AT&T panel: Industry needs to build use cases and ecosystem for edge compute

In order for 5G and edge compute to reach their full potential, the use cases and ecosystem need to be defined now, according to a recent panel discussion at a conference.

While augmented reality, virtual reality, self-driving cars, and cloud gaming come to mind as the services and applications that will be most enabled by edge compute, there are myriad factors to consider. AT&T's Igal Elbaz, senior vice president of wireless technology, moderated the edge compute panel at last week's AT&T conference in San Francisco. Elbaz asked the panel about edge compute use cases.

"I think for the most part, people are looking for real reliability, making sure that it's reliable, making sure that it's safe," said Microsoft Azure's Rokeya Jones. "I think that security (risk) is going to increase, so we must be mindful of what services we're putting out. So for me the edge has to offer performance, and performance at lightning speed. Almost in real time.

"We're enabling industrial assets to be controlled virtually to cut down on fatalities and healthcare situations that are occurring out in the workplace. Edge compute brings forth an amazing opportunity for a lot of people to get into the business of drones for new use cases that have never been solved before using drones and other IoT devices."

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Intel's Caroline Chan said her company has been working on edge computing for about five years now. Chan said that she has heard that edge computing was very "cloud-like" from Intel's customers. A retail customer deployed Intel's edge compute platform with an estimated target of five applications, but when Chan visited the store manager roughly five months later, she found out the retail store had put in 26 applications.

Chan said that enterprises will find their own use cases for edge compute based on the power of the platform.

"Because it has a compute platform, because it's like the data center, she went ahead and not just put in what we agreed to, but she actually ported a lot of things they use," Chan said. "The words 'cloudlike' keep coming over and over when we go talk to a CIO of an enterprise. Each one has their own set of requirements, but we gave them the basic platform requirements to let the CIO make a decision, make a choice and make that investment.

"And that's what I think that we need. That's a killer app. We gave them killer capabilities."

Cole Crawford, founder and CEO of Vapor IO, disagreed with Chan about edge compute being cloudlike. From an infrastructure perspective, edge compute needs a digital cardiovascular system to go with the brains that include the silicon, FPGAs (field programmable gate arrays) and GPUs (graphics processing units).

"I would just say, the edge is not so cloudlike," Crawford said. "I mean it is cloudlike, but it is platform-based. It is not product-based. I think we 100% agree on that. I would just say that the edge also has requirements that are not built into say a cloud-native application. I think an edge application needs things like telemetry and three-dimensional space. I think edge compute is a little bit different than cloud native, and it needs that cardiovascular system."

Crawford said 5G and edge compute were a transformative moment for humanity.

"Look, now is the time to create the skeleton and the house, the structure of what this world's going to live on," he said.

Elbaz said the reason AT&T was successful building out its cloud ecosystem was because it gave developers a clear view of how to use it and the APIs to develop applications and services. He asked the panel how the industry should focus on building out the edge compute ecosystem.

"I think that in order for us to give the developers what they need, we have to make sure we enable services such as edge or functions to come in and literally expose or at least extend from the core all the way to the edge," Microsoft's Jones said. "We can really look at how we give the developers tools that they need. We at Microsoft have an extensive organization—commercial software engineering organization—that is heavy in the field. We work with their developers in-house to build new proof of concepts, new services and gather ideas."

Jones said by working with mobile carriers, such as AT&T, developers can build content and applications that customers want.

"Because I always say, it's like this, you can have the killer idea today but if no one's able to buy it or see the value in it today and they don't have the customer turnaround to flip it to, then guess what? It's worth how much? Your evaluation is zero," she said. "I think it's about growing that and nurturing that and being there with them as they grow and as they build.

"So that's one of the things that I'm focused on when we think about growing our edge and as we look at bringing computing into the edge. How does that work? What does that feel like? What do we need to enable? Those are the things that we want our developers to tell us, that we want them to help us define so that we don't come to them with 'Here's your cookie-cutter model, go use it.'"

Crawford said that from an open source standpoint, edge compute needs to have common abstraction layers, while Intel's Chan said her company is spending a lot of time working on monetizing 5G and edge compute by developing a software development kit (SDK) and use cases for network slicing.

"The first thing we do is we develop this SDK, this network function library," Chan said. "What it does is it takes the associated network slice upward through the infrastructure, the network, all the way up to the multicloud (environment). That allows the app developer to precisely use the resources that AT&T offers and also allows you to dose and give out the precise things that are needed.

"When we talk about business landscape, that's the first incentive. How they make money. How does the monetization work?"