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5G steals the spotlight at Mobile World Congress while edge computing works dutifully behind the scenes

This article originally appeared in Network Computing, found here.

As Mobile World Congress in Barcelona came to a conclusion, nearly 100,000 attendees witnessed some pretty amazing spectacles and products, almost all tied to 5G in some form or fashion.  

In many ways this event has become the new CES, but with a purpose.

CES always had the “wow factor” products that did amazing things but mostly operated independently of each other. Mobile World Congress, on the other hand, spotlights technology advancements that have the potential to drastically change the way we live, work and play – but are more interconnected.

Attendees saw a surgeon – on stage nearly three miles away – oversee and direct other surgeons at Hospital Clinic Barcelona as they removed a cancerous tumor from a patient's colon. The live feed and interactions between the surgeons and the doctor onstage used 5G technology to direct the operation via a live video link.

Qualcomm touted its advancements to push further into the auto market with 4G and 5G products that enable cars to talk to each other on the road and find their way with multi-frequency global navigation satellite systems as self-driven cars race to reality.

New foldable 5G smartphones were displayed behind “look but don’t touch” glass displays. New LG smartphones enabled attendees to control functions through hand gestures without touching the screen. New Microsoft HoloLens were paired with 5G networks to do some pretty crazy things with holograms, AR/VR and AI.  And visions were shared about how “smart cities” will soon exist where everything is connected.

As revolutionary as all these advancements are, nearly all rely on edge computing to speed delivery and analysis of critical data for these devices and services to make decisions or share insights.

Edge computing places data as close as possible to the network or systems where insights are processed. The quicker the data can be collected from sensors and delivered to the compute function, the faster cars can make decisions about when and where to turn, for example. Edge computing is basically an onsite datacenter that works best in a 5G environment because it enables data to be delivered almost instantaneously.

So as everyone takes in the coolness of all these new 5G devices and services on the MWC floor, they’re possibly unaware of the supporting role of edge computing. From telcos to IoT vendors, to AR/VR and AI — data volume and latency is driving attention to the edge and what can be done there. 5G might be getting all the buzz, but there's apparent demand for lower latency and higher bandwidth.   

Most IT professionals understand the need for edge computing from an application perspective. But few consumers realize the role edge plays in the telco space or advancements like self-driven cars.

The kinds of technologies unveiled at MWC are made through a combination of high-speed data delivery like 5G and edge computing devices that combines data with real-time analytics. Edge computing will continue to flourish as data devices are able to quickly collect and transfer information, whether its tiny sensors, smartphones, smart cities or autonomous vehicles.

Without edge computing, sending data from the collection point back to a central data center hundreds of miles away or in a public cloud will delay the time it takes for systems to make decisions. Edge computing devices bring the compute and storage capabilities to the edge where the action is to collect, process, store and analyze the massive amounts of data.

Today, around 10 percent of enterprise-generated data is created and processed outside a traditional centralized data center or cloud. By 2022, Gartner predicts this figure will reach 75 percent. MarketsandMarkets predicts the edge computing market will grow 35.4 percent a year between 2017 and 2022 when it will hit $6.72 billion.

But as this market grows, so will concerns around data privacy, security and regulations, which the market will surely address.   

Companies like AT&T and Lenovo introduced new edge offerings at the show. What they might have lacked in flair was far outweighed by their substance. AT&T announced it is working with Microsoft on a proof of concept to integrate network edge compute capabilities with its 5G network and Azure cloud services. The resulting solution is expected to enable Microsoft Azure cloud services to connect to more customers and devices across the U.S. through AT&T's nationwide wireless network.

Lenovo Data Center Group (DCG) showed off its edge computing and internet of things (IoT) portfolio including a new small form-factor ThinkServer system that will bring processing and storage capabilities closer to where data is created.

Edge computing might not be foldable. It’s not cool enough to be kept behind a protective glass display. And it doesn't respond to hand gestures or fit over your head. But what it does do is essentially put the power of a datacenter in your back pocket to enable all those other cool things to make the right decision as quickly as possible.