In a world where the Edge of the network has plenty of compute cycles what is the purpose of the powerful CPU in your phone?
As 5G towers are coming up and the mobile network Edge is being fitted with servers, some of these servers with powerful GPUs and plenty of CPU cores, some even with SmartNICs, we can start thinking about shifting some of that heavy CPUs that are sitting in our pockets to other areas. Our smartphones suck battery charges, heat up (Galaxy 7 anyone?), are excessively complicated to maintain, and are inflexible. But what do we actually need while we are mobile?
Do we need a GPS? Probably not, the cell tower know where we are.
Do we need an Apple A14z chip? Probably not since we can shift all that heavy CPU work to the Edge.
Do we need storage? Why? Put your files in the cloud and ensure access at all times.
Do we need a good screen? Yes. And with it we need a display unit that is able to communicate with the network and render to our screen, but the heavy lifting could be done on the Edge.
In the near future we will be able to do away with the CPUs in our mobile phone, we can strip the phone down to its bare necessities: a Digital/Audio Codec (assuming we still use voice and hear music), display, networking stack and modem.
Once we embrace the Edge and 5G, we can democratize the mobile devices. We can bring down their price and make them available to any network that supports 5G and have an Edge story. This will mean that some companies, the likes of Apple, Google and Samsung, might have to go back to the days when they partnered with the network operator (remember the iPhone launch? AT&T only). That also mean that we could see a plethora of cheap devices with amazing capabilities. They will live on a 5G connection and will also be cheap enough to throw away once the battery runs out.
Democratic computing will finally connect the entire planet. Then, the computer will be the network and the network the computer.
Since pretty much the invention of modern computing, we always swang between the cost of communication and the cost of computing. From the perspective of communication, one of the Internet’s design guideline is the end-to-end principle. A good discussion on the topic is nicely laid out here. The end-to-end principle, simply stated, advocates keeping the nodes on the network smart and the network dumb. In other words, the network is generic and meant for all traffic while the edges know what to do with the traffic. Compute was too expensive at the time the principle was created, so the thinking was that it is easier to provide CPU cycles at the edges.
Fast forward to today where Apple just announced that they will be making their own silicon for their laptops (they already make their own chips for all their mobile and wearable devices) and where more and more specialized CPUs are coming to the market. Pensando is one such example with an interesting SmartNIC design and the tune of $278m in funding as well as top Cisco veterans in its ranks. Ampere is another good example of a company looking to add value to the edges. This all plays to the narrative that the edge of the network is where the processing of data is happening.
But…with 5G (the real one, not that bad marketing joke from AT&T) and edge/cloud computing everywhere, both communication and compute cost are approaching zero. Why? 5G offers 100 times faster speeds than today’s LTE technologies (it will take some time) but the cost that your carrier can charge you for that speed is not 100x, but rather around 10 Euro extra per month. It is already happening in Korea. Hence, the cost per bit is quickly approaching the fraction of a cent which means it is “free”.
The hyperscalers are looking to provide massive “cheap compute” capabilities in the cloud and in their edge offerings:
The likes of Packet.com (now part of Equinix) also have options for powerful SmartNIC-based (Netronome) servers and let us not forget Mellanox’ introduction of the ConnectX6 and BlueField-2.
So what does it all mean? Compute is getting more powerful and plentiful at the edge and in your rectangle pocket Internet device. Communication cost is approaching zero. What can we expect from a world in which the pendulum stopped swinging?