Between the so-called last mile and first mile lies the middle mile, the realm of colocation and network service providers. This episode of Utilizing Tech features Roy Chua and Allyson Klein, discussing the middle mile with Stephen Foskett. This middle area includes content delivery services like Varnish and Akamai, as well as companies like Cloudflare that are delivering content and compute there. The middle network includes providers like Equinix, Digital Realty, and Megaport, which provide connectivity to the cloud and service providers, the hyperscalers themselves, and some interesting networking startups like Packet Fabric and Graphiant. We must also consider observability, with companies like cPacket and Kentik as well as companies like Cisco and Juniper Networks.
Host and Guests:
Roy Chua, Founder and Principal at AvidThink. You can connect with Roy on Twitter or LinkedIn and find out more on the AvidThink website. You can also read Roy’s report on NextGenInfra.io about the Middle Mile.
Stephen Foskett: Welcome to Utilizing Tech, the podcast about emerging technology from Gestalt IT. This season of Utilizing Tech focuses on edge computing which demands a new approach to compute, storage, networking, and more. I’m your host Stephen Foskett, organizer of Tech Field Day and publisher of Gestalt IT. Joining me today in this a co-hostless discussion, we have Roy Chua from AvidThink and Allison Klein from the Tech Arena. Roy welcome to the show!
Roy Chua: Thanks, Stephen. Glad to be here.
Stephen: And Allison, it’s nice to have you back.
Allyson Klein: So good to be here Stephen thank you.
Stephen: So we are getting ready for our forthcoming Edge Field Day event and both of you were involved in our previous one and of course both of you are also wonderful thought leaders in this space, so I thought it would be nice to bring you in sort of as a follow-up to the conversation that we had just a few weeks ago with our friend Andrew Green from GigaOm where we talked about the differentiation between the near Edge and the far Edge. And Roy, this is one of the things that’s kind of interesting isn’t it because if you’ve got near and you’ve got far, you’ve also got middle don’t you?
Roy: Absolutely. I think the middle child is always an interesting one right? You that’s where things get interesting. So I think the reality is when we look at infrastructure and separating the edge for a moment. Let’s look at sort of the network part of the edge because we’re all connected and that’s you know where the edge comes in, is the first mile and the last mile and the last mile is what connects your homes to sort of the aggregation points. And then you got the middle mile which historically in networking, you know, that’s where a lot of the excitement goes around because the first mile is dominated by hyperscalers and the telcos. Your last mile again usually you have some service providers in telcos and in the middle there’s a lot more play in there this data center operators as their colo operators alternative access vendors right that’s where it gets really interesting and we’ll talk a bit about that I’m sure you know as we go along but certainly that middle place is an interesting place.
Allyson: I think that what’s interesting about this I just completed an ebook on edge, that’s available on my website thetecharena.net, and one of the things that I talked about in that after interviewing a number of folks from across the industry is that the edge is really moving us towards distributed computing and what Roy’s really set out is a further distribution of compute capability across different environments for Edge so that you can place your workloads exactly where you want them. I think that this concept is interesting especially when you consider that while edge has been built out with some of the same orchestration capabilities of cloud it doesn’t have, the far edge doesn’t have the notion of infinite compute. In fact it could just have a single NUC and so how do you actually ensure that compute can scale compute can burst a middle edge is an interesting alternative.
Roy: Yeah absolutely. I would say you know you have a lot of cloud players have the regional clouds right. Those are huge data centers located more centrally in metro areas and then you have as you pointed out Allison, you know, you could have that little computer right on-premises and I think that that’s an interesting part in the middle and the middle is obviously a larger slice and it could range from a thick and past podcast we talked about it could be somewhere in the radio you know access network you ran on towers you know, all the way to sort of a local data centers or a regional not the regional data centers, so the localized data centers, also the metro area data centers if you will, and that Spectrum lent itself based on the workload that you have based on the characteristics of the workload, you know, how much you’re willing to pay, what kind of computer you need, you know, what kind of latency are you looking for. And maybe even what’s available to you right I think that is going to be an interesting orchestration and placement problem as as we go forward. But that middle mile I view as a very interesting place because and I call it the Goldilocks region right because it’s it’s sort of close enough to you potentially to meet some of the latency constraints and maybe in Europe it helps you with datas sovereignty as well but it’s far enough upstream potentially to have aggregation and economies of scale so you have the balance of both right? And some people don’t like Goldilocks region, you can call it the little bear region because I guess Goldilocks was the aggressor but regardless right it’s an interesting region.
