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For 5G to provide more than an enhanced mobile data experience, networks must be able to support a range of new devices, service types, and use cases. Among the technologies that can help to deliver on this promise, the one currently generating the most interest is edge computing, also known as edge cloud.

Edge cloud both frees up capacity in core and transport networks, and enables support for a range of low-latency use cases by distributing the processing, storage, and management of data to numerous micro datacenters at the periphery of the network, closer to the end device. Content caching is an early form of edge computing, but edge cloud will have a more integral part to play in future use cases. These include Industry 4.0, connected and autonomous vehicles, augmented and virtual reality (AR/VR), high-quality video, and gaming.

Distributed compute and storage based on commodity hardware will be the building blocks of edge cloud, but connectivity will provide the glue that holds it all together, while the intelligence residing in the network will be required to create, manage, and orchestrate the whole. Telcos will be well placed to deliver edge cloud, although a number of other potential stakeholders, including public cloud providers and tower companies, are also interested in the space.

CSPs might want to consider whether it is better to compete with these other players, or try instead to leverage their strengths alongside their own, bearing in mind that the location of the "edge" will be largely use-case dependent. Where low latency is critical, as in the case of VR or autonomous vehicles, proximity to the point of service delivery means the base station might provide the optimum location. In the enterprise the "edge" can refer to the IoT device or a gateway located at the customer premises.

Solutions such as AWS' Outposts can provide a scaled-down version of hyperscale cloud with fully managed, on-premise compute, storage, and processing functionality. These too could potentially support a range of use cases, including low-latency 5G.

Network equipment vendors can help operators to deliver value through their partnerships with CSPs. Ericsson has created Edge Gravity, an incubator business that addresses the emerging market for edge computing through a global network and peering points. Edge Gravity currently acts as a content delivery network, but the vendor says it will merge in future with the edge computing work ongoing in its networks business.

Many interested parties want a stake in edge cloud and believe it can bring value. How it evolves will become clearer as the next phase of 5G comes into effect.