Today’s Internet is broken; and the tower can help fix it.
For the last decade, the Internet has been dominated by very large, centralized, data centers built in remote locations by the likes of Amazon, Microsoft, Google, and Facebook.
It is hard to understate how much of today’s Internet depends on, these and other companies, servers housed in the world’s largest data centers – often in the middle of nowhere. Nearly everything we do on our connected devices – from checking the weather on an Alexa device to sending emails from an iPhone – requires dozens of round trips to these massive warehouse-scale cloud computers in remote locations.
However, there is an emerging class of applications – including IoT, mixed reality, immersive mobile gaming, and autonomous driving – where the existing model of remote, centralized data centers, with best-effort Internet routing, becomes insufficient. These applications need optimized connections to the last mile network and require compute and storage to be located more closely to the device or application. The round trip back to a centralized data center takes too long, and the amount of data, that needs to be transferred, is too large.
We call this edge computing, and its reinventing the Internet and the role of the tower in the process.
Re-architecting the Last Mile
When we talk about the “last mile,” we usually mean that stretch of cable or spectrum that connects the service provider to the device.
In order to survive, the Internet must redistribute the power of its current data center footprint. Centralized data centers will not disappear, but they will be augmented by thousands of micro data centers, with increasingly larger amounts of computing power and storage, at the edge of the last mile.
Edge computing will transform the Internet into a geographically dispersed fabric of computing. Tens of thousands of micro data centers will extend the cloud to the edge of the network, making it possible to run applications and services, in the precise locations in the network where they are needed. Whether it is to support virtualization of the wireless carrier networks, cloud-assisted autonomous vehicles, or mobile mixed reality applications, all will benefit.
Leveraging the Tower Footprint
Building out our next generation Internet demands facilities that are, by definition, near the edge of the last mile network. In large metropolitan areas, where the demand for edge computing will be most dramatic, real estate is expensive and not readily available. The prospect of assembling thousands of small urban parcels, securing building permits, power supplies, enclosures, HVAC, and fiber connectivity would be a daunting, if not near impossible, task.
With hundreds of thousands of cell towers, the wireless industry has an extensive portfolio of locations. These are ideal for micro data centers at the edge of the last mile network. These locations are numerous ,and distributed for geographic coverage, allowing for a wide range of networking topologies and data center placement options.
Tower sites are largely built out and, often, have existing structures with sufficient floor space, security, power, HVAC, fiber connectivity. These, and other preconditions, readily support the addition of micro data centers at a marginal incremental cost. Moreover, because they are literally part of the cellular infrastructure, peering into wireless networks in an edge meet-me room, makes it possible to deploy IT infrastructure that is one hop from the RAN.
The wireless industry is also on an aggressive path to virtualize, densify, and upgrade their networks to 5G. As the wireless industry makes these investments, they will look for ways to reduce their costs or leverage their returns. This creates opportunities for all stakeholders to collaborate around joint interests.
For example, wireless carriers are virtualizing their radio access networks and looking to concentrate the software functionality on “white box” servers running in edge locations. This creates an opportunity for shared cost-reduction, by co-locating infrastructure with other server operators. These include public cloud providers and presents the opportunity for more complex relationships, such as the opportunity for cloud providers, and carriers, to collaborate on building the platform on which to evolve the network.
Finally, the tower industry has a unique set of financial tools to help accelerate this transformation. Most relevantly, a substantial portion of the real estate, tower and equipment-housing capital expense are held in REITs like Crown Castle, which are tax advantaged and have access to vast amounts of low cost capital.
As wireless carriers and infrastructure providers gear up to offer new services to subscribers (and building out their newer 5G networks), we will see an insatiable demand for edge computing.
Since the turn of the century, we have been building large, centralized data centers in far off locations. To date, this has served us well; land and power was cheap, and the round trip from edge to core was “fast enough.”
However, this is no longer sufficient. We must augment today’s centralized data centers with micro data centers at the edge, and the tower will often be the location of choice.
Cole Crawford is founder & CEO of Vapor IO, the leading provider of colocation, interconnection and SD-WAN at the edge of the wireless network. For more information, visit vapor.io. This article will be featured in the Fall issue of Applied Wireless Technology.