Vapor IO sticks with edge data center deployment plan despite Covid

It’s been more than six months since Vapor IO announced it was going to build out its Kinetic Edge platform in 36 markets by the end of 2021, allowing its customers to deploy edge computing in top metropolitan markets across the U.S., with a projected reach of as much as […]

It’s been more than six months since Vapor IO announced it was going to build out its Kinetic Edge platform in 36 markets by the end of 2021, allowing its customers to deploy edge computing in top metropolitan markets across the U.S., with a projected reach of as much as 70% of the population.

If that ambitious schedule were to run into delays due to Covid-19, few probably would be surprised. But it’s actually on course despite having to get sites approved by local jurisdictions and trying to access locations when many facilities are closed to the public.

One reason the overall business is accelerating has to do with the pandemic, according to Matt Trifiro, chief marketing officer at Austin, Texas-based Vapor IO. Companies that had automation on their road maps can no longer send people into facilities like they did pre-Covid, and they’re motivated to move faster toward automation.

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“I think Covid has actually shifted this whole world of edge computing into an entirely different lane, and everything is moving more quickly because of that,” he said.

RELATED: Crown Castle-backed Vapor IO raises $90M for nationwide edge rollout

Vapor IO is live in four markets: Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas and Pittsburgh. Last week, the company reaffirmed its pledge to be in 36 markets, announcing a deal with AlefEdge whereby the two companies will roll out a Software-Defined Mobile Edge (SD-ME) platform and APIs for enterprises and developers who can then deploy edge computing on top of private wireless networks. The service is first available in Pittsburgh and Atlanta and applies to existing LTE, CBRS and Wi-Fi networks, as well as emerging 5G networks.

Setting the concrete 

When Vapor IO goes into a market, it first identifies the desired plots of land, gets the leases finalized and then trenches or leases fiber before pouring the concrete foundation for the data center. It will then bring in the electrical supplies and everything else it needs before the micro-modular data center is delivered to the site and set down by crane.  

“We’ve got an inventory of our modules coming out of the factory. We’re on a pretty good track to be ready and operational in all 36 markets by the end of 2021,” Trifiro said, although it will probably stretch into 2022 to get the data centers all fully live and production-grade. “In terms of us marching down that path of 36 markets, we’re on track for those, so it’s pretty exciting.”

Of course, the company needs to work with local jurisdictions, and its relationship with tower company Crown Castle International helps in that regard. VaporIO started out as a joint venture with Crown Castle. In its first set of markets, Crown happened to have a strong presence and for Vapor it was a big strategic advantage to partner with Crown, whose land assets it could leverage. 

But Vapor IO soon discovered that it would need access to more than one tower company’s sites – it needs to place data centers where they make strategic sense and use other entities’ fiber. Crown Castle remains a minority investor in the firm.

The actual size of the data centers varies, but a typical deployment of a unit will be about 20% larger than a shipping container. It’s also working on some new designs and on sites that originally were deployed by Nextel Communications. Thousands of iDEN pads were deployed across the country and are now sitting unused, so Vapor IO built a Vapor Edge module designed to fit on an iDEN pad, which helps it get into certain markets faster.

Carrier, cloud relationships

Just how much demand companies like Vapor IO will see from wireless carriers is a big question. A lot of carriers say they want control of the data centers and seek to build their own. However, the economics of that can prove too much and their accounting departments no doubt will be making the final call on that. 

Similar to how carriers ultimately ended up co-locating their facilities on towers with other carriers, the economics of shared infrastructure is compelling. Vapor IO expects wireless carriers will be interested in using its edge data centers especially in Tier 2 and 3 markets, where the cost of deploying their own will prove to be just too great.

Trifiro said he doesn’t really see that many other companies competing in the same league as Vapor, which considers itself 24 to 36 months ahead of a lot of others in terms of lining up permits in local jurisdictions. He expects it will be a symbiotic relationship with the likes of Equinix and Digital Realty; it’s a customer and partner in many ways with both of them. “I don’t think it’s going to be a winner-takes-all market,” he said. “We like to see ourselves as more of an enabler for these other businesses than directly competing with them.”

As things stand now, the number of internet connections is going to grow into the thousands, and they’re going to be located at edge locations, allowing for very low latencies between networks.

Imagine there’s an Azure node – just by way of example – at a major regional facility in Chicago, but if you’re 30 miles from downtown Chicago, “you’re suddenly in a different equation when it comes to latency,” he said. “There’s a set of workloads that can’t even be serviced from cloud computers from downtown Chicago” even within that metro region, such as for controlling autonomous drones with low latency signaling requirements.

“You need places farther out in the network to place these computers,” but putting them out in the field in a data center does no good if it’s unable to connect to somebody’s else’s network. “Solving for the edge is almost more of a networking problem than it is a data center problem,” he said. “You need facilities to place the servers in,” but it’s really about the shortest path through fiber for two networks to connect.

Here is a list of the first 36 cities to feature the Kinetic Edge platform (in alphabetical order): Atlanta, Austin, Birmingham, Boston, Buffalo, Charlotte, Chicago, Cincinnati, Cleveland, Columbus, Stamford/Hartford/New Haven, Dallas, Denver, Detroit, Fort Myers, Houston, Indianapolis, Jacksonville, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, Miami, Nashville, Orlando, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Phoenix, Providence, Raleigh, Rochester, San Antonio, San Diego, San Francisco, Seattle, Syracuse, Tampa and Washington, D.C.

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