Edge computing and 5G: What's next for enterprise IT?

2022 could be a turning point for pairing edge computing and 5G in the enterprise. Let's examine trends to watch
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how edge computing works

The distributed, granular nature of edge computing  – where an “edge device” could mean anything from an iPhone to a hyper-specialized IoT sensor on an oil rig in the middle of an ocean – is reflected in the variety of its enterprise use cases.

There are some visible common denominators powering edge implementations: Containers and other cloud-native technologies come to mind, as does machine learning. But the specific applications of edge built on top of those foundations quickly diversify.

“Telco applications often have little in common with industrial IoT use cases, which in turn differ from those in the automotive industry,” says Gordon Haff, technology evangelist, Red Hat. This reflects the diversity of broader edge computing trends he sees expanding in 2022.

When you pair maturing edge technologies and the expansion of 5G networks, the enterprise strategies and goals could become even more specific.

Simply put, “the 5G and edge combination varies by the type of enterprise business,” says Yugal Joshi, partner at Everest Group, where he leads the firm’s digital, cloud, and application services research practices.

Broadly speaking, the 5G-edge tandem is poised to drive the next phases of digital transformations already underway in many companies. As Joshi sees it, there will be a new wave of high-value production assets (including the copious amounts of data that edge devices and applications produce) becoming mainstream pieces of the IT portfolio – and subsequently creating business impact.

“Enterprises combine 5G to edge locations and create a chain of smart devices that can communicate with each other and back-end systems, unlike earlier times where network transformation didn’t touch the last-mile device,” Joshi says.

[ What’s shaping edge strategy in 2022? Read also: How to explain edge computing in plain English and 6 edge computing trends to watch in 2022. ]

Edge computing's turning-point year

The 5G-edge pairing is a long-tail event for enterprises. But there are plenty of reasons – including, of course, the expansion of telco-operated 5G networks – to think 2022 will be a turning-point year.

"We'll see the transition from many smaller, early-stage deployments to wide-scale, global deployments of production 5G networks, following cloud-native design principles," says Red Hat CTO Chris Wright. "As we provide a cloud-native platform for 5G, we have great visibility into this transition." 

“In 2022, 5G and edge will unify as a common platform to deliver ultra-reliable and low latency applications,” says Shamik Mishra, CTO for connectivity, Capgemini Engineering.

A confluence of broader factors is feeding this type of belief including, of course, more widely available 5G networks.

“Edge use cases have a potential to go mainstream in 2022 with the development of edge-to-cloud architecture patterns and the rollout of 5G,” says Saurabh Mishra, senior manager of IoT at SAS.

The “last mile” concept is key. From a consumer standpoint, the only thing most people really care about when it comes to 5G is: “This makes my phone faster.”

The enterprise POV is more complex. At its core, though the 5G-edge relationship also boils down to speed, it’s usually expressed in two related terms more familiar to the world of IT: latency and performance. The relentless pursuit of low latency and high performance is embedded in the DNA of IT leaders and telco operators alike.

The relentless pursuit of low latency and high performance is embedded in the DNA of IT leaders and telco operators alike.

Enterprise IT, meet MEC

Joshi and other analysts and IT leaders generally agree that multi-access edge computing (MEC) – also called mobile edge computing – is integral to how (and why) enterprises will adopt (and benefit from) 5G and edge. It’s the behind-the-scenes infrastructure (of the sort that everyday consumers don’t care about) that enables the sky-high promises of 5G.

Specific definitions of MEC can vary a bit, but the term essentially refers to the proximate pairing or colocation of edge devices with mobile infrastructure, usually in a telco setting. This is the not-so-secret sauce that will shrink latency and extend the boundaries of what people think of when they say “edge.”

[ Related read: Edge computing: 3 ways you can use it now. ]

That’s a must to fulfill the promises of 5G-enabled edge ecosystems and the applications that enterprises will develop for them. Latency is such a common issue in telco and IT contexts that it almost seems boring. But the potential impacts of 5G and MEC are awesome. Without the two, for example, many of the loftiest claims about AI and machine learning will remain out of reach. 

“It is the difference between clicking a button and waiting five seconds for a response versus half a second,” Dan McConnell, chief technologist at Booz Allen Hamilton, told us last year. “And with the explosion of data being collected and processed for high-intensity AI/ML algorithms, there is a high premium on ensuring that data-driven insights are able to reach users as fast as possible.”

