Driving Business with 5G and Multi-access Edge Computing
Author: Ed Schmit, AVP Product Marketing Management, AT&T Developer ProgramEd tracks new technologies for the AT&T Developer Program. His specialties include network technologies, technology enablement, and strategic marketing.
Cloud computing is fully mainstream with the business world. Nearly all organizations use it in some form or another (94 percent according to one survey). They started with a single cloud instance hosted by a single provider and have moved on to multi-cloud scenarios and multiple providers. That’s a lot of cloud computing power, which is necessary because businesses create a lot of data that must be stored and processed.
The data they generate is a gold mine of actionable information as it’s information they can use to drive significant impact to their business goals. Yet, as the volume of data increases and we need systems to work instantaneously, so does the inefficiency of transmitting it all to a cloud instance for processing.
The current internet wasn’t designed to factor in how long it takes for data to reach its destination. To complicate things even more, streaming videos from Netflix and Hulu travel over the same network as your business-critical data. Which leads to network latency, increased bandwidth and data storage costs, and significant impacts to employee productivity and business KPIs.
The introduction of 5G mobile technology promises to deliver data 10 times faster than 4G LTE and cut latency rates to fractions of milliseconds. CIOs must consider changes to their infrastructure handle it all and maintain network standards and security. Edge computing can address these changes by introducing localized computing power to the business network. Add in the speed of 5G mobile technology and edge computing promises to deliver a unique blend of computing and network performance that can power current and future business use cases.
Edge Computing and Multi-access Edge Computing
Edge computing is a general term for decentralized cloud-based IT services that are located at the edge of a network. It brings bandwidth-intensive content closer to end users and latency-sensitive applications closer to the data being processed.
Traditional centralized network architectures force data and traffic to go through the whole network for processing by a single point and then back again through the entire system to the end user. Often, data spends more time travelling through our in-house and cloud systems than it does being processed. Instead of near-instant computing, we’re being handed longer latency times, which can have critical impacts on systems and people.
Which is why edge computing is such a game changer. It can bring massive changes to how businesses use their data, and more specifically, their 5G data once it is more widely adopted. Edge computing allows them to route traffic more efficiently and take advantage of where it can be processed more quickly, whether that’s in the cloud, the edge of the network, or in their own networks.
What is Multi-access Edge Computing?
Multi-access edge computing (MEC) is a combination computer and cellular network architecture that brings real-time, high-bandwidth, and low-latency access to latency-dependent applications. Originally called mobile edge computing, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) changed it to multi-access to better reflect the emerging benefits of edge computing technology that moved beyond mobile networks and into wifi and fixed access technologies.
MEC is the natural evolution of mobile technology that’s exploded in the last decade, and the next step in the IT/ telecommunications network. Consumers are using their mobile technology for everything today, and business is finally catching up by letting them tap into local content and real-time information at their network’s edge. Mobile networks are relieved of congestion as people and data move around, and business-critical data avoids consumer traffic altogether. Research from the IEEE suggests MEC can “decrease the end-to-end latency dramatically through service localization and caching,” a key requirement of 5G.
Real-world Success Story
Kevin Curran, an IEEE senior member and professor of cybersecurity at Ulster University, told State Tech Magazine that public surveillance systems such as traffic safety applications can have a significant, positive effect on communities since it can respond in real-time to accident situations and re-route civilian traffic and first responders more efficiently. But only if they can handle the large amount of data they generate per second. “(Incorporating) edge computing allows for more rapid responses,” Curran explained, “5G’s latencies below 20 milliseconds are crucial for traffic safety applications, (leading) to increased road safety.”
Latency would be reduced to such a low level that vehicle-to-vehicle communication would enable first responders to get to accident scenes faster and safer. Traffic safety applications could use this information to re-route all vehicles in a specific area, thereby reducing the risk to civilian vehicles that are near the target location and get first responders there faster.
The Benefits of 5G to MEC
From a pure technology perspective, 5G brings many benefits to edge computing.
- Ultra-low latency: The most obvious benefit is a reduction in latency for system users. That’s because the computing power that’s processing the data is brought closer to the data it’s processing, typically on the edge of the network. Everything appears to be done in real-time because of the significant reduction in latency.
- Better connectivity and coverage: A drawback of 5G is that while it can provide coverage in different places than other kinds of cellular technology, it requires more cells. AT&T MEC, powered by AT&T’s ubiquitous cellular network, provides a cost-effective way for businesses to enhance existing networks with 5G.
