Edge computing and 5G bring the edge to remote workers

As remote work increases, edge computing services must extend to employees' homes. While 5G could help, internet connectivity must improve to enable edge access before 5G prevails.

Common questions people ask about edge computing are: "What is the edge, and where is it?" For many companies, the edge is a data center or cloud environment. Yet, as companies embrace remote work, remote employees in turn become the edge.

Edge computing brings data processing and delivery capabilities closer to the data's source -- for remote employees, their home networks. But IT teams may struggle to extend edge services to various residential locations -- especially as edge computing isn't yet mainstream. Further, many homes in the U.S. still solely use dial-up internet, so organizations can't rely on internet connectivity to support edge computing for all remote workers.

Organizations could turn to 5G as a primary means of connectivity, and edge computing and 5G together could enable successful edge extensions to remote workers. Yet, until 5G becomes ubiquitous, a first step to connect people to company networks is to enhance broadband access nationally.

In a recent webinar from Kentik, a network analytics provider based in San Francisco, panelists explored how organizations can bring edge infrastructure closer to employees.

"If you were talking about what the edge looked like a year ago, you'd really be talking about specialized applications; you'd be talking about IoT devices. And now what we're finding is we are now the edge," said Matt Price, senior director of IoT engineering and operations at Cisco.

How an edge computing and 5G partnership enables remote work

Together, edge computing and 5G can enable various use cases -- industrial IoT, autonomous vehicles and more -- yet the pair's low latency and high bandwidth capabilities also benefit remote use cases, both for work and distance learning.

If you were talking about what the edge looked like a year ago, you'd really be talking about specialized applications. … What we're finding is we are now the edge.
Matt PriceSenior director of IoT engineering and operations, Cisco

"[COVID-19] actually accelerated more of the pure mobility discussions to now thinking more about the applications because of the pain points we're seeing in rural networks," said Wen Temitim, CTO of StackPath LLC, an edge and cloud service provider based in Dallas.

COVID-19 has changed how people and businesses operate, as well as the necessary capabilities and connectivity options people require in their homes. Because of these changes and a lack of ubiquitous connectivity, edge access may not be available to everyone, which can hinder an organization's plans to deploy any edge computing service that would bring data compute and processing closer to the data sources -- in this case, remote employees.

This has sparked an evolution of organizations' IT infrastructures, Temitim said, and is increasing vendors' and IT teams' focus on last-mile connections to ensure all remote employees can access corporate networks.

Residential networks -- whether in rural or suburban areas -- require adequate last-mile connectivity, which is critical for business operations when most, if not all, employees work remotely. Last-mile connections become even more crucial when companies consider remote work on a permanent or semipermanent basis.

However, last-mile connectivity has historically been complicated because providing connectivity to users in rural areas is generally more expensive than it is for users in more urban areas. Yet, most people live within cellular coverage areas, which makes 5G connectivity accessible and potentially less expensive for organizations with employees who lack sufficient broadband access.

Edge computing and 5G together can benefit organizations that struggle with last-mile connections. For example, 5G provides multiaccess edge computing (MEC) capabilities that enable organizations to send company resources out to the network edge -- or to their employees -- instead of a data center or cloud environment. Cisco's Price said, once 5G is ubiquitous, organizations may jump at the chance to push entire applications out to the edge with 5G and MEC.

Yet, until 5G is commonplace, the industry should remain focused on increasing broadband access and making the internet a utility so employees can effectively become part of their organization's network edge, regardless of where they live, Temitim said.

4G vs. 5G edge computing
This diagram shows in detail how 5G provides significant advancements for edge computing and core networks over 4G and LTE capabilities.

The internet as a utility

Despite myriad technological advances since the advent of the internet, CNN reported in 2015 that over 2 million people in the U.S. still used dial-up internet from AOL. Regardless of any fluctuations in that number since 2015, the number still isn't zero, according to Kentik. Temitim said additional network infrastructure investments are necessary to make connectivity accessible for everyone and to support edge services.

Increased broadband access has been a feature of some political campaigns -- notably, Sens. Bernie Sanders' (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren's (D-Mass.) 2020 presidential campaigns -- but the topic has yet to become a mainstream concern. Common policy points include investing more in internet infrastructure, expanding broadband access nationally and ensuring internet service providers have accessible internet plans for everyone, in addition to aptly reporting user data.

Temitim and Price emphasized the importance of internet connectivity in edge service deployment before 5G is widely available, as the internet would be the main connectivity option. COVID-19 hindered much of the 5G development experts predicted 2020 would bring, which delays an edge computing and 5G partnership even further.

Without high-speed internet access, employees struggle to work remotely and can't reap the benefits of edge services, which prevents organizations from delivering key applications seamlessly over the internet to remote employees.

"Folks are going to be working from home in a more permanent scenario. I think that'll start to shift the way that people think about things, so it'll accelerate some of the [edge] use cases," Temitim said. "The internet has to become a utility. We have to invest there to be able to support these things."

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