Lumen CTO: Why edge compute is crucial to enterprise CIOs

Lumen Technologies CTO Andrew Dugan believes enterprise CIOs are turning to edge compute because it provides better performance for their applications versus the centralized cloud.

Speaking at Wednesday's Wells Fargo TMT Summit 2020, Dugan said high performance enterprise applications are becoming more distributed. Thanks to its large fiber network, both its backbone and on-net buildings in cities, Lumen, which was formerly called CenturyLink, has laid claim to being able to reach 98% of the enterprises in the U.S., Europe and some Latin American countries with low latency of 5 milliseconds one way with its edge compute nodes. 

"We simply serve CIOs, primarily," Dugan said. "They're the buyers of our services and they're really driven by their applications. Those applications need to collect and process data that helps shape the business that that they're running.  What we're finding is that applications are emerging that need higher performance than what the centralized cloud can provide.

"The clouds taught enterprises that they don't have to operate their own infrastructure; other people can operate it for them. So how do they support these high performance applications that are becoming more and more distributed? When those applications need something that the centralized cloud can't provide for them? We think that's edge compute."

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Applications are moving to the edge to enable low latency 5G, IoT, augmented reality and virtual reality services, among others. Lumen, which turned up its first block of cloud edge nodes in the most recent third quarter, announced its edge compute strategy last year. In 2019, Lumen said it had more than 100 edge compute nodes across the U.S., but it's now in the process of adding 150 more around the globe.

Dugan said Lumen plans to offer edge compute services across bare metal and also virtual machine containers. Lumen is also using its capabilities to combine network, security, compute and application management for custom implementations of edge compute.

"For me, it's not just about selling edge compute, Dugan said. "It's about the integration of that edge compute into that Lumen platform. The whole reason we're having the conversation about edge compute is because applications require performance that they can't get otherwise.

"A key part of that performance is latency, and latency is determined primarily by the distance that data travels. So we have to integrate that compute and storage function of edge compute with high performance networking and with low latency connectivity to the cloud because these applications are going to be running in multiple places. And it has to be highly secure."

Enterprise customers are looking for a combination of edge compute, network and security all in one package, Dugan said. On the cloud side, thanks to CenturyLink's deal to buy Savvis in 2011, Lumen can offer enterprises private cloud services.

Dugan said that while every application was different, they run across three primary buckets; edge compute, on premise and the centralized cloud.

"The centralized cloud is going to continue to be a major place for enterprise applications," Dugan said. "But when you put together the capability to run on private cloud, on premise, on edge compute within five milliseconds, and the centralized cloud—when you put those into a multi-cloud management capability with integrated networking and security I think that's a pretty powerful offer. And that's really what our platform is about. Allowing customers to run applications in any one of those three locations.

"In fact, I think there's going to be quite a few applications that need to run in more than one of them. So that multi-cloud management piece will be pretty important going forward."

Dugan was also asked about the potential impact of 5G in tandem with Lumen's edge compute plans. Dugan said 5G was just one of many access technologies that edge compute needs to be leveraged with.

"As a consumer, I'm excited to have higher speed mobile services," he said. "But the way that I look at 5G, it's  an evolution of wireless access, and that's really what it is, it's access, and it's going to be fantastic for mobile use cases.

"It'll be very useful for places where fiber doesn't go, but if there's fiber there, I think fiber wins. Fiber will have more capacity. It'll provide a more reliable, consistent service, in my mind at least. But 5G is an important access method because a lot of IoT devices will be connected to it. The applications that will be live in edge compute will need to talk to those IoT devices, whether they're at the end of 5G or they're at the end of fiber and Wi-Fi in an enterprise building.

Dugan said Lumen's enterprise platform was built on four pillars; adaptive networking, edge compute, security and communications and collaboration tools.

"If I take a look at where we're going to be focusing for 2021, it's going to really be building out that platform, the brand promise that we made with the company name changed, Dugan said. "That platform is really centered around customer experience. How do we deliver the best customer experience that we can? A lot of that can be built on providing interfaces, a portal, and APIs to allow customers to manage their own infrastructures."