- Enhanced data security: Business is always concerned about cybersecurity, which is why some data is rarely processed in the cloud. A network powered by 5G and MEC eliminates those fears because all data is processed locally, thereby mitigating the risk of theft or illegal access.
- Increased integration of IoT devices: Gartner forecasts that there could be 20 billion IoT devices globally, from consumer devices in our houses to industrial ones powering business and retail. They generate massive amounts of data that needs to be processed in milliseconds but might not integrate well with current network systems. A 5G-powered MEC network could integrate these IoT devices more easily and process the data they generate as fast as necessary.
MEC Use Cases
Now that you understand how MEC and 5G can benefit business let’s look at some use cases where it provides high returns.
Retail + MEC
Retailers like Walmart, Giant Eagle, Target, and Kroger are using remote, automated devices to help them perform routine work tasks. Inventory and restocking duties are now handled by autonomous mobile robots (AMRs) that patrol aisles and take high-resolution images to monitor inventory levels. They transmit real-time data back to in-store teams who handle the restocking, keeping the shelves full of products, but using a significant amount of the store’s network bandwidth.
MEC Solution: By using MEC installations to divert non-critical communications through the edge computing systems, they leave the in-house network available for the AMR communications.
Manufacturing + MEC
Manufacturers are using high-resolution video cameras and advanced detection technology to identify process errors and defects at every stage of the production process. The cameras automatically identify and report flaws so they can be addressed immediately, preventing fix costs further down the production line. But their standard networks typically struggle to transmit latency-dependent, high-resolution video efficiently.
MEC Solution: A MEC deployment allows manufacturers to route priority communications through their local area network, giving them more control over how they process their latency-dependent communications from the line. They’re able to process connected data and robotic operations on a larger scale than they could before.
Healthcare + MEC
Healthcare facilities are using more technology to help diagnose and treat patients. Medical care professionals need real-time access to data from a variety of sources, which for most hospitals, is housed in isolated systems or still in paper-based files.
MEC Solution: AT&T partnered with the Chicago-based Rush University Medical Center and the Rush System for Health to create a 5G-powered MEC infrastructure. The MEC services will enable Rush to manage its cellular traffic over both its local and wide area networks, allowing for lower latency communication and processing of critical medical data.
“High-speed, low-latency 5G technology will help enable care to be delivered virtually anywhere at any time,” explained Dr. Shafiq Rab, senior vice president and chief information officer, Rush University Medical Center and the Rush System for Health. The MEC network will help Rush connect locations, people, devices, data, and more, but also will create opportunities to explore the combination of mobile technology in medicine. It’ll help create technology-driven therapies, improve hospital operations, and enhance the patient experience.
Security + MEC
Businesses are concerned about cybersecurity, but also physical security as well. They need to be able to secure locations that have limited network access due to building or system limitations with the same level of security their IT systems have.
MEC Solution: Oil and gas companies are using IoT devices, 5G, and MEC systems to monitor and control security on their rigs. These rigs are often located in remote locations and may only have a skeleton crew on board. The combination of this new technology and smaller crews mean they can monitor critical systems of the rigs from the control room while still controlling access to dangerous and sensitive areas of the platform. Data is gathered, analyzed, and communicated between the various systems in an efficient and real-time manner.
Developing with the Edge in Mind
As we look to the future of business, edge computing solutions are expected to become available to serve broader environments and industries. It’ll give new life to new technology ideas that seem very sci-fi today, like autonomous vehicles, fully immersive AR and VR experiences, and drone delivery.
For 5G and MEC to be truly useful to business, edge infrastructure must be easily consumable by developers and be truly programmable. We see great leaps forward in technology when it’s opened up to the developer communities, as they take their creative ideas and apply them to every situation imaginable.
Currently, MEC deployment is complicated by the lack of mature standards (even with ETSI’s involvement) and the sheer number of architectural options available. Each implementation has unique requirements based on existing infrastructure and the MEC requirements for latency, performance, frequency, amount of data, and cost.
Preparing for the explosion of 5G and MEC-enabled networks will be a challenge for both businesses and developers. They can start by learning all they can about it and the application of the technology now and in the future. So when it inevitably arrives, they’re prepared and ready to go with solutions.