When you think about the metaverse and the enterprise, do you think about millions of workers buzzing about in a virtual world to do their work? Maybe employees picking Star Wars characters as avatars and fighting with light sabers? CEOs likely blanch at that image; to most, virtual workers implies virtual work, and it’s hard to say how that generates real sales and products. Fortunately, there’s an alternative that depends not on enterprises using the metaverse but on riding its coattails.
If you ask companies what they think about the next frontier in cloud computing is, the answers are mixed between “the edge” and “IoT”, and of course the latter is really an example of an edge application. Well that frontier may be delayed because service providers would have to make a significant investment in infrastructure just to create an edge / IoT option for enterprises, and most enterprises aren’t willing to start planning for that next frontier until services are available. With buyers waiting for services and sellers wanting to prove demand, we could be in for an era of false starts, edge-wise.
Social media demand is different. It can become enormous overnight, and the metaverse is a prime social-media phenomena, with a big potential problem. All those humans buzzing about in the virtual world of the metaverse would create some awkward moments unless all the avatars were controlled in real time with minimal delay. Meta (the company) has announced policies against metaverse groping, but technology issues could lead to something like that happening accidentally. The problem is latency — the delay between when we initiate something in the metaverse and when our avatars mirror that action. Significant loss of synchrony with the real world is an ugly problem for metaversing, and we can expect Meta and others to work to correct it by controlling latency. If that happens, there’s hope for those enterprise edge / IoT applications.
Metaverse latency control is more than just edge computing, it’s also edge connectivity, meaning consumer broadband. Faster broadband offers lower latency, but there’s more to latency control than just speed. You need to minimize the handling, the number of hops or devices between the user who’s pushing an avatar around a metaverse, and the software that understands what that means to what the user “sees” and what others see as well. Think fiber and cable TV, and a fast path between the user and the nearest edge, which is likely to be in a nearby major metro area. And think “everywhere” because, while the metaverse may be nowhere in a strict reality sense, it’s everywhere that social-media humans are, which is everywhere.
Low latency, high-speed, universal consumer broadband? All the potential ad revenue for the metaverse is suddenly targeting that goal. As it’s achieved, the average social media junkie could well end up with 50 or 100 Mbps or even a gigabit of low-latency bandwidth. There are corporate headquarters who don’t have it that good. Certainly, the average branch office VPN connection wouldn’t be that good, but if it could be, that could well transform how corporations provide connectivity.
Companies already use the Internet to connect offices where traditional MPLS VPNs aren’t available, usually by using “software-defined WAN” or SD-WAN technology. The problem with the internet and SD-WAN is that these connections often add a lot of latency, enough additional hops to create a visible difference in how applications perform. That latency discourages real-time applications. But if metaverse adoption drives low-latency broadband, that could be a game-changer.
Wait, you might say! We’re inventing a problem here. How many enterprises run IoT (or even try to run it) over SD-WAN? Not many, but what many enterprises are now realizing is that low latency isn’t just for IoT. All real-time applications, ones that are tightly coupled to real-world activity, are sensitive to latency, and many of today’s highly interactive web-based applications use the same sort of real-time computing as IoT would. These applications are impacted by high latency, particularly if the applications were designed for either local-network connection to the data center or a dedicated MPLS VPN. If the metaverse creates a low-latency consumer broadband option, that could erase the latency barrier and SD-WAN could explode.
Explode to the point where enterprise CFOs might start pushing back on those traditional VPN costs. Explode to the point where network operators might have a hard time selling MPLS VPNs, and a hard time justifying the infrastructure needed to support them.
When such low-latency metaverse broadband becomes available, there will be some issues to consider before you and your CFO start counting the money rolling in from VPN savings. Latency isn’t the whole story, and there are other points to review, starting with the service-level agreement (SLA).
First, look at the law. In some areas you can’t use a residential internet service for commercial purposes, period. In others, there may be a restriction on hosting anything over the connection or a monthly cap on bandwidth used. Ideally, what you’d need is a business broadband service based on the same high-speed, low-latency technology used for residential / metaverse services. Check the SLA for the service you’re considering to make sure you don’t have any of these restrictions.
Next, see what QoS guarantees are written into the SLA, and what your recourse is if the access / internet provider doesn’t meet them. You might think that 50 Mbps is fine, or that 1 or 2Gig is better, but remember those speeds are just the rate the access interface is clocked at. Your traffic will be aggregated as it moves inward, and that means other traffic could impact your performance. You may also find differences in availability guarantees; consumer broadband isn’t considered mission-critical, and even business broadband using consumer infrastructure may not deliver the number of nines of availability that you want.
Another point to keep in mind is that everything isn’t fixed-line. Meta is forthright saying that its metaverse plans depend on 5G deployment because so many metaverse users are likely to be using their phones. Does this mean wireless low-latency services might be available for enterprises too? Maybe, but 5G in general (and millimeter-wave 5G in particular) for fixed-wireless access will require some special attention. 5G is supposed to offer lower latency, but just how low might depend on the infrastructure used. Also, be aware that millimeter-wave can be impacted by buildings and even foliage, so even if you’re satisfied with the SLA, some experimentation to establish service reliability is in order before you commit.
OK, low-latency consumer broadband isn’t an automatic win, but it’s probably good news, maybe great news, for enterprises. You can take advantage of what the metaverse brings without blundering around in it, providing that it’s successful enough to drive latency changes in consumer infrastructure and even edge computing. So, when you’re reading about metaverse success, expect consumer broadband and edge computing to improve, and with it your own options for hosting and VPN access. Tell the CFO not to open the champagne yet, but it’s OK to get a bottle chilling.
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