Stephen: Absolutely and there’s a ton of things going on there too. I mean there’s all sorts of networking products along with content delivery, sort of pseudo cloud and even basically function as a service worker kind of things going on there. There’s a lot of stuff happening in the middle edge that can be leveraged to improve the user experience and overcome some of the limitations of the client side in terms of you know limited resources limited connectivity that sort of thing.
Allyson: I think content delivery is such an interesting space Stephen because when you look at what was the maybe the biggest workload during the pandemic, content delivery networks just took off and companies like Varnish are doing incredible things to drive performance capability for content delivery networks exactly in this middle edge and you know the use case is so proven that the growth of content delivery Network demand. It’s not just video anymore. It’s you know every type of content that consumers are are you know basically addicted to are demanding these content delivery networks that are sitting in this middle mile that Roy has described.
Roy: I think the one thing about the middle mile and middle miles have historically been more of a networking term, right, than a compute term but we talk about edge we usually focus on compute but I think the realization increasingly is that the edge is enabled by the network’s topology and network capabilities that are available and so you know, we at least at everything, we talked about sort of the new middle amount which is sort of the amalgamation of compute and networking as a joint decision because it’s not just about what compute capabilities are available it’s also what network paths are available you know how what the capacity of those paths are, number of hops to get to those things. So in reality I think, Allison what you said, you’ve got to put that placement that orchestration that we needed the placement logic. It’s a joint decision between the compute slash storage capabilities as well as the topology of the network that that connects to that location. And I think the joint decision is what makes it really interesting as we go forward in terms of that awareness of network by the application or application placement and likewise the network providing a service or quality of service to the applications on top of that right? So we’re seeing that come together I think finally.
Stephen: And this leads to a whole world of of products like SASE and observability products that are allowing us to reconfigure the network dynamically, make use of multiple links, make use of multiple resources, connect endpoints and do all this in a secure and highly available way. It really is a world of products that are happening in there and world of companies and technologies as well. Roy what do you think are the key players there on the network side of this middle edge?
Roy: Yeah so in that so the new, also the that middle network piece of things I mean some of the clear dominant players in there are going to be the co-location providers right so you pick your Equinoxes of the world and yeah your Digital Reality’s of the world, you Mako parts of the world that connect that manage that fabric if you will right because that’s where you sort of get connectivity to a direct path to your Amazon and your Google or whatever it is or other SASE services. It’s also the places where you get connected to other hubs or other telcos or other service providers and so on. And so I think those companies certainly are important. There are other classes of companies in that space as well the CDN providers certainly play right so you economize your Cloudflare I think we’ve talked about those before certainly and then the hyperscalers all have the CDN networks that play in there. And then beyond that there are some up-and-coming players on the startup side in terms of networking because if you think about that place you got to be able to as you find out you know how do you bring up networks quickly how do you bring on networks you know and tie them together in a flexible way and show the historical historic Legacy SDN software-defined networking used to be hard but it’s still there and still very important. You have sort of new SDN type players right so your packet fabric for instance that provide this kind of capability or more recently Graphiant that’s providing that flexible capability as well in terms of giving you flexible connectivity and underlay right within that region. I’m seeing some of the fiber providers want to play in that space as well right certainly but in order to do that they have to come up with most SDN type capabilities right. Telcos also want to play and that’s where they need SDN capabilities and so what we heard from a company like Graphiant is like carriers are excited about their software because it enables the carriers to use the middle ball infrastructure and monetize it because it becomes more flexible and I think packet fabric was seeing the same same thing as well. So some of the ideas of the companies at least on the networking site that we’re seeing.
