One of the biggest myths in the early days of cloud computing was that telcos like Verizon, AT&T and even CenturyLink were destined to win the “enterprise cloud” market. The rationale was, more or less, that they understood how to deal with large enterprises, owned the networks and had existing data center footprints they could leverage.
Telcos, of course, did not win the enterprise cloud market. To the extent such a thing even exists, AWS, Microsoft and Google pretty much own that, too.
So, what to make of AT&T’s plan to build out an edge computing infrastructure
—based around 5G and software-defined networks—to own the Internet of Things? I would argue that, this time around, all of that distributed infrastructure actually could play in the favor of telcos. By converting even offices and cellular infrastructure into edge computing nodes, not to mention its roles in developing wireless protocols and owning networks, AT&T does appear to have an advantage when it comes to delivering low-latency data and computing services.
So we’re shrinking the distance. Instead of sending commands hundreds of miles to a handful of data centers scattered around the country, we’ll send them to the tens of thousands of central offices, macro towers, and small cells usually never farther than a few miles from our customers.
If the data centers are the “core” of the cloud, these towers, central offices, and small cells are at the “edge” of the cloud. Intelligence is no longer confined to the core. The cloud comes to you.
We’ll outfit those facilities with high-end graphics processing chips and other general purpose computers. We’ll coordinate and manage those systems with our virtualized and software-defined network.
And, hey, AT&T has even gotten some open source religion between then and now. It’s clearly not Facebook yet, but open sourcing its SDN management software
does suggest AT&T is moving in the right direction.
However, cloud providers still present a big challenge for AT&T and all companies looking to cash in on our connected devices’ need for speed:
The latter bullet point applies to companies like Apple, as well. There are also companies like Facebook that prioritize performance and data efficiency, so are constantly optimizing their applications to consume as little data and, thus, bandwidth, as possible. Essentially, where they can’t own the distance between data centers and users, the companies currently driving consumer and enterprise compute consumption are working to make that distance matter a lot less.
Obviously, the network still matters a lot, and there’s still a ton of opportunity for companies like AT&T to capitalize on their ownership of it—as well as their edge computing footprint all along it. But if they’ve learned anything from the past decade of launching and shuttering IaaS offerings, telcos won’t underestimate AWS et al on the edge like they did in the cloud.