Cloud computing has become part of our everyday life on the Internet. Streaming content is becoming ever more popular not just in streaming applications like You Tube and Spotify but also social media applications such as Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Cloud computing allows the heavy lifting to be performed by powerful servers in the cloud and removes this load from our smart devices, which has benefits for processing power, battery life and storage. However, streaming everything from a remote data centre puts a huge strain on network infrastructure and optimising its use is a real headache. As I discussed in my article last month (5G – Intelligent Orchestration) 5G will go a long way to optimising the network through orchestrating network functions using SDN and NFV but, still the content comes from the same remote servers. Enter Mobile Edge Computing.

Mobile Edge Computing (MEC) or to give its new name Multi-access Edge Computing will help address this issue by allowing cloud computing to be performed at the network edge on servers that form part of the radio area network (RAN) or base station. In other words, the content will be served nearer to where it’s actually being consumed, improving Quality of Experience (QoE) and reducing overall network loading and latency. Latency is the time it takes to get from a smart device to the server and back so reducing it will be crucial to delivering the responsiveness needed in virtual (VR) and augmented reality (AR) applications. 5G’s intelligent orchestration again will be instrumental here, making decisions about the most efficient place to host content, either remotely or at the network edge.

This capability will be critical in the future as Cisco forecasts that there will be close to 12 billion smart devices by 2021 and they will globally consume a massive 49 Exabytes (a million, million, million bytes) of data a month. Added to this explosion in traditional markets are the billions of sensors and devices that the Internet of Things (IoT) will create. 5G networks will then need to develop and evolve to efficiently cope with these demands and that means MEC will be a key technology for the future.

But how will MEC affect us as users?

Well firstly, as I already said, the content is nearer to the point of consumption but also the RAN knows the exact position of each smart device and the prevailing radio conditions and can use this information to effectively optimise the content. That adds up to a great user experience delivering streamed content that is fast to start and provides high-quality video without stalling and buffering. As VR and AR become more commonplace content needs to be responsive to create a realistic experience. Any lag in reacting to your movements in VR is very disconcerting and as you point your phone at a scene the augmented information needs to appear instantly to be effective. Any delay here is very detrimental to the user’s experience and will hinder adoption. In IoT as well MEC can help. Many of these devices have little or no processing embedded and so are reliant on cloud computing for processing and management. Having that computing close to the device will improve reliability and efficiency and allow them to continue to operate even under wider network outage scenarios.

Sounds great, right? Well yes, but it’s important to realise that the future evolution of 5G will come from software rather than physical infrastructure. As cloud computing develops it will make possible capabilities that are just fantasy today. This then is where MEC sits today. It promises much and will be an essential part of 5G’s evolution in the future but right now it’s at the very beginning.