It’s hard enough keeping track and making sense of one technology megatrend at a time, but when you start trying to co-mingle two or even three of them together, well, generally speaking, all bets are off. Yet despite that seemingly unscalable challenge (and the buzzword bingo bonanza it implies), that’s exactly what the latest extension to a relatively new partnership between AT&T and Microsoft is attempting to do. In particular, the two companies are working to tie together cloud computing, 5G, and edge computing into a meaningful way. Even more surprisingly, this combination actually makes a great deal of sense and provides a tantalizing glimpse into the future of where all three of these major trends are heading.
Specifically, the two companies announced a new effort called Network Edge Compute (NEC) that would bring Microsoft’s Azure Stack cloud computing platform to network infrastructure equipment sitting at the edge of AT&T’s millimeter wave (mmWave)-based 5G network. The combination, which is currently available in the Dallas, TX region on a trial basis, will allow companies to start experimenting on new types of generation-defining applications that many believe are possible with the latest generation mobile network. It’s a chance to figure out what kinds of applications can be the Uber/Lyft, AirBnB, or Netflix of 5G.
At this point, no one really knows for sure what those new types of applications might be—just as no one could predict the rise of Uber/Lyft, AirBnB, or Netflix when 4G first came on the scene. However, there’s a general sense that something along those lines could (or will) happen, so it’s important to put the necessary infrastructure in place to make it happen.
Now, some might argue that this announcement isn’t really a big deal. After all, each of these elements have been available for a while and there has been discussion of some type of combination for some time. What’s particularly interesting, however, is that it’s the first time that these pieces have been connected in such a complete and real manner. Plus, having the combination of a telco carrier with a major cloud computing platform not only adds more overall “gravitas” to the offering, it also points out the practical reality that it’s likely going to take these kinds of new partnerships to drive applications and services forward in the 5G era.
From a technology perspective, the ability to leverage the lower latency connections possible with 5G in conjunction with the flexibility of container-based cloud-native applications running at the very edge of the network presents a new opportunity for developers. Because it’s new, it’s a computing model that make them a while to figure out how to best take advantage of.
Some of the efforts that the companies mentioned in their initial announcement provide a hint as to where these new capabilities may be headed. Cloud-based gaming, for example, is commonly touted as a great potential application for 5G because of the possibility of reduced lag time when playing games. Not surprisingly, AT&T and Microsoft talked about some early efforts in that area with a company called Game Cloud Network, which is working to figure out how to maximize the combination of speedy connectivity and rapid access to computing horsepower.
Another interesting application includes the possibility of leveraging Network Edge Compute to do faster and higher-resolution image rendering for AR headsets, such as Microsoft’s HoloLens. Microsoft has already demoed similar capabilities in a controlled environment, but to bring that into the field would require exactly the type of high-speed, quick access computing resources that this new combined offering enables.
Yet another area that has been discussed for potential 5G uses is IoT, or Internet of Things, because of the new network standard’s potential ability to handle links to billions of different connected devices. Along those lines, AT&T and Microsoft also discussed working with an Israeli startup called Vorpal, which creates solutions that can track drones in areas where they can cause problems, such as airports and other commercial zones. To track up to thousands of drones in real-time requires a great deal of sensor input and fast, real-time computing that can be done by the network instead of on the devices themselves. In fact, it provides a whole new level of meaning to former Sun CEO Scott McNealy’s famous quip that the network is the computer.
One of the interesting side benefits of this combined AT&T-Microsoft product offering is that it also starts to put some real meat on the bone of edge computing. Up until now, edge computing has been seen by many as a vague concept that meant a lot of different things to different people. With examples like the ones that the two companies are discussing, however, the idea of an intelligent edge becomes much more concrete.
In fact, all of a sudden, the ties between an intelligent cloud, a connected intelligent edge, and a compute-enabled intelligent network start to make a lot more sense, and the combination of the three starts to look a lot more prescient.