These days it seems nearly every major tech company is working on offerings for 5G infrastructure and the elusive “edge.” While it may be easy to write these efforts off as opportunistic copycats, the simple truth is that the concept of distributed computing across a fast, low-latency, ubiquitous network is exactly what’s needed to drive major new innovations across multiple industries. Plus, the opportunity is big enough and the story complex enough that there are multiple vectors for different companies to pursue in this burgeoning new field.
IBM’s latest entries into the 5G and edge battlegrounds were introduced at its Think 2020 virtual event this week. They’re intriguing on many levels, not least of which is that they are some of the most compelling examples to date of how IBM has started to leverage the Red Hat software assets it acquired last year.
One of the most important, yet least understood, aspects of the transition to 5G is the move from a closed, proprietary hardware-based core network to an open, software-defined approach. Though most of the early attention has been on new radio standards and devices, it’s these underlying network architecture changes that are going to give 5G its most potent impact over time. It turns out that the requirements needed to affect these changes are ideally suited to the open source-driven hybrid cloud-type architectures that Red Hat has made available for years via its OpenShift platform.
As a result, IBM’s newest offerings lean heavily on the capabilities of OpenShift, while still incorporating the software and services abilities upon which IBM has traditionally built its business and reputation. In other words, it’s a great combination of the two previously separate companies’ offerings into a coherent mix of a unified range of products and services.
Specifically, IBM’s Telco Network Cloud Manager builds on OpenShift (which in turn can leverage the carrier-strength iterations of Red Hat Enterprise Linux, or RHEL) to give network carriers and other service providers the software tools they need to manage, automate, and orchestrate virtual network functions (VNFs). These VNFs, and related CNFs (container network functions) are at the heart of the software-defined networking capabilities of 5G.
Analogous to how enterprise computing migrated to cloud computing models and cloud-native, containerized software, 5G networks have begun the transition to open-source software running on commoditized hardware in order to improve the speed and scale at which they operate. VNFs and their peers are the functional equivalents of containerized, cloud-native applications in this analogy, and they give service providers the flexibility and agility needed to bring on new services rapidly, adjust automatically to network environmental changes, and much more. As a result, having a unified view into deploying, managing, and orchestrating these functions is essential for carriers to modernize their networks, and it’s exactly what the new IBM/Red Hat combined offering for telcos provides. An additional benefit from the IBM side of the house is the incorporation of its AIOps (Artificial Intelligence for IT Operations), which can leverage the company’s AI technologies to help further optimize the operation and reduce anomalies (and costs) when running these sophisticated services.
One of the most important types of workloads that these new 5G networks can support (and services that modernized telcos can provide) are tied to another megatrend now impacting industries of all stripes: edge computing. Though there are many different definitions for what “the edge” is and what it specifically incorporates, there is a general recognition that it includes the huge number of intelligent devices that integrate some type of network connectivity. More importantly, the increase in edge-related efforts is being driven by the explosion of data created by these connected devices and the interest in leveraging the distributed computing that these networked devices enable.
As exciting as that seems, however, growth in edge computing has led to the practical challenge of keeping those edge devices up-to-date with the latest applications and managing them securely. To address that need, IBM also unveiled the latest version (4.1) of its Edge Application Manager, a hybrid cloud-based tool that also works on top of Red Hat’s OpenShift v4.3. In addition to supporting the autonomous management and distribution of applications, it integrates support for security of edge clusters and the ability to do hardware root-of-trust secure device onboarding through a partnership with Intel.
In addition to these management capabilities, IBM also unveiled a series of AI-powered edge applications designed for manufacturing sites. Leveraging a variety of different types of sensor inputs from edge environments, these applications offer the ability to do everything from improve the yield and quality on production lines to ensure employee safety monitoring in the COVID-19 era.
Not surprisingly, many of the deployments for these new types of technologies can be complex, so IBM has also put together a new set of services-focused offerings that are optimized for these 5G and edge-based applications, as well as new teams of consultants that are specially trained to help with this kind of work. The company has also put together two new ecosystems of partners, including hardware and software vendors and system integrators, for both the telco network cloud and edge worlds respectively.
For some organizations and some industries, the move to 5G and efforts at distributed computing via the edge may prove to be separate initiatives, so it’s useful for vendors like IBM to create offerings that can serve one or the other. However, for others, these efforts will likely be linked, hence the importance of ensuring a unified range of products and services that can be used together. In fact, for telco carriers and service providers, the ability to leverage new VNF-powered 5G services that allow them to enable edge-computing initiatives at large enterprises could prove to be a very large, very important new source of income. Regardless, the move to 5G networks and the increase in edge computing initiatives are key trends for this new decade and provide strong examples as to how—even 109 years later—IBM continues to reinvent itself for the modern world.