Vapor IO to build 100 edge computing locations for wireless carriers by 2019

Startup Vapor IO has plans to build 100 “micro data centers” for edge computing in locations around the country by the end of next year. The rollout involves the company installing its equipment at the base of existing cell tower sites—or in other locations—and then selling the resulting computing power to wireless providers, tower companies or data center operators. Wireless network operators specifically can use the company’s edge computing data centers to house their NFV, xRAN or edge computing operations.

And in an announcement this week, the company highlighted the high-tech applications that its growing network of edge computing locations can support. Vapor IO announced a partnership with a company called Hangar centered on Hangar’s drone business. Hangar’s drones will be able to land and take off from boxes affixed to the top of Vapor IO’s edge computing locations—and more importantly the drones will be able to use superfast and low-latency connections at the heart of Vapor IO’s business strategy.

“The tens of thousands of autonomous robots being deployed by public and private organizations will require a national edge infrastructure,” Jeff DeCoux, Hangar’s founder and CEO, explained in a release from the company. “As these robotics go to work, they will depend on low-latency services at the edge, including precision navigation, micro-climate decision support, and high speed ingest of data to assure safe and secure deployment.”

Vapor IO’s efforts dovetail with wireless carriers’ push toward edge computing. Most operators’ heavy computing requirements today are handled inside their central, core networks—thus keeping costs low since operators need to invest in only one central computing location—but network providers are increasingly moving those computing powers to the outskirts of their networks so that applications can run faster. Pushing computing operations from the center of the network to the physical edge reduces the time it takes for commands to be received and issued and thus allows operators to offer lower latency.

Already, AT&T has disclosed that it is working to test various edge computing concepts, and Verizon has also discussed its own edge computing efforts. But Vapor IO’s pitch is that it will be too expensive for all of the nation’s network operators to deploy their own edge computing facilities, and so they will seek out third-party providers that they can buy edge computing services from.

Indeed, along these lines Vapor IO announced a deal this month with cloud company Packet to offer “5G-as-a-Service” to wireless operators. The offering combines Vapor IO’s edge computing data centers with Packet’s on-demand computing services.

But all of Vapor IO’s edge computing offerings will rely on the company’s ability to physically deploy its promised micro data centers. Matt Trifiro, CMO of Vapor IO, said that the company plans to deploy 27 such centers this year, starting in Chicago, with plans to expand that number to 100 by the end of next year. Trifiro said that, initially, most of Vapor IO’s deployments will happen inside existing sheds and structures at the base of Crown Castle’s cell towers. (Crown Castle invested in Vapor IO’s business last year when the companies launched their “Project Volutus” edge computing venture.) By next year though, Trifiro said that Vapor IO will also use some locations from other domestic and international partners. Trifiro also said that, by the end of 2019, Vapor IO expects that roughly half of its deployments will use its own “Vapor Edge Module,” essentially a shipping container that can hold all of the company’s computers and can be installed at the base of a cell tower, the floor of a parking garage, or elsewhere. The rest of the company’s deployments will involve installing the company’s “Vapor Chamber” computer rack inside an existing computing site.

Trifiro said that each of Vapor IO's deployments would likely cost several hundred thousand dollars, but that the cost would vary by site.

Interestingly, Vapor IO’s initial funding announcement in 2015 made no mention of edge computing, and the company’s subsequent embrace of the concept mirrors the growing market noise around the technology.