Allyson: I’m glad you brought up observability Stephen. This is an area that I know I’ma geek you know I started in semiconductors and I love telemetry butI love observability in terms of what it brings to a distributed computing environment and how I think this technology is going to become so much more important and valued than it has been in a traditional you know multi-cloud world as we get more and more distributed and Enterprises are relying on more compute locations and and much more on the quality of network moving forward. And there’s incredible innovation in the observability space. I was just talking to the folks at cPacket, I don’t know if you’ve heard of them, but they are an incredible player in this in terms of delivering near real-time views of of network packet transfer and what that can mean in terms of managing a distributed computing environment and I think that there’s a number of players in that space that are doing really interesting things that we’ll be talking about more and more as this distributed world comes into play.
Stephen: Well and I also have to mention Kentik as a key player in that space too. They’re doing some very cool stuff in sort of seeing the truth of the internet because that to me is the reason that this observability space is so important in that it’s easy, well not easy, but at least it’s theoretically possible to get your mind around what’s going on in a data center or even in a cloud. But you know the internet is the internet. It’s everywhere, it’s everything, and it’s much harder to really have an understanding of what’s happening there.
Roy: Yeah and it’s sort of, regardless of whether you control the underlay the network underlay, and you can get quality of service provision to the places that you need to regardless of that. You’re absolutely right. Even if you pay for the SLAs how you maintaining how do you know you could you’re getting those SLAs right? I mean you can’t count on your provided giving it to you accurately you still have to monitor and observe. So I think some of that I think we’re seeing as well that observability is important and I know obviously you know I’m sure you know Cisco and Juniper and and those folks have their own product suites around those right to provide visibility and assurance right, Cisco with Thousand Eyes, and Juniper with its Paragon Sharon Swede and some of the companies have acquired recently. I think increasingly even even the networking vendors not so much the application side of things but even the networking side of it is talking of observability and historically that was that’s been the term more used by application developers than than networking but I think that they have gotten the religion around observability as well so I think the point Ellison made is an excellent one.
Allyson: I’m surprised we haven’t talked about sovereignty yet in this discussion because it seems like something that’s on the top of most enterprises’ minds on where data is lying and where applications are actually functioning. How do you two see sovereignty influencing this middle mile versus far edge versus near edge? We need to come up with is it medium Edge I don’t know.
Roy: I think from the edge classification people will call the middle mile the near Edge because that’s where the network elements are and then for them the far edge is usually the on-premises. So generally speaking, you know, at least for when I work with my clients I just call it on-premises edge versus network edge and that seems to be okay a network edge encompasses the middle mile element itself because the I think Stephen said this before near to whom and far from whom right and I think that becomes ambiguous. When you say on-premises usually the enterprises understand on-premises being oh it is on-premises okay so right so.
Allyson: That’s the one place we know for sure.
Roy: Yeah yeah Oh you mean on my premise yeah oh yeah okay on my premises exactly.
Stephen: Well one point about sovereignty that comes to mind is sort of back to the the sort of the internet is everything and everywhere question. If we are using distributed functions and caching it really does kind of poke a hole in this notion that we can control that we can tightly control sovereignty because if network resources are used those network resources may reside in the United States or in Germany or in Saudi Arabia or in China and it’s very difficult to guarantee that your application doesn’t touch some place in the network and, I mean I guess it’s one thing whether your data is simply passing through as it were or actually checking in but it’s quite another if we’re talking about having workers that are actually actively processing data, you know, storing, processing transactions and then sending things on. Those workers could be in different places and I think that right now the idea is oh well just like the cloud we will deploy regions and we will control which region you’re using. I don’t know if that’s really practical in the long term especially as this expands and as we get more and more of these kind of middle of the network services. I wonder if maybe encryption is a solution where maybe we have really zero-trust edge compute and it, you know, that it could be running right on resources in the United States or in China and whether you want to think about the laws in one of those two places or not, if it’s really encapsulated and encrypted then it kind of maybe doesn’t matter which location it’s running in. I don’t know if that’s practical but it seems to me that we’re going to need this sort of approach because data is going to be not just transiting but being processed in many different places.
