If I’m honest, Mobile Edge Computing has seemed to me up to now to be a somewhat academic exercise. But this month sees a full commercial launch by Vodafone Netherlands of a comprehensive and tightly integrated solution. I spoke with NEC’s Yogarajah Gopikrishna, Head of Engineering and Strategy at NEC Europe, who developed and integrated the system based on SpiderCloud E-RAN small cells and their Service Node MEC server.
What’s the scope of the solution?
Vodafone have really listened to their customers and end users to seek out how they can provide greater value and a wider range of services. They’ve expanded from standard cellular connectivity to offer a comprehensive, customised and highly integrated IT solution.
Vodafone have launched this branded as SignaalPlus Enterprise Connect, combining in-building small cells seamlessly connected to the Enterprise own Unified Communications and local information systems onsite. Healthcare, Manufacturing and Hospitality are typical examples of target market segments.
“Our first joint deployment is for healthcare where SpiderCloud 3G/4G E-RAN will be used throughout the site to deliver excellent onsite wireless service. Additionally the onsite Service Node acts as a Mobile Edge Computing server, supporting several specific applications directly related to the business.
“These include presence (i.e. knowing which staff are onsite at any time), alarm handling and critical communication workflow. For example, when a patient presses a button by their bedside, staff are informed to respond. An escalation process ensures that alternative staff are alerted if no-one is immediately available.
“There are two sets of software components, some provided directly by NEC and some through partner applications. NEC developed the “glue” to link everything together and project managed the overall solution development and delivery. NEC also conducts all the site design for the SpiderCloud installation.”
Why use a local onsite MEC server rather than running everything in the Cloud?
“One might think a pure Cloud solution would also work and would seem to be the most popular current approach. But in a hospital or manufacturing system, we often find communications are closed tied in with IT systems. These need very tight integration onsite sharing local data and thus require an edge or hybrid solution.
“NEC has developed software and hardware interfaces to process these messages and escalate them into appropriate alarms and workflows.
“A second important factor is local survivability. In case of any outage of the external backhaul/internet broadband connection, our solution enables critical onsite infrastructure to continue to function. It’s a key attraction to mission critical organisations that their business can continue in the face of such outages, and particularly important for healthcare, manufacturing and other 24/7 business operations.”
Do these systems require specific dedicated terminals?
“This really depends on the vertical. Some industrial applications have specially hardened devices (e.g. intrinsically safe, waterproof etc.) and ordinary consumer devices wouldn’t be appropriate. Some want to use pre-authorised and pre-provisioned devices to ensure consistency and security. Others may want to benefit from the low cost of standard consumer smartphones and tablets. There may even be a mix of the above with different devices for different members of staff.
“The solution can assign and prioritise user groups to ensure that critical staff are always connected, regardless of which type of device they use.”
Is there any preference for 3G or LTE?
“We deploy a full 3G/4G multimode solution which provides full compatibility with today’s smartphones. We see many of the initial use cases being implemented over 3G mainly driven by the cost of devices, modules and compatibility with legacy services. We expect LTE services to catch-up quickly.
“In the past, such systems might have used DECT or private GSM but I think increasing use of data is becoming relevant and driving a path towards consolidation using 3G/4G technology. Using portable devices to lookup and share telemetry data or patient records provides benefits in both cost savings and workflow efficiencies when integrated into a single device. These new solutions also increase security and improve quality.”
Sharing the wider knowledge across the industry
“We work closely along with Spidercloud and our partners in the Small Cell Forum to ensure we achieve interoperability, security and implement best practice, sharing our experience with others across the industry. We’ve been working with Small Cells for many years and believe this latest commercial launch to be a major milestone in the evolution of Enterprise Small Cell deployment.”