this will become a reality."
He continued: "It's going to be a slow rollout of the technology on the operator's side… I think there are a lot more decisions that need to be made at the operator side."
And what of Akamai's strategy? "That's really our big focus, to stay close to the operators," Kanitkar said.