Evolution of uCPE, the universal Customer Premises EDGE?

By Roy Chua, founder and principal at AvidThink

Person with computer at cliff edge watching sunriseEdge is the new hot word in infrastructure technology. Carriers tout it, hyperscalers promote it, network equipment providers and system integrators are working hard to convince enterprises that it's the next major computing trend. However, the edge is not a monolithic concept. It manifests differently based on the location. This article examines how the universal customer premises equipment (uCPE), which become popular with the rise of NFV and SD-WAN, can be a critical stepping-stone for on-premises enterprise edge computing, bringing additional value to the platform.

Revisiting the Legacy of the CPE

The term customer-premises equipment or CPE is used to refer to any box or appliance located in a home or business that allowed them to access services that a communications services provider (CSP) would provide. The CPE could refer to something as mundane as a telephone but evolved to include modems, gateways, routers, CSU/DSUs (Channel Service Unit/Data Service Units), set-top boxes, and more. In general, the CPE was sold to or leased to the end-user and actively monitored and managed by the carrier.

With the arrival of network functions virtualization (NFV), there was an opportunity to revamp the business CPE. These often-proprietary devices used to provide business connectivity (MPLS, Carrier Ethernet, business broadband) could now be replaced with white-box general-CPU-based small-factor servers called uCPEs. The virtualization provided by NFV platforms enabled the transformation of legacy CPEs into uCPEs that could host a variety of networking, security, and communication services virtual network functions (VNFs).

Rise of SD-WAN and SASE

Concurrent with the NFV movement was a revamp of the enterprise WAN. A few years before the 2020 pandemic, enterprises found themselves needing more bandwidth, reliability, and security at branch locations to meet growing business needs. And they had to do so while controlling both operational and capital expenses. Software-defined wide-area networking (SD-WAN) came along, and with its centralized management, ability to utilize multiple connections, and security capabilities, enterprises were able to revamp their WANs.

CSPs saw the popularity of SD-WAN and jumped into the fray, offering SD-WAN bundled with multiple-connectivity options to their enterprise customers. They soon realized that NFV coupled with uCPEs made an ideal platform for rolling out multiple SD-WAN solutions, plus other network functions like next-gen firewalls or WAN optimization.

However, even with SD-WAN, vendors, service providers, and customers were left scrambling when COVID-19 lockdowns came in 2020. The rollout of SD-WAN in branches evolved quickly to cloud-centric Secure Access Service Edge (SASE) solutions that could serve the new work-from-anywhere mandate.

Evolving the uCPE

SD-WAN solutions expanded to include SASE capabilities like zero-touch network access (ZTNA), secure web gateways (SWG), and more. uCPEs readily handled these added virtualized functions, just as they had previously pure SD-WAN products.

A uCPE-based strategy, if appropriately rolled out, fulfills the original promise of NFV — any virtual network service hosted in any location on any white-box platform, centrally managed and orchestrated. When well-executed, uCPEs provide effortless zero-touch provisioning (ZTP) without unnecessary truck rolls, secure foundations that protect against compromise and detect tampering in remote locations, and ongoing proactive monitoring that can detect potential failures before they happen.

These same attributes that uCPEs have to make them ideal as an enterprise edge platform. Beyond hosting SD-WAN or SASE workloads, or network and security functions like NGFW, SWG, uCPEs can do much more. uCPEs, with their support for both VM-based and container workloads, can be upgraded to host multi-tenant enterprise applications. The same orchestration and management of VNFs and cloud-native network functions (CNFs) can be extended to do the same for enterprise application VMs, or enterprise applications packaged as containers.

Likewise, third-party applications can be loaded on these uCPE and perhaps even self-provisioned from a marketplace within a customer portal. uCPE white-box hardware can be appropriately scaled up, from 8 CPU cores to 16 or more cores, and outfit with SmartNICs for improved network performance, along with FGPAs and GPUS for hardware acceleration of signal processing and AI/ML workloads.

Leading Services for the Enterprise Edge

These upgraded uCPE platforms will graduate into edge computing platforms. SD-WAN and SASE applications will continue to be one of the prime workloads on these platforms and will ensure high-performance, reliable and secure connectivity into remote locations. However, our conversations with CSPs and enterprises worldwide are unearthing new interesting workloads for these uCPE edge platforms. These include:

  • Private 4G LTE/5G mobile cores — Factories, healthcare facilities, retail stores, and other locations may benefit from augmenting existing WiFi or replacing wired Ethernet with private cellular networks. For these locations, the uCPE can host all or part of the mobile core for the local network.

  • Computer vision with AI/machine learning (ML) — GPU or other specialized hardware on a uCPE can allow AI/ML inferencing or even training in edge locations. Use cases that depend on video processing such as surveillance, inventory tracking, health, and safety monitoring can utilize computer vision applications on the uCPE for immediate response to urgent events locally.

  • IoT and Industrial IoT (IIoT) gateways — IoT applications that can manage onsite IoT devices, or perform local processing of copious amounts of IoT data before upstreaming summary insights and events, can reside on the uCPE. By leveraging localized compute with hardware assist, the uCPE can assist in rendering insights quickly and locally while saving upstream bandwidth.

As the world transforms legacy onsite-computing into cloud-managed and cloud-powered edge computing, the uCPE can play an integral role.

From uCPE to uCP-Edge

The uCPE is not the only candidate for on-premises edge computing. Hyperscalers offer different flavors of computing, from ruggedized small-form-factor systems to 1 RU, 2RU servers to preconfigured full racks. However, the role the uCPE plays in the rollout of SD-WAN and SASE to all enterprise remote locations gives it a unique advantage — its presence. By picking the right uCPE platform that's future-ready, edge-ready, CSPs can start the edge computing race on the right foot.

About the Author

Portrait of Roy ChuaRoy Chua is founder and principal at AvidThink, an independent research and advisory service formed in 2018 out of SDxCentral's research arm. Roy was previously co-founder at SDxCentral where he ran both the research and product teams. Roy was formerly a management consultant working with both Fortune 500 and startup technology companies on go-to-market and product consulting. As an early proponent of the software-defined infrastructure movement, Roy is a frequent speaker at events in the telco and cloud space and a regular contributor to leading technology publications. A graduate of UC Berkeley's electrical engineering and computer science program and MIT's Sloan School of Business, Chua has 20+ years of experience in telco and enterprise cloud computing, networking and security, including founding several Silicon Valley startups.