Enterprise focus: Private 5G networks

When people talk about 5G, they’re usually referring to the major telco networks (and 5G-enabled devices that connect to those networks), which have begun rolling out and will expand considerably over time.

Those networks have enterprise impacts, of course. But the “next big thing” for many businesses may be private 5G networks. It’s not a perfect comparison, but a private 5G network is kind of like a private cloud – an answer to the question (among others): “What happens if I want to leverage the technology while retaining as much control as possible?”

“In addition to typical 5G, increasingly enterprises are evaluating private 5G models to transform specific parts of their business,” says Joshi, the Everest Group analyst. “This combined with edge devices can meaningfully change the way enterprises work.”

Joshi points to use cases such as smart stadiums, connected fleets, autonomous vehicles, smart ports, and remote health as examples where interest is already abundant and the combination of private/public 5G networks and edge architecture could flourish.

Cloud-to-edge (and vice versa) is both an architectural pattern and a budding ecosystem, one in which cloud providers, telco operators, and enterprise IT all have starring roles.

“Business segments where significant computing can potentially happen at the edge and the data generated or consumed can be transported to nearby edge servers or cloud through 5G are the most potent value creators,” Joshi says.

As a result, major cloud platforms are already offering private 5G capabilities and related edge services. Cloud-to-edge (and vice versa) is both an architectural pattern and a budding ecosystem, one in which cloud providers, telco operators, and enterprise IT all have starring roles.

“I see private MEC taking off with the emergence of cloud services at the edge and the convergence of enterprise edge and 5G network edge,” says Mishra from SAS. “This is especially true in the manufacturing and energy industries, given the presence of enterprise edge compute and the proven value of deploying edge workloads.”

We’ll likely see Kubernetes and other cloud-native technologies play a central role in managing workloads across these expansive environments, too. Automation, consistency, reliability, and other issues will be critical, similar to hybrid cloud and other distributed environments.

New horizons, familiar challenges

Consumer adoption of 5G and edge is enviably straightforward: Do I live in a coverage area, and do I need a new phone?

Obviously, there’s a little more to it from both the operator and broader enterprise perspective. While the potential of 5G-enabled edge architectures and applications is vast – and potentially lucrative – there will be some challenges for IT and business leaders along the way. Many of them may seem familiar.

For one, the 5G-edge combo in an enterprise context invariably means deploying and managing not just IT but OT (operational technology), and lots of it. As with other major initiatives, there will be a lot of moving parts and pieces to manage.

“Governance and scale will continue to be a challenge given the disparate people and systems involved – OT versus IT,” says Mishra from SAS. “Decision-making around what workloads live in the cloud versus the edge and a lack of understanding about the security profile for an edge-focused application will also be a challenge.”

Scale may be the biggest mountain to climb. It will require pinpoint planning, according to Kris Murphy, senior principal software engineer at Red Hat.

“Standardize ruthlessly, minimize operational ‘surface area,’ pull whenever possible over push, and automate the small things,” Murphy says.

"Standardize ruthlessly, minimize operational 'surface area,' pull whenever possible over push, and automate the small things."

5G and edge will also breed another familiar issue for CIOs – the occasional gap between what a vendor or provider says it can do and what it can actually do in your organization. Joshi says this is one important area that enterprise leaders can prepare for now, while the underlying technologies advance and mature.

“What will be more important for enterprise IT is to enhance its business understanding of operational technology, as well as be comfortable working with a variety of network equipment providers, cloud vendors, and IT service providers,” Joshi says.

Lock-in could be another familiar challenge for enterprise IT, Joshi says, underlining the need for rigorous evaluation of potential platforms and providers.

“Open source adoption and openness of the value chain, [including] RAN software, towers, base stations, cloud compute, and storage” will be an important consideration, Joshi says, as well a nose for finding substance amidst hype.

That brings us back to use cases. If you’re unsure about what’s next for 5G and edge in your organization, then start with the potential business applications. That should ultimately guide any further strategic development. Joshi sees growing adoption of remote training using digital twins, remote health consultations, media streaming, and real-time asset monitoring, among other uses.

“Any enabling factors in 5G such as small cells and low latency, strongly align to an edge architecture,” Joshi says. “However, the intention should not be to enable 5G, but to have a suitable business scenario where 5G adoption can enhance impact.”

[ 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. ] 

Kevin Casey writes about technology and business for a variety of publications. He won an Azbee Award, given by the American Society of Business Publication Editors, for his InformationWeek.com story, "Are You Too Old For IT?" He's a former community choice honoree in the Small Business Influencer Awards.