MEC: The Glue That Will Hold the IoT Together

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The IoT is driving demand for new forms of network connectivity on the edge, which naturally spurs the need for new standards.

It appears that one of the more crucial aspects of this new edge architecture is already making its way into commercial releases, despite the fact that its emergence as an actual standard is still some years away. Multi-access Edge Computing (MEC) is a network architecture that allows edge devices to relay information across real-time, high-bandwidth wired or wireless infrastructure. In essence, it enables the edge to support a cloud-based service environment that incorporates multiple disciplines such as network planning, engineering, deployment and operations.

According to research firm Mind Commerce, MEC is nothing less than a new “communications-computation paradigm” that blurs the lines between communications service providers (CSPs) and companies that provide data, data center and cloud services. In fact, the technology is expected to form the basis for many of the applications that will define the digital economy, including augmented reality, location-based services, vehicle-to-vehicle communications and mobile commerce. At the same time, it is expected to make content delivery networks (CDNs) 40 percent more efficient and improve CSP profit margins by 25 percent.

Expect MEC to be as disruptive as 5G, SDN or NFV, says iGR Research’s Iain Gillot. In an interview with SDxCentral, Gillot likened MEC to the transition from Class 5 switches to the evolved packet core. He added that it is a crucial step in putting content and applications on the edge where they can provide the highest level of service to users while lowering operational costs for providers. Without an industry standard, however, it is hard to see how a thriving, interoperable edge can evolve. And at the moment, the standardization efforts of the European Telecommunications Standards Institute (ETSI) and other groups are still works in progress.

This leaves top providers and system vendors on their own to establish a working MEC ecosystem. Nokia and Amazon recently teamed up on a broad strategy to develop 5G and IoT architectures incorporating MEC, SD-WAN and a range of other technologies. The effort builds on projects like Amazon’s Greengrass device-level application extension platform, plus Nokia’s Impact IoT platform, Nuage SD-WAN architecture and hybrid cloud environment. The idea is to provide tighter integration between networking and IT infrastructure so that services like application migration and data connectivity can flow from enterprise to cloud to edge with relative ease. Nokia’s Virtualized MEC (vMEC) platform offers a software-only solution that allows commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) servers to quickly integrate into distributed IT infrastructure.

One spec of good news on the MEC standardization scene is the fact that ETSI recently signed a memorandum of understanding with the OpenFog Consortium that might produce a friendly environment for fog-enabled MEC applications. Although not in direct competition with one another – OpenFog is more concerned with developing intelligence on the edge – close cooperation between these two efforts reduces the chance of conflicting or redundant standards, streamlining both edge infrastructure and deployment processes. An initial goal is to incorporate MEC APIs into the OpenFog Reference Architecture to optimize application consumption and management strategies.

It is difficult to see how the IoT can evolve from today’s rudimentary M2M architectures to the high-speed, streamlined and largely automated environment that leading proponents envision. With the edge responsible for the heavy lifting to support the enormous data volumes the IoT is expected to generate, it will need a commonly accepted mechanism to distribute workloads quickly and efficiently across micro centers and even regional data hubs.

MEC will probably not be the final step in the evolution of the IoT edge, but it will go a long way toward supporting the key applications that are expected to drive the digital economy in the next decade.

Arthur Cole is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering enterprise IT, telecommunications and other high-tech industries.

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