Multi-access edge computing (MEC) has generated a lot of excitement for its ability to enable low-latency, high-bandwidth systems and provide access to real-time data that organizations and enterprises need for optimal efficiency.
MEC enables extracting value from data at the source to power Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT) operation. It provides visibility into machinery, vehicles, and processes and powers automation in Industry 4.0 environments. This technology can also enable emergency services to have reliable communications and access to the resources they need to perform their duties safely. Additionally, MEC gives commercial operations the ability to use smart systems that can track assets, collect data, and, ultimately, reduce costs associated with lost products or misdirected pallets.
As with most next-gen technologies, each phase of the journey that led to MEC has had its ups and downs. But, those challenges created opportunities to learn and to drive innovation that power the systems that manufacturers, commercial operations, emergency services, and other organizations are benefitting from today.
It Started with Cloud
Cloud seems like a relatively new development in IT, but the basic idea of using remote resources has been there from the start. Early systems used “dumb terminals” that connected to a main computer that ran programs and processed data at a centralized facility. The model shifted when PCs put computing power within terminals, ushering in client-server computing. The internet brought the computing world full circle, back to the idea to use remote resources that a local system’s infrastructure didn’t – or couldn’t—handle.
The internet boom led to the challenge of keeping up with demand, which inspired virtualization and the modern concept of the cloud. One problem remained, however. Users were still tethered to their terminals.
Once mobile networks enabled users to connect to the internet, it opened the door to computing on a wider range of devices using different operating systems. Mobile app development via cloud services allowed users to leverage personal devices, such as tablets and smartphones, for advanced functionality. And, because apps work and store data in the cloud, they require minimal resources on the device.
Users loved the freedom of mobility, but challenges still existed, especially for mission-critical use cases, including emergency services and industrial operations. Network interruptions made communications unreliable, and bandwidth limitations and latency sometimes stopped critical data from getting where it was needed, when it was needed. Mobile computing also created challenges related to security and device management.
Mobile Edge Computing
The next step in the journey toward MEC brought computing to the edge of the mobile network. Legacy mobile computing used remote servers that were often geographically far away from users. To solve this issue, the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) put edge nodes on mobile networks, creating communications systems similar to distributed cloud networks, which helped correct problems with reliability and latency. Remote monitoring and security solutions could also be deployed.
But, a problem persisted. This architecture only addressed the mobile communications network.
In September 2017, ETSI’s Mobile Edge Computing Industry Specification Group officially changed its name to the Multi-Access Edge Computing Industry Specification Group, to expand its focus to include requirements outside of the cellular network.
The ISG now manages standards for networks that support technologies, including IoT, artificial intelligence (AI), augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), enabling, for example, Industry 4.0 operations, smart cities and autonomous vehicles.
As with other stages in MEC’s journey, a new problem arose: Those use cases require a more powerful network to support them.
MEC and 5G
The progress toward MEC converged with development of the 5G network, now enabling the use of advanced technologies while transmitting data at faster speeds and from a greater volume of devices. This combination delivers more reliability and better user experiences than any other technology was able to before.
One problem still exists for many users; however: finding the right hardware platform for their systems. Edge computing environments basically consist of mini- or micro-data centers, each suited to the use case. Edge computing hardware must also meet power and cooling requirements, taking into account the environment in which they’ll be used – edge computing can potentially work anywhere, so rugged components with anti-tamper features may be the best choice. Edge hardware should also be engineered to last longer than hardware used in traditional data centers, often leveraging solid-state components and using a system or backups or redundancies to ensure uptime.
Edge computing locations often have smaller power supplies than traditional data centers; however, they are expected to process I/O at a high rate. Hardware acceleration, either onboard or with a network interface card (NIC), can help overcome this challenge. And, when video processing and analysis is required, GPUs can be a vital part of the platform.
Remote monitoring and configuration will also be essential for systems distributed over a wide area. Visibility into devices’ performance and health will enable operators to keep their MEC networks operational and optimized.
A Look Back, A Look Ahead
Looking back over the journey to the development of multi-access edge computing, you’ll see that overcoming challenges have driven the greatest innovation and paved the way for new capabilities.
The current phase of the journey, powered by MEC and 5G, is poised to lead to exciting developments in emergency services, manufacturing and commercial operations – and any other industry segment seeking ways to create connected networks, leverage real-time data, and enable AI or other advanced technologies. It will be interesting to see what comes next.
Click here to learn more about the role ADLINK’s edge hardware is playing in the MEC-5G revolution.