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The Edge is Becoming More Critical in a World of 5G and IoT

Written by

Akamai

March 19, 2021

The edge is becoming more critical in a world of 5G and IoT. I've seen the evolution from 1x to 3G to 4G and now 5G over the many years I've worked in the mobile space, and 5G and IoT will drive the biggest changes we have seen on the edge in 10 or 20 years.

This discussion is happening in the press and in blogs. The Economist said, "The era of the cloud's total dominance is drawing to a close"; Wired published a story called the "Cloud's New Life on the Edge"; and Gartner claimed "The Edge Will Eat the Cloud" (that's a catchy title!).  No one is predicting the cloud's demise, but there will be changes in how the edge and the cloud interact and are deployed in the next few years.

The edge is the part of the internet closest to end-users. Often called the "last mile," the edge sits between cloud data centers in the core of the internet and billions of devices in homes and offices or moving around on mobile networks. Edge infrastructure is different from today's cloud infrastructure, where each provider may have a few dozen (or less) very large cloud data centers interconnected in the core of the internet.

In the past, most companies put their web infrastructure in a small number of private or public data centers, which were connected to the internet by the large network service providers and exchanges. Services from AWS, Azure, and others have been added to the mix to scale and distribute storage and compute. 

These moves to reduce costs and improve agility and performance have been helpful, but now the problem is getting close to end-users, at scale, to support today's digital business. That's what's driving the move to the edge where customers, devices, and bandwidth are. And that's where edge platforms come in. 

The edge can add another layer of scale and performance and, with the right design, can provide security and help minimize costs. Simply put, it's where applications and services need presence for digital businesses to be successful -- whether they're media companies, financial institutions, retailers, SAAS providers, or any other kind of enterprise.

Akamai's platform is a good example -- it consists of hundreds of thousands of servers housed in 4,000 locations across more than 1,000 cities in approximately 140 countries. Situated close to billions of users and devices, it's designed to optimize delivery of web and media content, and run all sorts of web applications. It also provides a security shield with optimized defenses for the services and applications it supports.  

How does the edge make a difference? 

Capacity at the edge of the internet is growing rapidly. In many cities, broadband connections into homes and offices have tens or hundreds of Mbps (and, in some cities, even Gbps) of capacity, easily supporting high-quality video streams and large software downloads. Internal calculations from Akamai experts added up fixed broadband last-mile connections around the world to yield about 40,000 Tbps of access capacity at the edge. Cellular connections add another 10,000 Tbps or so of capacity in the last mile, and this will grow substantially with 5G.  This is a primary reason why the edge is so important--there is a ton of capacity at the edge of the internet. 

By comparison, there's much less capacity in the core of the internet, where big cloud data centers and large backbone providers meet. Using the same approach as above, our internal teams calculated only a few hundred Tbps of capacity for access networks. This imbalance creates a problem when hundreds of millions of users who want to watch video (and do their work!) have access to thousands of Tbps of capacity in the last mile (at the edge) and there's only a few hundred Tbps of capacity in the core. As more people fire up their favorite online entertainment or interact with other services in clouds, the core gets congested. Lack of capacity in the core makes it hard to service traffic at the edge. Sometimes data centers get congested, but more often it's the peering points where traffic is exchanged between data centers and end-users that are the choke points.

The high-profile streaming outages that affected some countries last year during the World Cup offer a real-world illustration. As the figure shows, cloud data centers in some regions got swamped and viewers couldn't see the game as a result. Denial-of-service attacks can cause similar problems, intruding on legitimate user traffic. The good news is delivering traffic from the edge can address these problems because there's more capacity. 

What about 5G?

5G improves the performance of the last mile -- with lower latency, higher throughput, and a lot more connected people and THINGS. 5G will also enable lots of cool new apps that will increase internet usage more than ever before. This means there'll be a lot more traffic and users will expect an even better experience.   

Gartner estimates that by 2022, more than half of all enterprise data will be created and processed outside of traditional cloud data centers.1 Today, it's less than 10%. This begs the question: "What exactly is the edge in 5G and why is it so important?" The answer is that applications will define the edge and without it they'll be less robust, harder to scale, and costlier.

What else will we see in our new world with 5G and IoT?

Autonomous vehicles simply can't depend on intelligence in distant clouds to prevent accidents, so collision-avoidance smarts is an easy use-case for the edge. 

Augmented reality goggles with limited battery power will rely on compute and data a few milliseconds away to ensure the essentially real-time access necessary to deliver an acceptable user experience. 

The need for big centralized data centers managing massive data sets, AI machine learning, and constantly expanding content libraries will continue to grow. At the same time, connectivity will drive data center demand and network decentralization will push data center markets in different directions.  Dverse needs will support a hierarchy of capabilities with core and regional data centers, micro edges, and virtualized capacity.  There will also be a need to build in new layers of flexible deployment options that allow for more dynamic resource and network slicing. And of course, there'll be overriding considerations for sustainability faced everywhere there's concentrations of infrastructure. 

The bottom line is the impact of 5G will be comparable with what we saw with the advent of broadband. It will amplify the need for an intelligent edge platform since all the new traffic will put even more strain on the core of the internet and will increase stress on cloud data centers where content is served. 

Throughout Akamai's existence, we've seen that when the last mile gets better, edge platforms need to get better, too. We defined the edge and the intelligence needed to keep it stable, safe, and performant -- and we'll continue to redefine the edge with 5G and IoT. We have a track record of success in delivering the high-quality experiences users demand for live global events like the World Cup, major launches of content with worldwide appeal, or even software upgrades that require massive bandwidth. We continue to invest and innovate to support all the new requirements discussed in this post.   

Thank you very much for taking the time to read this.  I look forward to seeing you all in person in the future.

  1. https://www.gartner.com/smarterwithgartner/gartner-top-10-trends-impacting-infrastructure-operations-for-2020/


Written by

Jonathan Morgan

March 19, 2021

Jonathan Morgan is the Vice President of Network Security Product Management at Akamai Technologies.