Ubiquisys has been promoting a unique feature in their small cells, which they call EdgeCloud technology. They have worked with Intel to incorporate a comms-tuned computing platform based on Intel® architecture into their public access metrocells, with copious amounts of RAM and flash memory. The resulting device is an interesting hybrid combination of a small cell and a cloud server, which both Ubiquisys and Intel call a smart cell. We asked Keith Day, Marketing VP, to explain what it does and what benefits he sees for network operators who adopt it.
It all started 2 years ago
Intel and Ubiquisys had been discussing their shared vision of what a small cell might look like in the future. They thought that adding more powerful application processing and memory could move more functionality to the edge of the network. Their main focus was for public access metrocells (the sort of thing you might find in a coffee shop or other public area), rather than closed access femtocells found in a domestic or SOHO situation.
This strategic collaboration was made public in May 2011, and the first prototype was demonstrated in September at the Intel Developer Forum in San Francisco. Last month at Mobile World Congress the Ubiquisys demo included several 3rd party applications that ran on 3G/WiFi variants, and Intel ran similar demonstrations at this week's Small Cells Asia event in Taiwan.
The hardware platform
Ubiquisys smart cells are based on the Broadcom chipset for 3G, and TI for LTE/4G. The computing platform can augment either 3G or LTE (or both) and consists of:
- An Intel processor from either the ATOM or CORE range boosted by specific hardware accelerators. The higher powered CORE CPU uses the Gladden embedded variant, which is similar in processing power to a dual-core Core-i5 you might find in your laptop. The difference being that instead of driving intensive graphics output, it's oriented as a real-time communications stream processor. A typical dual-core variant It can handle around 40Gbit/s of data processing, such as video rate adaptation, in real time.
- 8 Gbytes of RAM (typical)
- 80 Gbytes of Flash memory (typical SSD capacity)
The power consumption of this combination doesn't significantly add to the total energy requirements of a metrocell.
What are the benefits?
Smart cells can achieve very high throughput on the radio interface because they are close to the end user device and often aren't so heavily congested. However, the backhaul transmission may suffer from bottlenecks that affect system throughput. Locating more intelligence, caching and processing at the edge of the network can significantly improve the end user experience.
Keith expounded three specific use cases identified so far:
There can be a viral effect of several people in the same place all doing the same thing. It could be watching the same video clip from YouTube, interacting through the same multiplay game, accessing sports replays or just accessing the same information from a specific website.
By storing and serving this content locally from the smart cell, it reduces the backhaul transmission capacity required and dramatically shortens the response time for the end user. Video clips start instantly and popular websites appear much more quickly.
Ubiquisys' application partners have seen some good statistics relating to Wi-Fi usage on trains, and there is on-going research to establish usage patterns in a range of hotspot environments.
The smart cell is a platform that mobile operators can populate with applications and virtual machines from a wide variety of categories and from multiple vendors. Broadcasters, advertisers and CDN providers all have an interest in serving rich data more quickly and more reliably to mobile users.
Perhaps this may generate new and innovative business models in the future.
2) Data Stream Processing
With the ability to perform Deep Packet Inspection in real time on the data streams, various applications normally associated with core networks could be easily offloaded to the smart cell. Examples demonstrated include Virus Scanning, URL filtering. Ubiquisys application partner Edge Datacoms demonstrated McAfee threat management running inline at MWC.
Video rate adaption is also possible, which could be used to step down the data rate in cases of congestion.
One application partner, Intrinsyc, has also demonstrated a "Wi-Fi Wakeup" application which can trigger turning on the Wi-Fi in a smartphone when determined by policy manager in the smart cell. This would be one initiative to be considered as the industry adopts the new HotSpot 2.0 standard.
Further use of policy management can be to select between Wi-Fi or cellular depending on the traffic type and congestion within the cell. This has not been demonstrated yet, but the platform is capable of supporting that functionality.
3) Upload Proxy
There are a number of social media and similar applications that publish content to others. Videos, photos and other media can be shared quickly online. But it can take quite a long time to upload this data, hampered by constraints in the network.
A proxy application will accept photos, videos etc., sending them quickly across the radio interface to the smart cell. These can be stored and forwarded into the cloud at its normal pace, releasing the smartphone more quickly. This saves on battery life and time waiting for the data to be synchronized.
The smart cell products being demonstrated at MWC already incorporate the EdgeCloud technology and are not prototypes. The ramp to commercial production is underway and the first operator trials will start in in Q3 2012.
Here's a picture of a Ubiquisys 3G smart cell on the left.
ThinkSmallCell's take on this unusual feature
I confess to some scepticism about some aspects of this feature. The additional cost of incorporating this extra processing power and memory in a public small cell probably isn't huge. But the commercial benefits must be clear to justify the investment and complexity.
When caching local data, some actual usage statistics in real-world scenarios will be essential to determine exactly what the savings might be in reduced backhaul or other equipment costs. If the cached data served is not billed – because it isn't seen and counted by the billing systems in the core network – it may reduce revenue, although there may be workarounds for that.
I'm also a little dubious about duplicating some of the inline processing applications locally, such as URL filtering etc. Surely this would still have to be done centrally and therefore not save any equipment cost. Users may be surprised to find the inline applications work in some places (served by smart small cells) and not others (served by macrocells).
But on the plus side, I could see that the very low latency times would translate to very impressive quick response when accessing popular content local to that small cell. It would clearly dramatically relieve congestion in those peak situations where everybody is trying to access the same content.
Once again, it's nice to be able to report on further innovation within the small cell industry and I hope my concerns above won't prevent this unusual approach finding a niche that demonstrates strong commercial viability.
More information about EdgeCloud technology can be found on the Ubiquisys website