For years the industry has been focusing on the core network, but the tides are beginning to turn, with the edge taking centre stage. While this is a promising development, the economics are simply not supporting the ambition.
“Edge processing is vital,” said Timon Sloane, VP of Marketing & Ecosystem at ONF. “When we started talking about this it was a novel idea, but the industry is just catching on now. The subscriber edge is where experience is created.”
This focus on the edge of the network is a huge opportunity, but also presents a massive problem. The core network is easy. It is one place, easy to manage, but the edge consists of thousands of sites which are usually located within three miles of the customer. Most of the time these sites are windowless, concrete bunkers, with little or no lighting, representing 80% of operator CAPEX. Upgrading these sites is critical to the performance of the network, but is a time consuming and expensive job.
For Sloane and ONF, open source technology is the only way forward.
“Open source is not about free software,” said Sloane. “It is about a community, about not going off an trying to build it ourselves, but building it in a common way”
This is where the concept of economics comes into play. For the edge to work, and work effectively, the disaggregation of hardware and software is critical, as this will fuel the development of open source communities. On the hardware side, the idea of standardized equipment will allow operators to spend more freely on software which can build on and improve the experience for customers. Open source projects can be responsible for the foundation, while closed source technologies from vendors can be built on top.
The idea of disaggregation is of course scary to vendors, but it is needed. As it stands many solutions have proprietary software solutions embedded into the hardware, creating vendor lock-in situations, which limit the operators ability to spend efficiently, or create more customised environments to gain an advantage on competitors. Reversing this balance of power is a critical objective of the ONF, which it believes is central to the success of the telecoms industry.
The current vendor lock-in situation is a worrying one, as the progress of new technologies such as augmented reality or autonomous vehicles is dependent on the efficiency of the network edge. These applications need to run on the edge, as relying on the core would only create latency and a poor experience, and of course these sites need to be build and managed in a completely different way from the core.
Edge processing is different from the core. The sum of the edge is much more vast, where you need to interface with the customer, process information in real-time, deal with roaming, while simultaneously interacting with machine learning applications on the core. Ensuring these conditions can be effectively met is going to be a complex and expensive task.
For this edge-defined world to be a reality, Sloane believes open source is the only way forward. It standardises CAPEX for the commonalities in the network, allowing operators to focus on the last 20% which defines the experience and creates the advantage for an operator. There is resistance from the vendor community, as you would expect, but the nay-sayers, those who used to say disaggregation is not possible, are quietening down. The conversation is moving away from if open source is a viable opportunity, and towards when it can become a reality.