What is MEC?

The Radio Access Network is only one of multiple pieces that will enable 5G. Virtualization is another, as is multi-access edge computing: MEC.

MEC is entwined with 5G, but it’s not exclusive to 5G. MEC can be implemented in LTE networks as well, and industry players have been exploring how MEC can be used in a number of contexts to support the internet of things and enterprise applications, and how their networks need to evolve to support MEC.

Multi-access edge computing concepts have picked up a variety of names as they have begun to emerge: edge cloud; fog computing; mobile edge computing. So what is MEC? MEC essentially comes down to this: placing compute and storage resources closer to the consumer or enterprise end user. As ETSI describes it, MEC is “an evolution of cloud computing [that]brings application hosting from centralized data centers down to the network edge, closer to consumers and the data generated by applications.” MEC aims to improve content delivery and application user experience by cutting out the often-long and imperfect network path between the end user’s device and the location where the data they are accessing is hosted, in order to lower latency, increase reliability and improve overall network efficiency.

MEC comes into play in a number of industry efforts, from ETSI’s MEC Industry Standards Group; to the Central Office Re-architected as a Data Center, or CORD, initiative, which is supported by operators including AT&T, Verizon, China Unicom, NTT Communications and SK Telecom; and the O-RAN Alliance, formed earlier this year by the union of the xRAN and C-RAN alliances, which focuses on the standardization and architectural definitions for an open-source, cloud-native Radio Access Network utilizing edge computing.

“There’s a lot of work going on in edge,” said Iain Gillott, president of analyst firm iGR. “It doesn’t get the attention that 5G does, because 5G kind of sucks all the oxygen out of the room. But people have been working diligently on it.”

MEC is seen, on one hand, as a way for mobile network operators to improve the operations of their own networks in terms of latency, reliability and efficiency.

But according to Kishan Mangat, VP/GM of service provider mobility at Cisco, the more significant driver for edge computing, particularly when it comes to 5G, is the opportunity for network operators to create a more seamless service creation environment.

“The way that mobile networks are built today is very much a monolithic, centralized, hub-and-spoke, hardware-based network which is quite inflexible, especially as you look at segmenting or slicing the network,” Mangat said. “Although a lot of the talk about 5G has been about a new radio for 5G, we actually think it’s more about the architecture, and driving that transition from hardware to software, toward programmability — and really, a big shift in the architecture in terms of centralized to more distributed.”

MEC gives network operators the chance to become cloud providers, taking a page from the success of companies like AWS and Google and leveraging their networks in a new way. Distributed sites, from central offices to C-RAN aggregation points to cell towers themselves, become potential locations for compute, storage and analytics resources as part of a virtualized, automated, flexible service environment that lets third parties take advantage of geographic closeness to the user — and, when 5G enters the picture, to a wireless network environment with unprecedented speed, capacity and ultra-low latency on which to create.

By becoming edge cloud providers, network operators are hoping to leverage their wireless and wired infrastructure to shift their relationships with application developers and the users who consume those services, and ideally, become more like the agile, cloud-providing tech companies that have driven so much innovation and revenue that operators have struggled to monetize.

In particular, MEC is seen as key to massive IoT deployments and as crucial for analyzing large amounts of data coming from increasingly connected things.

Operators are testing MEC in a variety of ways. Read about eight edge computing trials and projects here, and four market predictions for edge computing here. 

For more information on multi-access edge computing? Download the free editorial special report from RCR Wireless News, and check out our MEC webinar. 

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