How 5G is Transforming Cloud Computing

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By now, you are likely at least vaguely aware of cloud computing. Everything is in the cloud. Want to store your pictures from your iPhone so you’ll have them forever? Sync to the cloud. The ability to share a trip itinerary with five of your friends and all edit the document at once? Edit on the cloud.

Cloud computing has come to play an integral part in our daily lives, whether we realize it or not. Much like how the internet changed the way we communicate and share information, cloud has taken that to the next level of connectivity. The ability to collect and process aggregate information from millions of devices and rapidly deploy software changes only scratch the surface. 

As 5G is introduced, it’s promising to bring changes across seemingly every industry. We’ve heard the basics: transportation, healthcare, video conferencing, etc. but how will it serve as a catalyst for other technology changes? 5G will affect and maybe transform cloud computing, not only from the perspective of use-cases and applications for the technology, but the architecture and data flows of cloud as we know it.

Brief explanation of cloud today

Cloud computing, in the simplest form, is an infrastructure that gives the ability to store data on remote servers and transmit that data across the internet. The concept for cloud computing actually dates back to the ARPANET days in the 1960s, but the first application hosted in the cloud wasn’t live until 1999. 

Cloud computing is what enables “Software as a Service” (SaaS), and other “as a service” models, which have become the most widely used methods for businesses to connect to consumers and other businesses. Cloud computing allows companies that want to host a website or application to move away from “on-prem” hosting. This means they’re able to forego the need to invest in data center equipment and provides much more flexibility in the amount of data that can be collected and stored. 

A cloud provider such as Microsoft, Google, Amazon, etc. typically has data center “farms” in a few locations around the world. Traffic from customer applications and websites are routed there, sometimes thousands of miles from the laptop or smartphone of an end-user.

This is a mile-high-level overview of cloud computing that skips the intricacies of the protocols, hardware, scaling and other details (we’ll cover more on that in another post). The pertinent information here is the scalability and flexibility of cloud in that it enables companies to rapidly expand the amount of data they are processing without the needed hardware infrastructure.

Cloud meets 5G

5G is bringing sweeping changes to how we connect, interact, and live our daily lives. Thanks to increased bandwidth and low latency, 5G will provide the infrastructure to share more data than ever before, at almost real-time speeds. With this will come transformational changes to cloud use and infrastructure.

In today’s world, we have smartphones. We may interact with, say, twenty five applications on our smartphones on a weekly basis, and those apps transmit data to the cloud (as well as sharing to other apps). In addition, we use tools for work, speak with a voice-assistant at home, and perhaps use a smart-watch or fitness tracker. Needless to say, we are connected in numerous ways and are directly responsible for quite a lot of data transmitted.

You haven’t seen anything yet. The first change resulting from 5G will be the sheer amount of data processed by the cloud. Thanks to the increased bandwidth and reliability of 5G, more devices will be connected to the cloud than ever before. This is the IoT revolution that you’ve likely heard about.

More devices on the cloud leads to a different world

When you think IoT today, you likely think of household items. Thermostats, refrigerators and cameras are some of the common ones. With 5G, the realm for these connected devices will no longer be constrained to a WiFi connection. This means that we’ll begin to see new devices emerging, quite literally, everywhere.

Sensors will account for a large portion of the new technology. Small devices that detect and record basic information. But as these sensors will be able to be housed essentially anywhere and connected to the cloud, the possibilities will be endless.

This is where it can be fun to think creatively. Farmers and agriculture companies are already rolling out sensors for measuring soil moisture levels. Robotic automation in manufacturing and logistics will be much more enabled. Navigation apps can become much more effective by utilizing sensors in street parking spots to provide real-time visibility of the best place to park your vehicle. (Or simply directs your vehicle autonomously.) 

In order to interact and serve their purpose, these devices will have to connect to some form of the cloud. 5G makes this widespread connectivity possible. This means that billions of new devices will be connected to the cloud across the globe, transmitting more data than the world has ever seen. But it doesn’t end here.

The real-time revolution

One of the primary cornerstones of 5G is ultra low latency. Thanks to new technology allowing this enhanced processing time, 5G will be able to support what is essentially real-time communication. This is what paves the way for the technologies like autonomous vehicles, AR/VR, and enhanced gaming. 

In the simplest sense, faster processing will mean more data transmitted to the cloud. The need for cloud computing will expand, not only from an increase in data, but an increase in applications leveraging real-time processing. 

Let’s back up and shift our focus back over to the fundamentals of cloud computing. We know that it involves connecting to data centers and that these data centers may be all over the world. Typically CDNs route web traffic from an application to data centers as close as possible to the client (end user). However, sometimes this server may still be thousands of miles away.

Radio frequency travels at the speed of light (almost.. slight delay due to atmospheric interference). This means that an autonomous vehicle sensing an object in the road and sending a signal to a server 900 miles away will have it there within a few milliseconds. But when dealing with real-time processing such as an autonomous vehicle, for example, these milliseconds can make a difference.

Cloud computing, but closer to the user?

Remember all the times you’ve heard how 5G was going to bring disruptive changes? Surprise!

Cloud technology will undoubtedly be critical in a 5G future, but it may look a bit different. This is what most are now referring to as “fog computing”, or more commonly, edge computing. The fundamental concept of edge computing is that it lies at “the edge of the cloud”. In another words – closer to the user. With a vastly higher number of devices connected and the increased need for real-time data processing, proximity will make all of the difference. 

Edge computing: the new cloud or simply an extension?

The concepts to cloud computing are extremely similar. However, the jury is still out on exactly what this technology will look like. Currently, the cloud computing market is mostly dominated by a few large players. With the need for smaller “data centers” that are scattered around, will control remain with the current providers? 

Many speculate that edge computing will not necessarily replace the need for cloud. After all, not every transaction has to be real-time. Therefore, a mechanism will likely arise that defines data movement priorities and what’s transferred where. Edge computing will handle the transactions that need to be processed quickly, while larger or lower priority transactions can be processed by a larger [more scalable] data center. 

This brings an entire realm of new possibilities and changes. From security, to information tracking (enter blockchain?) and even real estate (where do all of the micro data centers go?). With cloud, and the newer “edge” computing, we’ll see data transfer completely differently.

Final thoughts

Cloud technology has been the backbone for the majority of the information sharing we have today. With the introduction of 5G, this infrastructure will evolve. The cloud, as we know it today, will no longer exist. 

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