Roy: I would say so two two elements to that I think number one is that many of the edge providers and orchestration providers for the edge are tagging workloads with metadata tags that indicate where they can be processed and where they cannot. So I think that’s one element of it. Secondly the SDN guys that we talk about in terms of the, you know, routing of traffic and the like increasingly are allowing you to dictate constraints on the nature of those routes as well so they’ll say this cannot exit in the United States, so this cannot exit whatever it is, or this cannot get into Eastern Europe or Russia or whatever it is. So I think that’s one element of it already. We’re seeing that already. So we’re seeing those capabilities coming up in orchestration for both the compute workloads itself the storage elements as well and obviously the networking so that’s one. The second one, you know, with regard to what you’re saying I think that’s an interesting proposition. I know that some of the hyperscalers have started thinking about that the concept of confidential computing right so secure enclaves you know or some of the CPUs have the ability right to do secure computing right in other words secure enclaves where the compute happens inside the enclave is not exposed. The key is pulled over the internet in the secure manner. The CPUs are manufactured with an identity you know it’s basically a secure Intel CPU for the most part you know so SGX sort of trust type basis systems. I think that certainly is a possibility in terms of dictated the workload can run anywhere. The key control is what gives you the sovereignty and therefore you you should feel safe. That can happen. I think that the danger is that you know for instance there was the exploit called SG you know Intel’s SGX was there’s an exploit called SGaXe, AXE, right, a couple of years ago that showed how they could actually be overcome and you could fake being an Intel trusted Intel CPU so I think a few more years until people actually trust it and maybe when people understand the nature of encryption and they’re comfortable with it, then I think the vision that Stephen you laid out I think that’s certainly a possibility right. But in the meantime we’re trying to do very rudimentary controls by putting metadata tags in there to say this can go here but not here and and please don’t violate it and you hope the software does the right thing.
Stephen: I think that that’s really got to be the answer right now. I’m kind of inventing that on the fly. Does anybody want to start a company?
Allyson: No I don’t want to start a company but I do think that what Roy just said is really interesting and I think that it’s true. I’m so glad you brought up my beloved SGX. I worked on that technology
Roy: Oh you did?
Allyson: You made me proud.
Roy: You fixed it.
Allyson: I wish I did um but I think that what’s interesting is I think that this concept of sovereignty has actually accelerated some of the placement of this middle mile compute capability to address customer requirements for specific locations and so in a way it’s been a driving force to give other customers the the opportunity to take advantage of nearer to on-prem. I don’t know what you’d want to say, compute gravity, if you want to think about it that way um where there you know there is more compute in a nearer location and they can start thinking about workload placement in a much more flexible manner. I think Cloudflare’s growth over the last couple of years has been driven in part by this and I’m sure that that’s true for some of the other providers as well. What I’m really interested in is it’s sophistication on workload placement and really having a good view of that full distributed dynamic and where they’re going to place workloads to for best return on investment for the companyI think that in in talking to a number of the edge players especially those who are working on far edge, you know, on-prem deployments of you know, simple compute and branch environments. I think a lot of companies need to catch up on this and I think that over the next couple of years we’ll see who really leaps forward in terms of sophistication of having a really great topology of where they want to deploy each and every workload under management, whether it be in a cloud in the in the middle location that we’re talking about or on-prem in one of their own facilities. I think that’s what’s coming next.
Stephen: Yeah I would second your mention of Cloudflare there as a company that’s doing some very cool things with, not just one of these spaces, but all of these things. I mean basically they to me seem like a company that that’s really focused on solving these problems and I would call out as well I mean Akamai they maybe you know people think of them as sort of the the old company but that but they’ve actually made a lot of investments in this area too and I know Equinix has as well. As you know kind of different three different companies coming at this problem from three different directions in my opinion.
