AT&T is reinventing the cloud to boost the potential of self-driving cars, augmented and virtual reality.
They are embracing a model called edge computing (EC) to move the data crunching from the device to the cloud. Driving it will be single-digit millisecond latency that only tomorrow’s 5G can deliver. And powering it all will be a software-defined network.
The challenge: Next-gen applications like autonomous cars and augmented reality/virtual reality (AR/VR) will demand massive amounts of near-real time computation.
For example, according to some third-party estimates, self-driving cars will generate as much as 3.6 terabytes of data per hour from the clusters of cameras and other sensors. Some functions like braking, turning and acceleration will likely always be managed by the computer systems in the cars themselves.
The industry is moving to a model where those applications will come through your smartphone. But creating entirely virtual worlds or overlaying digital images and graphics on top of the real world in a convincing way also requires a lot of processing power. Even when phones can deliver that horsepower, the tradeoff is extremely short battery life.
Edge computing addresses those obstacles by moving the computation into the cloud in a way that feels seamless.
“Edge computing fulfills the promise of the cloud to transcend the physical constraints of our mobile devices,” said Andre Fuetsch, president of AT&T Labs and chief technology officer. “The capabilities of tomorrow’s 5G are the missing link that will make edge computing possible. And few companies have the sheer number of physical locations that AT&T has that are needed to solve the latency dilemma.”
The faster speeds and lower latency expected with 5G will be key elements to enabling edge computing. But latency is also determined by the physical distance between a mobile device and its network resources.
To run a VR experience in the cloud and the data center powering that experience is hundreds of miles away. Every time driver turn his head, there’s a good chance there will be a noticeable delay. This lag is unavoidable because of the time it takes the data to cross large physical distances.
Instead of sending commands hundreds of miles to a handful of data centers scattered around the country, they will send them to the tens of thousands of central offices, macro towers, and small cells usually never farther than a few miles from the customers.
If the data centers are the “core” of the cloud, these towers, central offices, and small cells are at the “edge” of the cloud. Intelligence is no longer confined to the core.
They will enable those facilities with high-end graphics processing chips and other general purpose computers. AT&T will coordinate and manage those systems with their virtualized and software-defined network.
AT&T will embed these systems in everyday items like traffic lights and other infrastructure. That could enable self-driving cars to talk to their surroundings or alert fire and medical services almost instantly when there’s a problem.
Edge computing could also spark the next generation of robotic manufacturing. The 5G service on the horizon could play a vital role in what’s called “Industry 4.0 – Digital Manufacturing”. The anticipated low-latency wireless connections could eliminate the traditional wired connections to robotic assemblers.
They are already deploying EC-capable services to the enterprise customers through AT&T FlexWareSM service. Customers can currently manage powerful network services through a standard tablet device. Expected to see more applications for EC in areas like public safety that will be enabled by the FirstNet wireless broadband network.