A ‘cloud’ in your backyard as ‘the edge’ brings the internet closer to home
However, the answer probably won’t come from the other side of the world.
More likely it will come from a data centre in a non-descript warehouse down the road from you, one of many springing up in major population centres across the country to create a localised network known as ‘the edge’.
The past decade has seen an acceleration in data centres being built across Australia, creating a de-centralised source of information handpicked by AI to deliver the majority of what Australians want online.
“We’ve seen large companies, such as Microsoft, Google, and companies that are strictly content delivery network (CDN) providers, commence operations in Australia so that a lot more content is available here,” RMIT Associate Professor Mark Gregory said.
“Previously 1,000 local customers would pull content from the US. Now the same 1,000 customers are pulling the content from Sydney and Melbourne.”
These primary servers in large capital cities are connected via fibre to smaller capital cities and regional towns, where data centres have been built to store and release information as close to possible to those who are requesting it.
Edge computing uses this localised network — ‘the edge’ — to provide faster response times, and other benefits.
Netflix brought to you by the edge
The likes of Netflix or Amazon Prime have also been installing hard disk arrays on the edge, packing them with popular streaming content that can be provided locally and thereby reduce load on primary servers interstate or overseas.
Netflix is estimated to have up to six such storages to service Adelaide alone, all of which can pick up the slack should one of them fail.
“Obviously if only one customer looked at a video in the last ten years, then there’s no point storing that video in the edge,” Professor Gregory said.
“It would be something that’s only going to be available from a core repository somewhere in the world, and probably only from one or two locations.
“But if it’s something that hundreds of thousands of people are looking at, then it’s something the content providers want to get onto the edge, and thereby reduce traffic interstate or overseas.”
The ‘cloud’ is not in the sky
YourDC opened what it considered to be South Australia’s largest data centre in the Adelaide’s north during 2015, an 800-rack facility capable of sustaining 4 megawatts of IT load.
Chief executive Scott Hicks said drawing information from the edge meant latency, or the response between requesting information online and getting an answer, was drastically reduced.
“The latency between a request from Adelaide to Sydney and back is generally about 16 to 20 milliseconds,” he said.
“Deploying information at the edge means that latency is generally one or two milliseconds.”
Like the internet itself, Mr Hicks said there was often a misconception about what the cloud was, and where it existed.
“The cloud is not something that sits up there in the sky.
“The cloud is just a piece of infrastructure that might be shared with one or more customers, and it’s all these private cloud deployments that’s really driving our growth.”
Amazon Web Services and Microsoft’s Azure were among the big players investing in edge infrastructure, along with Akamai Technologies from Massachusetts, a CDN that rented out data centres to clients who wanted websites accessed at higher speeds closer to their customers.
Professor Gregory said it operated in real time, utilising artificial intelligence and algorithms to discern what people were looking at, and swapped content in and out of the edge as necessary to keep up with trends.
“The internet is much more distributed now than it used to be,” he said.
“We are getting to that point now where we can say yes, the internet is everywhere.”
Nearly all data flows under water
Connecting Australia’s edge to the rest of the world’s is an increasing amount of submarine cables, which, according to the Federal Government, carries 97 per cent of the world’s internet and telecommunications data.
The data crossed ocean beds, or was buried beneath them, via several hundred fibre optic cables known as the internet’s “backbone”.
“Just recently there’s been a new cable connected from Singapore down and around Perth then across the bottom of Australia, up past Sydney, and then they’re pushing that cable all the way across to the West Coast of the United States,” Professor Gregory said.
A Federal Department of Communications and Arts spokesperson said the cables were “essential to the functioning of modern telecommunications systems”.
He said another cable connecting Australia to Japan and Guam was expected to come online in 2020, as well as a cable connecting Australia to Papua new Guinea and the Solomon Islands.
A cable connecting Australia with Fiji, Hawaii and the United States was also planned for 2022.
“The Australian Communications and Media Authority is responsible for issuing permits for submarine cables landing in Australia,” the spokesperson said.
Professor Gregory said another misconception was that emerging technologies like mobile 5G did not require fibre optic networks, such as submarine cables and the NBN.
He said fibre was required for connectivity to planned 5G wireless access points like macrocells — “the large poles with antennas on top” — and microcells.
“Microcells will be the little boxes on the sides of buildings and inside supermarkets etcetera, and even inside our homes,” Professor Gregory said.
“It’s from these that you could connect all sorts of devices.”
Macrocells use a lower frequency to span a radius of about 20 kilometres, which will in turn support higher frequency microcells within that radius to handle more customers at a higher capacity.
Professor Gregory said it was this mix of large and small cells that would provide the different spectrum requirements of 5G.
Mr Hicks said it was mathematically impossible to provide for customer demands — even through the edge — via mobile technology like 5G alone.
“There’s just not enough spectrum available,” he said.
“You’re always going to need things like fibre-to-the-node, or to the kerb, or to the home, because it’s where you get that big bandwidth out quicker to deliver to data centres or wherever it’s needed.
“I’m a bit supporter of things being carrier neutral and providing customer choice and value for money, which is where you get great solutions.“
But Professor Gregory said the Federal Government’s 2013 decision to downgrade the NBN’s planned roll-out from an all-fibre network to a fibre-to-the-node model — one that relied on aging copper wire infrastructure for home connections — would be a problem for 5G.
“Wherever possible the mobile carriers want to get fibre to those cells, whether it be small or large cells, to ensure there’s high capacity reliability and low latency,” Professor Gregory said.
The Government spokesperson said the NBN’s setup had not “compromised Australia’s internet capability” and was complementary to 5G technology.
“While users may have a better 5G experience if they choose to have a 5G microcell in their home, as they do with WiFi, the Department is not aware of any plans to install 5G microcells in people’s homes,” he said.
The spokesperson said 5G could be provided in a range of ways but it was up to network operators to decide whether they used the NBN for linkage, provided their own infrastructure, or used third party providers.
He said the NBN’s mixed approach to fixed line areas, such as fibre-to-the-node, meant the NBN roll-out was being completed “four years earlier than an all-fibre approach” and at the least cost to taxpayers.
He added that the NBN was on track to be completed by June next year but more than $4 billion would be spent between 2020 and 2023 to continue upgrading and developing the network.