Roy: I would say absolutely that the KOLO providers are adding environmental capabilities, the CDN providers are going from Storage to compute capabilities, functions as a service. I think given all the placement of compute capabilities, given the assets they have into some net network topology and network connectivity everyone’s trying to leverage it and I think the key is to make it as simple as possible for the developers to figure out how to write applications or how to tag data in the right way so that the orchestrator can do the right thing because I don’t think it’s possible for someone, you know, to some sort of human and say oh and this component is going to go into this region in this location and all that. I think that’s not feasible. I think what’s feasible is to say here’s my application, here’s the kind of quality of service I would like for this application, optimize for cost please or optimize for experience please and then it does the right thing. And I know that hyperscalers have to be thinking about that, you know, for instance like say I don’t know just pick AWS for example AWS has they have this Continuum right of capabilities you can have the your local you know snow family or outpost and you have your local zones and your wavelength stuff and the Telco you know and then you have your regions and I should be able to say hey I’m writing my application I deploy my application here are my constraints here the optimization that I want, go figure out how to place it for me right and don’t exceed my budget please right? And then it goes and does the right thing or come back and say you can’t expect to pay ten cents an hour and expect to get all these things it’s going to pay at least thirty cents or whatever right? That probably should be that model in terms of the application, now that’s what I would like to do and not worry about it and have someone deal with it including constraints of sovereignty, you know, and the like, right? So I think that’s hopefully where we’re going, but we’ll see, that would be the goal.
Stephen: Yeah I’m glad you brought up the hyperscaler specifically because you know it they would seem to be the antithesis of the edge I mean basically the edge is everything they’re not but yet it also would seem that they’re well positioned to play in this middle area. But also as you point out, you know, really at the at the end points maybe. Are they? I mean do they do they get the message or is it one of those cases where the paradigm is shifting around the market leaders and they’re not able to jump on a new way of doing what they’re doing?
Allyson: I don’t think I’d ever bet against the hyperscalers and having a strategy to take advantage of a business opportunity Stephen and I think that this opportunity will make some interesting bedfellows right? I think that you’re going to see, and you have seen, the hyperscalers look to some of the Telco providers for strategic collaborations. I think that the hyperscalers will use their software stacks as a way to pivot into edge deployments and you’ve seen them make early moves. I would expect them to continue down that path and you know I think that they’re going to look for the key use cases. You know we talked about some of them at the top of the podcast around content delivery and edge analytics. I would expect them to start delivering services at the edge for these types of things I wouldn’t be surprised at all to see them all move in interesting directions for partnerships with some of the companies that we’ve talked about and Roy I would love to hear your perspective on this too
Roy: I think I think you’re absolutely right. So we’re seeing, so I again never count him out, I think there’s a couple of elements. One the developer relationship is held very strongly by the hyperscalers. Application developers work with hyperscalers they use to that whole, you know, tool chain and pipeline. So that’s where they’ll go first and to the extent that allow the edge to just be an option in terms of the deployment of the application it’s automatic so. Allyson’s right, you know, the telcos and the hyperscalers have all different relationships right across the board. On top of that, all the hyperscalers have an on-premises edge option right so Azure Stack Edge, Google Distributed Cloud Edge, AWS without pose and the Snow family right? So they absolutely are there already with a single pipeline deployment regardless of, you know, what infrastructure it is and Azure Arc wants to control all your elements right? Even on your some third-party bare metal that you’re running some Kubernetes cluster on, they want to control it. You know, Google would like to do the same thing right and likewise AWS would like to do the same thing with EKS anywhere so they certainly see it and they’re partnering to do that and the other people they’re partnering with I see is some of the application infrastructure and the databases a lot of the real-time databases like say, you know, Couchbase for instance or Red is they recognize the value of the database at the edge and so what they’re doing is working with the hyperscalers and making that happen like, you know, Couchbase Capella has partnerships with I think it’s Verizon and AWS simultaneously and so I think they all understand that they’re trying to figure out what the route to market is. But I think never forget the developer because that’s the very critical relationship and the hyperscals and developers have a great relationship and telcos don’t always you know and the ISVs sometimes do and I think that’s probably the best way to look at it I think, from my perspective.
