What is MEC?
Multi-Access Edge Computing (MEC) is a network architecture that involves deploying application servers at the edge of the 5G mobile network co-located with the Radio Access Network (RAN) elements. These edge application servers provide virtualized compute, storage, memory, and network resources to application software that can run closer to the users which have a variety of benefits. They range from low-latency response to lower network congestion backhauling traffic to a centralized application server location.
These MEC servers are part of a “distributed edge micro-data center” concept where applications developed by the mobile operator or third-parties can be packaged and run as VM images with a business model similar to the popular cloud services available today from Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, and others. MEC drives an entirely new business model and revenue streams for mobile operators.
MEC Reference Architecture, Use Cases
5G represents the convergence of IT systems architecture with telecommunications network architecture. If you know enterprise virtualization, you’ll find the MEC reference architecture familiar.
FIGURE 1. MEC Reference Architecture
The use cases are varied and far-reaching. Two familiar, but less exciting applications involve data caching and local content distribution. Caching is done today using special connections with cache-specific servers to reduce delivery latency and capacity issues involved with many users making requests of a popular service host on the internet. Utilizing MEC can lower server deployment expense and also achieve finer grain, more optimized caching and distribution.
Some of the more glamorous applications involve enhanced location services, augmented reality, and video analytics.
Another feature of the MEC involves low latency applications. The most common one is autonomous driving. For this application, it’s critical that things like object detection, analysis, and anti-crash measure calculations be performed with low latencies that cloud computation cannot guarantee. MEC is the ideal place to provide the intelligence for things like autonomous and assisted driving.
Since MEC is also in a mobile network, there are of course analytics, monitoring, and maintenance of the 5G network that can take advantage of MEC. Having distributed MEC applications monitor and track key performance indicators on network use, bandwidth, user scaling over time, and preventative maintenance of the RAN provide valuable insights for network planning and reliability for mobile operators.
MEC Standards and Governance
ETSI has an Industry Specification Group (ISP) focused on standards around MEC. This is a fairly recent group, having been formed only a few years ago, but they have been productive. The reference architecture in figure 1 comes from ETSI and there are already published standards paving the way to an open, interoperable, and secure MEC environment. A few of the notable ones are:
- ETSI GS MEC 012 (2019-12) – MEC Radio Network Information API. This standard is an example of APIs to support network monitoring.
- ETSI GS MEC 010-2 (2019-11) – Application lifecycle, rules, and requirements management. This provides the foundation for application development for the MEC environment.
- ETSI GS MEC 013 (2019-09) – Location API. Application interface for providing various location services for 5G.
- ETSI GS MEC 016 (2019-04) – UE applications interface. Standardized interface for UE applications to communicate with MEC applications.
ETSI has also been hosting various hackathons and MEC proofs of concept forums that allow vendors to build prototypes, try out new concepts and use cases, and test interoperability.
Ther MEC Proof of Concept (POC) projects serve a valuable purpose in bringing standards to life. There are currently 13 POCs going on involving video applications, enterprise services, healthcare, smart roads, over-the-top (OTT) communications services, and communication traffic management.
While standards organizations like ETSI are making good progress toward an open, interoperable MEC environment, there are still many business and technical challenges to overcome.
Technical challenges involving the deployment and operation of these distributed micro data centers is daunting. Mobile operators are not familiar with enterprise data center operations and even when they acquire the expertise, operation and maintenance of these micro data centers have very distinct and unique challenges that do not encumber their enterprise data center predecessors:
- The MEC may live on a roof, telephone pole, or stop light. This requires environmentally hardened systems.
- The servers are widely geographically distributed. Servicing and platform software updates must scale and cannot bring down the network if a network-wide platform software update is occurring.
- Each MEC does not have unlimited compute, memory, and storage resources. Applications must be structured in a way to ensure they do not fail in ways relating to unavailability of resources.
- MEC is loosely coupled with network slicing. Standards are still evolving so customized development is being done which risks interoperability down the road.
Business challenges may be even more daunting:
- Capital expense: The mobile RAN consists of many nodes and deploying a distributed MEC takes significant capital expense.
- Operational expense: Additional power requirements to deploy MEC is a huge concern for operators. Operational maintenance is also a concern.
- New skill sets: Mobile operators are less familiar with enterprise/IT environment operation and maintenance. This requires additional expertise and the ability to innovate new solutions to operate and maintain these new, unique MEC environments.
- Return on investment for operators and third party users of the MEC. This might the biggest challenge. There is a very significant capital and operational expense involved with MEC deployment and operation. Obviously the operators must monetize this successfully. But if the initial rates for application developers or tenants of the MEC is too expensive, it threatens to end the initiative before critical mass is gathered to scale it to cost-effectiveness.
MEC is the crown jewel of the 5G network topology crown. The incentives are real and new business models and revenue streams are a huge driver. Standardization of MEC is helping bring the technical aspects along to provide an open, interoperable, and secure environment. But many challenges still exist on the technical and business fronts before critical mass is reached. Even so, widespread MEC seems inevitable – this is not an “if” question, but a “when” question.
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