Cisco and Juniper jump into the 4G packet core

OvumJust in time for the Barcelona Mobile World Congress, both Cisco and Juniper have made separate announcements regarding new 4G evolved packet core (EPC) offers.

Neither company has LTE radio access products, nor have they played leading roles in 2G or 3G mobile, but the pair now plan to take the 4G mobile core by storm. End-to-end IP and robust mobile traffic forecasts play to their strengths, but will mobile operators be prepared to abandon current supplier road maps?

Mobile operators have traditionally preferred total solution bids where a large radio access network (RAN) vendor functions as the systems integrator, designing and rolling out the network and procuring third-party equipment only as required.

But now, explosive mobile data forecasts and a shift to end-to-end IP infrastructure have operators rethinking their procurement strategies. Router suppliers are eager to move up the value chain and grow margins by offering leading-edge, feature-rich solutions rather than just playing a supporting role in mobile backhaul and Internet routing.

Their routing technology arsenals are augmented by a variety of network appliances and capabilities to enforce fair use policies, security, and tools to optimize network resources: just what will be needed if our mobile data forecast predictions pan out.

By focusing mainly on LTE RAN technology and best-effort data, some traditional mobile suppliers may have left a gap for new entrants to exploit, but others such as Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson are already in LTE EPC trials. Still, by splitting RFPs between RAN and advanced mobile packet core, mobile operators could select the best of breed from both worlds and avoid internal conflicts between radio and network teams.

Mobile operators are already issuing RFPs specifically for mobile backhaul, linking the RAN with the mobile core.

Having completed its $2.9 billion acquisition of Starent to hasten EPC entry, Cisco has now rebranded the centerpiece ST-40 as the “ASR 5000”, a “purpose-built mobile network multimedia core customer management solution” for 3G and 4G mobile networks.

Cisco claims its mobile portfolio also includes the ASR 1000, ASR 9000, 7600, MWR, CRS-1, Unified Computing System and Nexus series. The ASR 5000 supports much of the EPC functionality proposed by the 3GPP, as outlined in the Ovum report Evolution of IP subscriber management in mobile networks — keeping churn at bay. The Starent team has become the mobile internet technology group within Cisco, which generally does a good job of integrating acquisitions.

Cisco released its latest Visual Networking Index (VNI) five-year mobile forecast as a further justification for its deeper foray into mobile infrastructure. Its findings were that global mobile data traffic increased 160% in the past year to 90 petabytes per month, and that this figure will increase 39-fold over the next five years, reaching 3.6 exabytes per month in 2014.

Cisco also notes that global mobile data traffic is growing 2.4 times faster than global fixed broadband data traffic. While femtocells are expected to offload around 25% of traffic, new mobile business models and policy enforcement tools will still be needed to accommodate projected mobile traffic levels.

Project Falcon
Juniper Networks has jumped on the mobile core bandwagon with Project Falcon, a mobile packet core framework based on open standards and flexible software platforms that support a broad range of devices, applications and customer needs.

Foundational products include MX 3D universal edge routers and SRX services gateways using open APIs and SDKs, facilitating the creation of applications by third-party developers, and promising mobile operators open and secure mobile networks based on Junos software. Juniper’s 3D scaling simultaneously addresses subscribers, services and bandwidth to support the demand for 4G mobile services.

Juniper’s approach is quite different from Cisco’s Starent (and Tellabs’ WiChorus) acquisitions, which give them a purpose-built product and (in Cisco’s case) an installed base to leverage. Instead, Juniper’s solution positions it as an open service and network platform. While Juniper’s open approach is attractive, it still needs to build an EPC ecosystem and get operator endorsements, and it doesn’t have much time to do so.

Turnkey competitors such as Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and Huawei are already deploying 4G EPC-ready platforms. We look forward to hearing about further EPC developments from Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson, Huawei, Hitachi, Motorola, NEC, Nokia Siemens Networks and ZTE as Silicon Valley converges on Barcelona.