Cloud computing has been one of the biggest shifts to take place in computing over the last 15 years. We can credit Amazon and its launch of Amazon Web Services (AWS), or go further back and give credit to Diane Greene and the creation of virtualization, but the point is that a new architecture changed the economics of computing, enabled startups to try ideas without incurring huge capital costs, and supported the adoption of open source technologies that let people push computing to its physical limits.
But while cloud computing has changed computing, it has stayed in the data center. Now telcos want to move it away from centralized data centers containing millions of servers to the edges of the telco network — into offices that can contain anywhere from dozens up to a few hundred servers located in mutiple places around the country.
Telcos are figuring out that between cloud computing and the internet of things, they have the potential to create a new line of business that looks more like AWS than anything from the stodgy old telephone world. That is why Deutsche Telekom created a subsidiary called MobiledgeX. The startup was formed in 2018 to build a software platform that would let telcos sell their excess computing capacity located in the tens of thousands of offices and cell tower base stations around the world, on demand.
The business opportunity is simple, according to Jason Hoffman, the CEO of MobiledgeX. There are several upcoming use cases that will need powerful computing close to the edge of a network. Those use cases will demand low latency and will most likely involve tasks that require coordinating data from a group of sensors, computers, or phones.
A popular example comes from mobile gaming. Hoffman invokes a scenario in which a family is trying to play a game, such as the new Harry Potter game from Niantic, and data about their individual device capabilities could be collected and calculated at the local cell tower to improve gameplay. But dad, who has a new, high-end phone, wouldn’t have an unfair advantage over his kid, who’s playing on an older iPhone 6, because the augmented reality action would be slowed down on the dad’s phone.
Another use case for edge processing might involve multiple drones trying to coordinate deliveries, or cars in traffic trying to communicate between themselves and the roads. I covered these sorts of use cases a few months back when I wrote about Open 19, an open source effort to build hardware for use at the telco edge. At the time, I was skeptical about the demand for these services, but MobiledgeX might have a model that makes it attractive.
The company wants to provide a software platform that lets developers buy access to the telco edge gear, and makes it easy to build applications on top of it. Historically, that has been very difficult. And I’m still not convinced that the use cases exist for something like this, but I am convinced that Hoffman has a ton of credibility in this space. His prior startup, Joyent, created a software platform that serves as an alternative to AWS.
Should Hoffman and MobiledgeX succeed, it would give telcos the chance to offer a compelling platform that becomes the base of a new style of computing. I won’t hold my breath, but I will keep an eye on it.