Telecommunications companies continue to partner with public cloud providers as they expand their reach into the fast-growing edge computing realm.
AT&T and Google Cloud recently expanded their year-long partnership by introducing new edge-focused solutions, including the telco’s on-premises Multi-access Edge Compute (MEC) offering – combining its existing 5G and MEC product with such Google Cloud capabilities like artificial intelligence (AI), data analytics and Kubernetes technology – and AT&T Network Edge with Google Cloud, enabling enterprises to deploy workloads at Google edge points of presence (POPs) tied to the telco’s 5G and fiber networks.
Telco Lumen Technologies followed with a multi-faceted strategic partnership with Microsoft that will bring Microsoft Azure Stack to Lumen’s edge computing environment. The deal is the latest by Lumen to build out its edge capabilities, having already inked agreements with the likes of IBM and VMware.
These are only the latest examples of the growing partnerships between network operators and cloud providers that are targeting the edge, a market that Grand View Research analysts say will grow to more than $61.1 billion by 2028 as enterprises look to bring more hardware, software and services closer to where devices are and data is being generated. The rise of 5G and advanced technologies like AI, data analytics, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR) are helping to drive the growth at the edge, where speed, low latency and cost efficiencies are a premium.
Such alliances give each partner edge capabilities they’ve lacked: telcos can leverage the cloud providers’ platforms while the cloud players can stretch their reach into the operators’ physical locations. AT&T not only partners with Google Cloud but also Microsoft – as does Telefonica – while Verizon is working with Amazon Web Services (AWS). Telestra is partnering with Microsoft, Verizon has hooked up with AWS and Vodafone has partnered with both.
Those are only a sampling of the alliances that are lining up.
“It tells me a couple of things,” Bob O’Donnell, principal analyst at TECHnalysis Research, told InternetNews. “Number one, it tells me that we are seeing not only the ‘software-ization’ and the virtualization and the cloudification of networks – we’ve been seeing all of those slowly but surely – but we’re seeing them ramp up in a pretty serious way.”
The Promise of 5G
At the same time, “it’s also making people realize that this is where we start to get to the real promise of 5G. Everybody talked about edge computing as one thing and 5G as another thing and they talked about AI as yet the third separate thing, but in reality, you’ve got to do all these things together for them to really make any sense. People are starting to fully come around to the fact that it’s really the combination of all these buzzwords that everybody was treating as separate things that are really necessary to achieve the kinds of goals and the promises that people have been talking about – particularly for 5G – for a long time.”
In a statement, Rasesh Patel, chief product and platform officer at AT&T Business, said that through the Google Cloud partnership, “with premises-based 5G and edge computing, we give our customers even greater control of where their data goes and how they use it – at higher speeds and with lower latency. We’re bringing forth a new era where the latest technological advancements, including 5G and edge computing, make it possible to transform, innovate and prepare for whatever the future holds.”
The two companies already have developed joint offerings for such industries as retail (for inventory management and networking), healthcare (services like telehealth using AR and VR) and manufacturing (remote support, quality control and streaming video at the edge rather than on the device).
They’re also jointly evaluating how network APIs could optimize applications by using real-time network information at the Google Cloud edge, which could enable the two companies to optimize the user experience at the edge and fuel more outcome-based solutions and services.
For its part, Lumen officials said the telco and Microsoft will offer a certified Azure deployment that can run in Lumen edge computing nodes – driving lower latencies and higher bandwidth use – to deliver solutions for the communications sector based on private 5G networks that leverage Microsoft’s cloud-native solutions and Lumen’s fiber network and edge computing products and provide enterprises with managed solutions using Microsoft software and cloud services.
“By deeply integrating more of our platform services with Microsoft Azure, we can help businesses quickly utilize their data for the insights they want and need, with the ability to support unique and customized use cases,” Shaun Andrews, executive vice president and CMO for Lumen, said in a statement.
Lumen also is making Azure the preferred public cloud environment for enterprise workloads. Organizations will get consistent access management across all of Lumen’s digital services and the network operator also will use Azure, Microsoft Power Apps and Microsoft 365 E5 security and compliance for its own internal digitization efforts.
Blurring the Lines
TECHnalysis’ O’Donnell said the blurring of the territorial lines between network operators, public cloud players and traditional hardware makers will continue as the edge comes into greater prominence. It’s important for telcos like AT&T and Verizon that want to leverage 5G to adopt more software-defined approaches to networking, something they have done over the past several years with 4G. Then it needs to be virtualized, adopt efforts like OpenRAN – an effort to build 2G, 3G, 4G and 5G radio access networks (RANs) on general-purpose and vendor-neutral hardware and software as well as open interfaces and standards.
The push to the edge puts a spotlight on efforts by the big cloud providers to move into what had been proprietary carrier networks and create solutions that the carriers can sit on top of.
“It also clearly highlights the encroachment of the traditional hardware and software compute folks into 5G networks,” O’Donnell said. “We’ve been seeing everybody from Dell and Nvidia and Microsoft and all these other companies talk about getting into 5G, but now it’s really happening. The whole computing thing just ties into that, because if you want to do something interesting and different, you want to do it right near the edge and you want to take advantage of low latency and 5G to make this all meaningfully different than what you could do with 4G. Otherwise it’s just a slightly faster version of 4G.”
This coming together of what had been separate and clearly-defined spheres of influence has been evolving for several years, but, as with many other trends in the IT Industry that are part of the larger digital transformation picture, it has only accelerated since the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic early last year.
“This is an area [of interest] in particular for the cloud guys,” the analyst said. “It’s really put their mark on the telco business, something they’ve been talking about for a long time. [For network operators], they’re finding that a lot of the technologies originally developed for native cloud computing are a perfect match for edge computing, so why not use the same kind of software tools, programming principles, all that good stuff?”