Edge computing and 5G: A reality check

What do you want to do with edge computing plus 5G? Industry analysts and edge experts discuss where enterprise IT stands - and how to prepare for what's next
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Enterprise IT leaders have heard plenty about the potential of edge computing and 5G networks working together to solve problems  but where do we stand right now? The rollout of 5G connectivity has gained momentum in the past year, primarily in North and America and Asia-Pacific. "All major telecommunications companies in the U.S. and Canada are aggressively pursuing 5G rollouts and have developed comprehensive B2B offerings for enterprises," says Shamik Mishra, CTO for connectivity at Capgemini Engineering. "In addition to these, we are seeing significant traction in 5G (and 4G) private networks amongst enterprises, which want to connect their business through cost-efficient wireless technology."

However, it's still early days for 5G globally, not only in terms of coverage, but in devices that are 5G-enabled. "5G deployments are relatively nascent, with limited availability and efficacy. Many countries haven't completed spectrum auctions yet or otherwise made desired spectrum available," says David Lessin, director at technology research and advisory firm ISG.

The state of 5G rollouts and edge computing experiments

The inability of Chinese vendors to scale their offerings in the current environment has been a major limiting factor, notes Yugal Joshi, vice president of digital, cloud, and application services research for Everest Group. "As Chinese vendors were pivotal to these deployments to build cost-effective 5G solution, it is a big problem," Yoshi says. "Moreover, in many countries the license cost of 5G bandwidth is prohibitive, requiring governments and telecom vendors to come together, which is not easy."

There are still opportunities for enterprises to begin to experiment in advance of wider 5G rollouts. Large, globally dispersed enterprises can begin to perform tactical trials, says Lessin, while smaller or more geographically concentrated organizations may be able to pursue more strategic 5G deployments.

"Enterprises can start deploying applications within telco infrastructure today using existing proven methods while 5G matures."

Private LTEs may afford enterprises rollout opportunities but involve some lock-in, Lessin says. In addition, there are many multi-access edge compute (MEC) or mobile edge cloud solutions that leverage other access methods (like 4G LTE) and fiber connectivity. "Enterprises can start deploying applications within telco infrastructure today using existing proven methods while 5G matures," says Dave McCarthy, research vice president, cloud and edge infrastructure services at IDC.

 [ Need to talk edge with colleagues, customers, or partners? Get a shareable primer: How to explain edge computing in plain English. ] 

How edge and 5G fit together for enterprises

5G is having a positive impact on edge adoption in the enterprise as it will make it possible to install lower power but faster computational power at the edge. 5G and edge are complementary. "While 5G promises to dramatically reduce network latency, it only addresses the portion between the endpoint and the radio tower," McCarthy says. "Edge computing addresses the other part of the equation by placing compute and storage resources within the telco network infrastructure. This eliminates any backhaul latency associated with central data centers."

5G will connect the next wave of smart devices, resulting in exponential growth of data at the edge.

The vision is that 5G will connect the next wave of smart devices, resulting in exponential growth of data at the edge.

"Enterprises plan to use that data to improve operations and power new customer experiences. However, a centralized data center approach will not be able to meet the impending scalability challenge," says McCarthy. "The distributed nature of edge computing will enable enterprises to take advantage of these new 5G connected data sources in an effective and cost-efficient manner."

"When we think about where data and applications live, they will be in many places."

As Stu Miniman, director of insights on the Red Hat cloud platforms team, noted, "If there is any remaining argument that hybrid or multi-cloud is a reality, the growth of edge solidifies this truth: When we think about where data and applications live, they will be in many places. The discussion of edge is very different if you are talking to a telco company, one of the public cloud providers, or a typical enterprise. When it comes to Kubernetes and the cloud-native ecosystem, there are many technology-driven solutions competing for mindshare and customer interest. While telecom giants are already extending their NFV solutions into the edge discussion, there are many options for enterprises. Edge becomes part of the overall distributed nature of hybrid environments, so users should work closely with their vendors to make sure the edge does not become an island of technology with a specialized skill set."

5G will further open up the use cases for edge computing in the enterprise, allowing enterprises to analyze large amounts of data on-site (or on devices) in very near real-time. Large industrial manufacturers, for example, can leverage edge to significantly improve their productivity. In automotive, 5G and edge will help enable connected and autonomous vehicles. (For a more detailed look at current edge use cases, read Edge computing: 5 examples of how enterprises are using it now.) "The combination of 5G and edge, together with the potential benefits of new use cases and massive automation, is an attractive option for many IT enterprise leaders," Altran's Mishra says.

[ Want to learn more about implementing edge computing? Read the blog: How to implement edge infrastructure in a maintainable and scalable way. ]

What happens next with edge and 5G?

In some countries, like South Korea and Singapore, 5G is viable now. For larger countries with broad swaths of sparsely populated areas (such as the U.S., India, and Brazil), it could take several years for 5G deployments to stretch coast to coast, ISG’s Lessin predicts.

With the market at least a couple of years away from broad adoption of 5G for mission-critical use cases, IDC's McCarthy expects an uptick in interest in private 5G networks as an alternative to WiFi. Mobile operators will extend their network slicing capabilities and may offer new capabilities as a result, says Lessin.

"We expect 5G adoption for enterprises and the public sector to happen over the next few years," says Mishra. Smart homes (including fixed wireless access), smart cities, manufacturing, fleet management, logistics, entertainment, and content distribution networks will be the earliest adopters, perhaps later this year, Mishra predicts, with energy, utilities, transportation, automotive, and fintech sectors following between 2022 and 2024.

How IT leaders can prepare now

When it comes to leveraging emerging 5G networks, collaboration and preparation will be paramount. IT leaders can prepare for this future in a number of ways.

  • Start strategizing with partners. "It will be extremely important for customers, operators, and service providers to work together to identify mutually beneficial opportunities," ISG’s Lessin says. "If a customer waits until ideas are commoditized, the boat has been missed." The barrier to entry here is low, but complexity is high. “A collaborative ecosystem is required to make all of this work together," says Altran's Mishra.
  • Think about edge and your cloud architecture. Look for service providers who will help you keep your options open with regard to factors such as APIs. Enterprises will want to run, manage, and in some cases, monetize their applications seamlessly over a telecommunications infrastructure and a public cloud, Mishra notes.
  • Align with the business. Enterprise IT leaders will need to work closely with their business partners to target the best 5G opportunities. Lessin advises looking for areas where reducing transaction time improves customer service or products and services.
  • Identify use cases. "The whole process will involve discovery of use cases, value proposition analysis, ROI analysis, design, implementation, and management," says Mishra.
  • Think big-picture. "The promise of 5G is not short-term," Mishra says. "Enterprises with a vision of exploiting 5G over several years in multiple ways will definitely benefit more than their competitors."

[ Want to learn more about edge and data-intensive applications? Get the details on how to build and manage data-intensive intelligent applications in a hybrid cloud blueprint. ] 



Stephanie Overby is an award-winning reporter and editor with more than twenty years of professional journalism experience. For the last decade, her work has focused on the intersection of business and technology. She lives in Boston, Mass.