When 5G data services started rolling out in 2019, the hype focused on the superfast data services that the new mobile communications would enable.

But the real revolution won’t be on the handset – and has yet to even gather pace. Yet when it arrives it will be every bit as revolutionary as the internet or the development of the personal computer.

– WikiImages, Pixabay

“By itself, 5G is just more ‘pipe’, which is cool for people who want to download more music or stream movies on their phones, on the move. But there’s a massive industrial application to the technology,” says Craig Chadwell, Vice President of Product at SoftIron.

In the past, he says, a data center required “massive dark fiber backhauls to get a point-of-presence to any particular location,” and that, of course, required the kind of investment that only major organizations could afford. “This is enabling technology that will democratize that ability for smaller or nimbler organizations – or, at least, for mid-sized organizations,” he says.

“It will give them an opportunity to put their applications out in a more distributed way, and in a way that’s more localized to their user base.

“In a lot of cases these organizations don’t have a lot of interest in buying a facility outright and running it themselves. So these new data center points-of-presence are often going to be controlled and run, either by the telcos who have already invested a great deal in 5G and associated backhaul, or more forward-looking real-estate investment companies, who’ll end-up building small data centers-in-a-box close to these sites,” says Chadwell.

In other words, the edge data center of the future will be based more on the colocation model than outright site ownership.

The more things change...

Of course, organizations have for the past 50 years or so always run some form of compute and storage at retail outlets, but the concept of the edge that has emerged in recent years – especially since the advent of 5G communications – has taken this to the next level.

Branch office IT isn’t going to change much, necessarily, except local processing will be replaced by the cloud.

“But there's this other set of edge infrastructure, that is, I think, technically more interesting, emerging as a result of some of the critical infrastructure evolutions that have happened over time: things like 5G, and the proliferation of sensory devices that are collecting heat, visual, and whatever other information you can think to measure that can be collected these days,” says Chadwell.

In many respects, the applications that will make use of this tidal wave of new, real or near real-time data, have yet to be devised, let alone make the first billion dollars for their creators. But what is clear is that their utility will be defined by minimal latency and the ability to process the data and turnaround the result as quickly as possible.

“That has some interesting implications, because the place where that data should get collected and processed doesn't look like a data center, and may not even look like a ‘data closet’ for people who have run more traditional remote office branch office scenarios,” says Chadwell.

Troubleshooting a troublesome remote PC or server handling the transaction at a branch of Dixons in the 1980s was one thing, but managing an entire remote data center will, potentially, be another thing entirely.

At the moment, therefore, real estate around or close to 5G masts has become genuinely hot property for two reasons: first, as potential locations for edge data centers; but, second, the proximity to the 5G mast doesn’t just provide access to local mobile communications data, but also fiber backhaul.

“They want to be close to the point-of-presence (PoP) for 5G networks to be able to take advantage of the backhaul so that you can deliver a good customer experience, and whatever applications or critical infrastructure services you’re delivering; you can move that out closer to where people are, and outside of that, the central data center for processing.

“In that case, the physical footprint probably looks a lot more like a conventional data center; it will have environmentally friendly controls in it to take dust and other potential contaminants out. What it’s not going to have, is the ability to easily get to the gear inside that data center in a timely way.

“Now you have to design infrastructure that can be operated remotely without having skilled people nearby who can go push a button or replace something when things go wrong,” says Chadwell.

But it’s not just next to, or around, 5G masts in towns and cities that edge data centers will be installed, points out Chadwell, but that 5G will drastically increase the range of data-related applications and, therefore, the kind of places that masts – and compute power – are sited, too.

“We have conversations with clients who want to put storage clusters into military vessels, airplanes, onto airfields, or into commercial vans for doing massive data collection, right at the sites where those things are most useful,” he adds.

XHEAD Driving forward

Of course, as Chadwell has already touched upon, the kind of data center compute power shoved into the back of a Ford Transit van will need to have a lot more ‘ruggedness’ built-in than the average state-of-the-art storage and server technology. Low power consumption and minimal cooling requirements will also need to be designed-in, too. Such an environment, adds Chadwell, is the kind of warranty-buster that the ‘big four’ manufacturers have yet to satisfactorily address.

Indeed, the hardware required for a whole range of edge data center use-cases will need extra resilience to vibration, dust, temperature and even heavy handling.

“Another thing we've hit on is the need to have an environment, or infrastructure, that's self healing and without a single point of failure. Even being highly fault tolerant may not be enough because it might take hours or days before you can get someone out to swap a failed component or perform a repair,” says Chadwell.

It would be ideal, he adds, if the network were in some way self-healing, while storage ought to support open-standards, like open-source storage software Ceph, to make it easier to maintain by non-specialists, as well as durable enough to keep running through the failure of multiple components. “Ceph was designed to focus on durability and availability of data. It’s also got some very useful functionality baked-in to it to survive lots and lots of failures.

“It’s an incredibly flexible architecture. By flexible, I mean you can build a wide variety of configurations and get to a supported robust stack. And by robust, I mean, very tolerant to failure, very high performing, designed to lose lots of little components and still be available. I think that makes it very optimal for edge use-cases.

“It’s also really robust in terms of feature set. One of the things you see from a lot of vendors is a set of limitations around things like the storage protocols they support or some of the other enterprise features, like snapshots or replication or backup capabilities. Ceph has matured over the years and has everything you need baked in. It just works,” says Chadwell.

Of course, SoftIron, as a maker of robust data center storage appliances, specialized to the task, rather than designed and made out of generic parts, has a particular interest in storage architectures. However, the company is branching out, most recently into specialized networking and transcoding appliances.

The devices are designed from the ground up, and currently made in Newark, California, rather than by the usual contract manufacturers in the usual places. The business model, in time, is to manufacture more locally, rather than centralizing, as well as fully embracing open-source software platforms.

According to Chadwell, this is about more than just sustainability or building more resilient supply chains: designing and making fit-for-purpose, rather than generic, hardware can slash power consumption by as much as 80 per cent, while enabling considerably more efficient use of space.

Because while the back of a Ford Transit might seem quite spacious when it’s empty, that space can fill up pretty quickly when you’ve intensive data processing to perform on the move. And the same is undoubtedly true of any other piece of expensive real estate that might be playing host to cutting edge IT in the very near future.

SoftIron is presenting at this week's DCD>Building the Edge virtual event. Check out "What does the Edge have in store? Solving the challenges of Edge storage infrastructure" at 11am EDT on Thursday 15 April and the Tech Showcase straight after. Register now!