When it comes to realizing the promise of 5G, we’re still a few years away. Under the hood, though, the rollout of 5G infrastructure and the new applications 5G will enable—from AR and VR to new drone capabilities and beyond—will drive dramatic changes in infrastructure demands, starting with the public cloud.
In the 5G era, many of the applications that will become possible and take advantage of this network infrastructure will require a tremendous amount of data to be moved and processed—whether for a connected car, video surveillance with real-time analytics, or AR/VR—so much so that the data needs can’t really be solved at the responsiveness that these applications will demand from the centralized public cloud as we know it. As 5G creates a new ecosystem, a lot of these applications are going to be built in new ways and rely on the attributes of edge clouds: Edge computing delivered as a cloud-like service. Underpinning it will be cloud-native architectures and other highly automatable and flexible infrastructure to help make it a reality. Let’s take a look at some of the key elements.
What is an ‘Edge Cloud’?
SaaS companies building applications in the public cloud today are used to self-service, elastic infrastructure. You don’t have to think about hardware, you pay per use, there are APIs to take advantage of, and most importantly everything is highly automatable and flexible. More than likely, you need only think in terms of a handful of centralized locations as you build—a site on the west coast, one on the east coast, one or two in Europe or Asia.
In the 5G future, that will likely no longer be the case. Many new, revenue-generating services will depend on low-latency, high-bandwidth capabilities that enable applications and data processing to get closer to the user or device. Everything from industrial applications, IoT, to immersive infotainment (virtual and augmented reality) to telemedicine and more will be able to take advantage of the 5G network and edge-compute processing to deliver new capabilities and experiences.
Services like these depend not only on connectivity but also on the ability to gather data, process it, and more importantly, move and act on it at very high speeds.
In this new world, you still want the same things from your infrastructure—it needs to be elastic and capable of scaling up and scaling down. And reliability, automation, and agility (the ability to iterate and deploy quickly) become even more important. And it needs to be available and running in many, many more places in order to be close to the customers and devices you are serving. You’re not thinking about three locations across the globe or two or three across the U.S. Instead, you may be thinking about a couple of dozen in one metro area alone. A whole new kind of compute environment has to be built around that, as well as a cloud infrastructure environment.
The Multi-Mode Present, and What’s Next
5G environments will require very flexible infrastructure that can be highly automated, repurposable, and usable in very generic ways. If you are building metro, point-of-presence data centers all over the country, it is not cost-effective to use highly specific infrastructure for each application in each site; it is too limiting in flexibility and too onerous to manage at scale.
One aspect of the infrastructure challenge is that service providers still rely in part on monolithic, traditional applications that tend to run in physical or virtualized environments to make them deployable, controllable and able to be automated. But newer applications are being designed with a different technology stack based on containers.
With applications that live in both areas, flexibility across VMs and containers is a must. As a result, rollouts of 5G will employ a multimode infrastructure, combining both virtual machines and containers in order to support both legacy and modern applications. The goal: Easy automation everywhere.
Virtualized and container environments will need to live and operate in concert with one another. They both require automation, but because each has its own needs it’s important to choose a technology stack and approach that will incorporate and work with both.
While virtual machines and virtualized network functions (VNFs) are more prevalent today, that won’t remain true for long. As carriers move to microservice architectures that drive continuous improvement and speed time to value, adoption of CNFs is growing.
The Road Ahead
Since it is still early days for 5G use cases, architecture flexibility will allow carriers to pivot toward any killer apps that emerge. Data-centric infrastructure that can deliver both performance, agility and flexibility is essential.
As we look out at the possibilities for 5G, it’s helpful to think back to the early 1990s. With AOL dial-up and a 2400 baud modem, you could email, surf the web (though it was painfully slow) and play a few games. The advent of broadband ushered in entirely new applications and use cases like e-commerce and media streaming and drove the infrastructure changes to support them. 5G presents the same type of potential for sea change that will open up a whole new world of innovations for the consumer and the enterprise.