This isn’t a totally new concept, of course. Integrating connectivity, processing and storage resources and placing them close to the user has happened in 4G – albeit mainly to make mobile video delivery more efficient. But in many industrial and IoT applications, it is not merely efficient to push resources to the network edge. It is – or will be – essential.
This is true of applications that require very low latency and cannot afford to wait for data and signals to be sent to a distant switch or cloud. It’s also true of those applications that involve huge numbers of devices, all transmitting messages and data. These enormous volumes of information would put excessive strain on the backhaul link if every message were sent to a centralised location.
When these industrial, low-latency applications are also highly mobile, it is even more important that communication links are very short and fast. Some examples of situations where this requirement particularly applies include cars (self-driving or not), high-speed trains or city vehicles talking to roadside and trackside infrastructure. Infrastructure that can communicate with a moving vehicle or train could support many on-board services, including safety-critical ones, and even allow city or transport operators to build their own localised networks before 5G has been deployed.
There have been significant contributions from the UK to projects that attempt to make these concepts a reality. Take UK start-ups like Quortus, which “enables flexible, agile mobile communications networks that provide a foundation for innovative services tailored to a diverse range of end customers” and Virtuosys, whose mission, it says, is “to bring the power of the cloud closer to the edge than ever before”. Both have helped define and test how edge compute platforms work alongside 5G and virtualised networks to support new use cases.
For instance, Angel Trains, a railway rolling stock leasing company, recently demonstrated edge computing over a wireless mesh network using the Edge Application Platform from Virtuosys. Angel owns about one-third of the UK’s railway rolling stock and its pilot is being funded by the Department for Transport (DfT).
The Virtuosys approach is to install a Linux-based mobile edge server supporting multiple connectivity options as well as management and authentication software that can be run in public or private cloud environments. Network resources are distributed flexibly according to requirements and traffic patterns, across the mesh, and far smaller amounts of traffic need to reach the main mobile network and core, improving performance. Applications will include monitoring and preventative maintenance for trains and other equipment as well as on-board services for passengers, staff and freight customers.
The pilot is running until October 2018 and then Angel Trains will hope to roll it out in earnest.