AT&T widens edge computing effort with Microsoft Azure

BARCELONA, Spain—AT&T today announced a pilot of network edge compute (NEC) capabilities on its 5G network with Microsoft Azure. Described as the second variant of its edge computing effort with lower latency, AT&T is working with Vorpal, a drone detection and geolocation tracking company, to run its application on Azure cloud services in the carrier’s testing facility in Plano, Texas.

“We are at the cusp of the next generation of mobility,” Thaddeus Arroyo, CEO of AT&T Business, said during a press gathering. The continued ascent of software-defined networks and 5G deployments is shifting connectivity in myriad ways that will begin in the enterprise and expand further into the marketplace, he said.

NEC effectively accomplishes the same outcomes as multi-access edge computing, which AT&T is also working on, but for use cases that require extraordinarily low latency, according to AT&T Business CMO Mo Katibeh. "The current variant of the cloud is too far away, from a latency perspective,” he said. The carrier’s goal is to deliver high throughput via 5G and latency in a range of 10 to 20 milliseconds.

The project with Vorpal and Microsoft is a proof of concept that the carrier plans to expand upon later this year. The operator also reiterated its agnostic approach to cloud providers—it works with 20 providers today—and said it has no intention of competing with cloud providers for business services they provide today.

AT&T will own the lower layer of its edge computing platform, but the upper layers and development environments will be managed by cloud providers, said Andre Fuetsch, AT&T’s CTO and president of AT&T Labs. “The network is the new cloud. It’s a far more distributed cloud,” he said.

“We want developers to have more choice in where they need to get their work done,” Fuetsch said. With cloud computing capabilities already available via on-premise solutions or a data center thousands of miles away, bringing the network in play gives developers something in the middle, he added.

“This just brings it now further into our network,” Arroyo said. "We see a lot of applications that aren't possible now and what you can solve when you bring compute closer."

AT&T isn’t announcing expansion plans for NEC yet, but Katibeh said the carrier has about 5,000 locations where it could deploy an NEC environment and it will determine how many of those to use at a later date.