Beyond SD-WAN: uCPE as Edge Foundation for 3 Key Verticals

By Roy Chua, founder and principal at AvidThink

In our first blog post, we discussed the evolution of SD-WAN and how universal customer premises equipment (uCPE) has evolved along the same path, becoming a host for SD-WAN services. At the end of that post, we pointed out examples of edge workloads on uCPEs. For this blog post, we'll drill down into examples of edge services for 3 vertical markets in which the edge is showing early traction: industrial manufacturing, retail, and healthcare. These examples come from our work and conversations with both networking vendors and Tier 1 service providers worldwide. In many cases, we've been in discussions with enterprise companies either running production, deploying proofs-of-concept, or in the design phase for these initiatives.

Before we delve into specifics, we'll note that there are other use cases that multiple verticals are expressing interest in (even beyond manufacturing, retail, and healthcare). The first use case is the uCPE as a host for parts of a mobile core for private 4G LTE/5G deployments. Another strong use case, given recent attention on security and ransomware, is the uCPE as a host for local security functions, including access control, network monitoring, and advanced threat prevention to keep company locales safe from local attacks. Next, let's explore more vertical-specific use cases.

#1: uCPE as an Edge for Industrial Manufacturing

Industry 4.0 and the move toward digitization of production processes is a massive driver of edge computing adoption. We see the edge as IoT gateways or local data processors in factories, manufacturing sites, and warehouses. Some IoT rollouts are accompanied by private 4G LTE or 5G deployments. In any case, by filtering the data and running event-processing logic locally, faster action can be taken in control processes, alerting local users to triggers or autonomously reacting; sub-10ms or even 5ms latencies are possible with onsite private 5G. Further, locally aggregating and compressing data from various sensors (temperature, vibration, audio, etc.) before uploading to the cloud can save bandwidth costs. Edge application vendors we work with indicate a 100 to 1 data reduction through local filtering and preprocessing.

The image shows how a uCPE hosts industrial use cases such as IoT controls and aggregators, AGV/AMR controls and inventory tracking, video surveillance, and distributed manufacturing/3D printing.

Image 1: uCPE as an Edge for industrial manufacturing.


Other IoT-related use cases include monitoring the security of and protecting IoT devices locally, checking on their health and posture and making sure they have not been compromised. A uCPE can host sufficient computing for this use case. Even when AI and machine learning are used, uCPEs can have attached hardware assist (e.g., GPUs or AI processors) to run heavy inference workloads for IoT data processing. The same processing capabilities can power computer-vision for health and safety checks, such as enforcing physical distancing and tracking entry into no access zones.

Larger manufacturing sites with onsite computing may be considering switching to an edge cloud. In these locations, we expect to see edge workloads split between onsite edge servers in racks and the uCPE, which is needed to facilitate connectivity.

Increasingly though, as distributed manufacturing takes hold, bolstered by advances in additive manufacturing (also known as 3D printing), we see more manufacturing sites spread across multiple regions. Distributed manufacturing allows for faster response times to customer demand and more agile customization. In these situations, the uCPE enables connectivity (SD-WAN/SASE) for these remote sites, can host control and automation suites for local manufacturing, and locally track and monitor warehouse goods and inventory.

#2: uCPE as an Edge for Retail Stores

Retailers are often highly distributed enterprises with many remote sites. The uCPE is an excellent converged connectivity and computing platform that is present at each location. Retail has been one of the key verticals for SD-WAN (and now SASE), and using the uCPE as a platform for retailers can simplify operations and reduce capital expenditure.

The image shows how a uCPE hosts application for retail use cases including guest Wi-Fi, inventory tracking, video analytics, point-of-sale control, contactless checkout, and in-store customer behavior analytics.

Image 2: uCPE as an Edge for Retail Stores


For retailers, the uCPE can host edge workloads that power video surveillance and health and safety monitoring (similar to the industrial use case). At 2-8Mbps per video feed (depending on frame rate, resolution, complexity, and dynamism of scenes), ten cameras-worth of video can eat up 60%+ of a 100Mbps WAN uplink. Local decision-making from AI inference engines on the uCPE can filter out mundane footage and only upload interesting and relevant video into the cloud, saving both cloud storage and bandwidth costs.

Other edge-powered use cases we have seen in retail include sensor monitoring for cold-chain tracking (though that also spills over into wide-area logistics), inventory tracking through sensors or computer vision-aided stock checks, and shelf checks. For retailers who want higher uptimes and robustness in the face of WAN failures, point-of-sale (POS) applications can be hosted, running in disconnected operations (degraded but operational).

We've also seen in-store advertising and foot-traffic tracking for consumer analysis powered by edge instances as an upcoming use case in retail stores and, associated with that, a new slew of grab-and-go applications that make purchasing easy.

Further, uCPEs in retail can power guest internet access in conjunction with in-store WiFi. As we described in our preamble, network access control apps can segregate employee and corporate device access from guest traffic.

Finally, one critical retail trend worldwide is the explosion of pop-up stores. With fixed wireless access (5G/LTE) and mobile connectivity, the uCPE is an ideal all-in-one candidate to support pop-ups. The uCPE can provide PCI-compliant POS and other in-store applications while providing secure connectivity anytime, anywhere.

#3: uCPE as an Edge for Healthcare

Moving on to another hot vertical—healthcare. Like in retail and manufacturing, IoT is a major trend in this vertical, and we sometimes see it called the Internet of Medical Things (IoMT). uCPE edge platforms can power the tracking of medical devices, update patient data, and provide local processing and decision-making based on event data from IoMT devices. They can provide real-time alerts based on triggers and thresholds. Because the uCPE is local, all this continues to operate unimpeded even when disconnected—a critical requirement for patient safety and health.

The image shows how a uCPE hosts application for healthcare use cases including guest Wi-Fi, IoMT sensor aggregation and health app analytics, patient in-room safety monitoring, video surveillance, and remote diagnostic apps, .

Image 3: uCPE as an Edge for Healthcare


Similar to retail and manufacturing, video surveillance and computer vision can track patient and visitor health and safety, and in-room monitoring can keep vulnerable patients safe. In many cases, these video-heavy use cases will need hardware-assist from add-in cards on the uCPEs.

The same hardware-assisted inference can be leveraged for onsite diagnostics and augmented clinician diagnosis with AI/ML-rendered opinions in real-time. This is particularly valuable in remote sites such as rural clinics, where it's hard to install server rooms with racks of equipment or count on reliable, large bandwidth connections.

Ruggedized uCPEs could play a role here for remote rollouts. Built-in 5G/4G LTE connectivity options allow for deployment in rural hospitals and clinics, bringing a local compute option with the platform and the connection security needed to satisfy US HIPAA and other privacy and regulatory mandates.

Summary: uCPEs bring flexibility for new services at the edge

We're seeing the uCPE evolve into a flexible remote platform, more than just hosting virtual network functions like SD-WAN or SASE. In many cases, we see the secure connectivity element for the uCPE migrating into a horizontal platform and the uCPE growing into an edge platform that comes with safe, reliable remote connectivity. How the uCPE complements and competes with other onsite edge platforms will be a hot topic for the next few years, and we intend to keep our fingers on this pulse!