It’s pretty in-fashion these days to talk about datacenter innovation. After all, it’s where the cloud folks are. It’s where a lot of the security focus is. DevOps? Yeah, that’s mostly a datacenter thing in most peoples’ eyes. Microsegmentation? Datacenter. White box? You guessed it — datacenter.
But I think that access is shaping up to be a potentially more interesting part of the network over the next five years. Why?
The Trends You Know
Everyone is familiar with the major trends across the whole of networking. We all know that video consumption is increasing as people convert their second screens to first screens and consume content on demand. And we are all well aware of the looming transition to 5G.
By themselves, these trends alone are enough to warrant an upgrade across the access space. Minimally, there is going to need to be a beefy bandwidth upgrade to accommodate all the video being streamed across all the mobile devices.
This is why the radio access network (RAN) is hot again. As the RAN gets upgraded, everything that supports the RAN is up for refresh as well. So we have a dynamic where assets have been in place for a number of years, and there will be a new refresh cycle. For investments that have to be in operation for awhile to make money, you go years between major innovation cycles. We are entering the next one now. With 5G rollouts anticipated in 2019 (pulled in from a previous 3GPP estimate of 2020), buildout will begin soon.
The Trends You Know But Don’t Equate to Access
Even if nothing else was happening, access would be hot. But the whole IoT thing continues to heat up. If you thought the demands on the network were substantial before, when you connect billions of sensors, those demands only grow.
But IoT and access are not just about bandwidth. We seem destined collectively to rush a bunch of “Smart” everything out into the market without fully baking in security. This means that security is likely going to be a group effort, and containment is going to require enforcement within the access layer. This means that access is going to be more than connectivity — it’s going to have to include a set of security services that depend on streaming telemetry for threat identification and policy and control for enforcement.
And how will all of this be managed? Some of the operational principles made popular in the cloud are going to have to extend to the access layer. Movements like DevOps, typically reserved for datacenter teams, are going to have to evolve to include access solutions. And this will stimulate competition in a way that we have not seen before. New players can emerge to fill the void. And existing dynamics will change as cloud management, DevOps, and OSS/BSS collide.
The Trends You Might Know
Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) has recently gone through a name change. If you have been using MEC to talk to people, just know that it now means Multi-access Edge Computing. The change should tell you something. It’s not just about mobile anymore.
As the world continues its move to cloud, there has been a realization that the cloud might not always be in some centralized datacenter. Colocating compute and storage on devices that sit on premises or in the base station or at the access device allows services to be distributed. It’s not hard to imagine content caching, for instance, based on subscriber consumption patterns. Or latency-sensitive applications running on the premises rather than in some distant datacenter.
Ideally, if there are multiple deployment options for a particular service, the physics and economics can dictate whether that service resides in the cloud or in the access. As the access gets upgraded, this is an important consideration, because it might not only be about price and reliability anymore.
The Trends You Don’t Know
And then there are the trends most people don’t really know about. For instance, did you know that farming is going through a bit of a renaissance when it comes to machine learning and automation?
There are companies that are combining streaming video with farm machines. Imagine a machine with a camera that looks at each individual plant and assesses on the fly whether it needs water or not. Or pesticide delivery systems that make plant-by-plant decisions rather than just dusting an entire field.
Chances are that if you aren’t really part of that world, you didn’t realize how high tech agriculture has become (and how much further it will go).
But this advancement comes with requirements. If the farm is going to be reliant on data, and data is reliant on connectivity, then rural access is going to be important again. Most people probably missed Microsoft’s recent announcement that they were going to help drive broadband to millions of rural US users. This isn’t pure altruism on Microsoft’s part. They see a change in consumption in an area that suddenly finds itself far under-served. This is a commercial opportunity.
The Bottom Line
Access is hot again. While this might seem like a service provider statement, it’s actually not. This will ultimately be about more than just the providers. As a new class of services becomes available, enterprises will need to include this thinking in their managed service provider and even customer premises equipment decisions. It won’t be just about cost and connectivity. What applications will need to run? Are those applications best served from the cloud or the edge? How will operational systems need to evolve to support this? What are the security implications of decisions around IoT?
There is a lot to think about outside the datacenter.