Stephen: Yeah I definitely think you’re right and I will just put in a little pitch too that it seems that the traditional data center ISVs, especially on the networking side, are really really getting religion on this. If you followed Cisco Live recently, the whole keynote was about modern applications, cloud scale applications, observability, something they call the Panoptica, which is too close to the Panopticon for me but they really are embracing the developer in a way that I wouldn’t have predicted Cisco would. And you mentioned Juniper absolutely I know that they’ve always they’ve also been leaning in toward this as well and you’d think that that companies like that, you know, the reason I bring up the hyperscalers it’s it’s one of those things where it’s very difficult as an incumbent or a market leader to undermine your own business by sort of competing against yourself, but you have to or you lose relevance. So for me I absolutely agree with you Roy that uh you know a company like AWS they’re sharp enough they know that they need to do this they know that they have a great lead with the developers that they could squander if they don’t. Similarly I would look at Microsoft and I would say, you know, here’s a company that has a tremendous developer connections and they also would be I think well positioned to deliver this sort of on their own terms. It would certainly could be a different solution than the Amazon solution, but one that would be very, you know, embraced by a certain enterprise customer.
Roy: They do I mean I can tell you I sat in on a couple of the Fortune 50 conversations around the edge and Microsoft has very strong presence for sure. No doubt. Absolutely.
Stephen: So I guess to wrap this up, though, my question would be if this middle mile as you say is dominated by companies like Amazon and Cisco and Microsoft, is this the edge at all or is this just an expanding cloud?
Allyson: That’s a great question.
Roy: Yeah I mean at the end of the day it’s a distributed cloud, right? And when you say it like that in like oh does that mean that the cloud providers win? Not necessarily. I think the middle mile is a messy place. There’s a lot of elements and yeah scale matters but agility also matters and I think I will expect a more diverse ecosystem in that middle mile than in the first mile which is dominated by hyperscalers in the telcos right? So yeah, that’s what I hope anyway.
Allyson: I think that think that when you you were Stephen one of the things that I was thinking about is that on-prem data center still exists and they exist for a reason because ultimately computing will be driven based on uh the right thing in terms of TCO for the customer. Some things will be run on-prem, some things will be run at the edge, and there is an opportunity for incredible innovation from a wide variety of companies including the hyperscalers. I don’t think that we should look at it as just an extension of cloud, I think we look at it as a bold step towards distributed computing and what that represents is an incredible opportunity for companies across all industries. I’m really looking forward to it and I am looking forward to seeing that broad industry innovation to make it happen
Stephen: I agree and I think that we’re seeing that and I think that that’s what’s fun right now about this whole space just like in the in the far edge and on-premises all the exciting things that have been done around developing small inexpensive highly available zero touch endpoints. The same thing is happening in the middle of the edge, in the middle of the network that are, you know, moving workloads out of the cloud toward the consumer reducing latency, bringing new flexibility, new capabilities. It really is an exciting time to watch and it’s exciting to see both the incumbents pivoting as well as the smaller younger newer companies coming up with new ideas. So thank you so much for joining us for this discussion Roy and Allison and I look forward to seeing you at Edge Field Day and in the coming years as this field emerges. Before we go though, please let us know where can people connect with you and where can they get access to some of the great resources you’ve mentioned. Allison let’s start with you this time.
Allison: Yeah sure so I run the Tech Arena that’s at www.thetecharena.net and I mentioned my Edge 2023 report earlier. I’ve also interviewed a number of the companies that we’ve talked about in this conversation today and you can find podcasts with some of their leading technologists on the platform.
Roy: Yep and for me you can find me at AvidThink Avid t-h-i-n-k.com and our reports are actually hosted on the edge site that we have jointly with one of our MediaPartners converge digest it’s actually at next gen infra dot IO so that’s n e x t g e n infra dot IO.
Stephen: And as for me, you can find me at GestaltIT.com where we do a weekly news rundown where we talk about some of the companies and products here and you can learn more about Edge Field Day by going to techfieldday.com. Thank you for listening to Utilizing Edge, part of Utilizing Tech podcast series. If you enjoyed this discussion, please subscribe. You can find us in all of your favorite podcast applications. You can also find us on YouTube at Gestalt IT Video and you can learn more about what we’re doing with Gestalt IT by going to GestaltIT.com, your home for it coverage from across the enterprise. For show notes and more episodes head over to utilizingtech.com or find us on Twitter or Mastodon at Utilizing Tech. Thanks for listening and we will see you next week.