It’s always a bit worrisome when you start to see combinations of buzzwords or cryptic acronyms tossed together to describe the latest tech advancement. After all, it’s often hard enough just to keep one or two of them straight. But in the case of Microsoft’s new Azure Edge Zones, the buzzword bingo is actually justified. In fact, it’s arguably the reason why this development—and what it represents—has the opportunity to be so important and so impactful over the long haul.
What we’re talking about is leveraging container-based, cloud-native software applications running on a variety of edge-based computing devices that can be physically located in the network infrastructure used to broadcast 5G wireless service. Heck, some of them might even leverage specialized accelerator chips to run AI-based applications in an effort to reduce network latency times to a few milliseconds or less. In short, it’s combining virtually all of the most important tech industry developments of the last few years (and their associated buzzwords) into a single application.
As crazy as that sounds, however, there is actually some interesting logic to it. First, we know that companies have begun to embrace software modernization efforts like containers, Kubernetes-based orchestration and more as part of their digital transformation endeavors. Now that the full impact of the COVID-19 pandemic has started to settle in, there’s little doubt that many of these projects are going to be reprioritized to the highest level possible. This work and these applications are no longer just nice to have, they are absolute must-haves as companies recognize that they have to put virtually all of their applications into the cloud as quickly as possible.
In addition, while cloud computing overall and platforms like Azure, AWS, Google Cloud and others have proven their worth as flexible computing resources, they have been structured more as a centralized tool. Edge computing—where the computing resources are significantly more geographically dispersed and much more heterogeneous—brings the necessary hardware platforms closer to end users, thereby increasing the speed at which these modernized applications can be delivered. Putting Azure on the edge means extending the cloud-native platform that these modern software developers have become accustomed to, out to these often power- or physically size-constrained devices—many of which could be running on Arm-based CPUs or other less-traditional cloud computing silicon. In other words, offerings like Azure Edge Zones allow developers to use the tools they’ve come to know, as well as the rapid iteration DevOps model for building these apps (short for software Development and information technology Operations—a method of creating and releasing new versions of software more quickly). Best of all, it allows them to do all of this and yet be assured that it will work regardless of the underlying hardware.
Finally, by co-locating these computing resources directly at network connection points for mobile and other computing devices, developers can assure the best possible response times and reduce the latency for these applications. As I’ve written about before, it turns out 5G latency isn’t reaching down to the kinds of single millisecond response times that we were originally promised (see “5G Latency Improvements Are Still Lagging“). The crux of the problem is that more work has to be done on the core network, which is where the data goes after it passes over the air and into the cell tower.
Putting computing resources in (or very near) those locations can save many tens of milliseconds in the total response time for applications that run on the edge. While that kind of time savings certainly isn’t critical for all types of applications, it can make a difference for IoT applications that are being fed real-time sensor data and other time-sensitive applications. Equally importantly, by splitting up the computing workloads and responding to requests immediately, the traffic on the core network can be reduced, thereby improving the throughput of the network overall.
Of course, not all Azure Edge Zone applications will be co-located with telco partners and even those that are housed with telcos will likely be limited in the near future. Microsoft and its major competitors have already talked about pushing their cloud platforms into many other environments—not the least of which is onsite or co-located private cloud extensions—and I suspect we will be seeing a lot of effort to make these “close to the edge” applications come to life very soon.
Finally, it’s important to point out that while Microsoft’s Azure Edge Zone offerings are to be applauded, there is no question that we will see (and, in fact, have started to see) similar efforts from its cloud-based competitors. The concept of cloud-native apps and platforms running on diverse edge computing hardware platforms across a variety of different network connection points is unquestionably going to be one of the most important tech developments to watch for the next decade. In fact, my guess is it will lead to or be directly tied to whatever applications become the defining ones for 5G overall (as things like Netflix, Uber/Lyft, etc. were for 4G).
At the same time, as a reminder, we are still in very early days of 5G and its applications. The fact that, for example, a company can only currently work with a single cloud provider on a single wireless network clearly isn’t feasible long term. (In the US, for example, Microsoft’s Azure offerings for the edge currently only work with AT&T and similar situations exist in other regions.) Enterprises need to have the flexibility to use their cloud platform of choice with their carrier of choice at the very least before these kinds of options can move to the mainstream.
Nevertheless, the process has started, and it’s exciting to think about the opportunities that these new types of widely distributed, heterogenous computing-focused and modern software-based efforts can enable. When we look back 10 years from now on the impact that 5G has had, I’m convinced that technologies and products like these will be at the heart of it.
Disclosure: TECHnalysis Research is a tech industry market research and consulting firm and, like all companies in that field, works with many technology vendors as clients, some of whom may be listed in this article.