Jarich: Cisco, Alca-Lu and the hyperbole of the packet core

Last week, Cisco announced the CRS-3, a core router promising three times the switching capacity of its flagship CRS-1--topping out at 322 Tbps in a fully-loaded cluster. Pre-billing the announcement as something that would, "forever change the Internet," Cisco's bigger, faster core router failed to impress the mass media. As one blogger put it, "Routers stopped being sexy over 15 years ago ... They're no more exciting to 99.999 percent of the population than a paper mill."

Today, Alcatel-Lucent announced enhancements to its mobile packet core offer--building on the EPC offer it launched last year with new 2G/3G capabilities and service control tools. Having already called these enhancements, "breakthrough innovations in wireless IP," I'm 95 percent certain we will see media and analyst sentiment that mirrors the reaction to last week's news from Cisco.

I'm not here to provide a critique of anyone's marketing efforts. There's been enough of that already. But, if people are finding the most recent moves in the data core to be "underwhelming," there's clearly a problem that needs to be addressed. As we pack our bags for Las Vegas (oh, and CTIA) it's particularly worrying for any vendor trying to sell its IP and data expertise as an advantage in the mobile packet core.    

Why the mobile packet core isn't sexy

I once heard a vendor in the transport and routing space refer to himself as a "humble packet plumber." Alliteration and self-deprecation aside, it's a fair representation. Plumbing is an important, well-paid profession--but it's not really considered sexy. Why? The pipes themselves are hidden and, as long as they're doing their job, they're nothing anyone needs to think about.

The mobile packet core is the same way. It's important, sure, but it's behind the scenes and rather intangible for most people; the evolution that takes place there doesn't touch your average end-user in the way that a new handset or friendly user interface does. Even for people who follow it, the mobile packet core lacks the LTE-vs.-WiMAX or Apple-vs.-Google style religious wars that drive interest elsewhere in the wireless ecosystem. And, as long as vendors position capacity upgrades as the end-all-be-all of innovation, the constant performance leapfrogging that people have come to expect with core competition ultimately makes all the vendors and their solutions seem the same.

Why it should be

The data gateways that make up the mobile packet core will never be as interesting to the general public as the latest generation of the iPhone. They don't need to be: they're not evaluated, purchased or deployed by the general public. Regardless, it is in the interest of any vendor selling mobile packet core kit to at least elevate their profile and make them something "top of mind" if not "sexy"--if only because these same vendors have a vested interest in seeing their products get sold.

At the same time, this shouldn't be an impossible task. More than simply part of the mobile broadband, "plumbing," the mobile packet core is critical to the ability of new HSPA+ and LTE networks to actually serve lots of new users, each clamoring for lots of throughput... all while securing those connections and providing the session intelligence necessary for helping operators monetize their traffic, with or without third party applications. Oh, and while it might seem like the core is dominated by vaguely similar products, this isn't the case--a new stable of credible competitors (ranging from Alcatel-Lucent to Cisco to Ericcson to Huawei to NSN to Tellabs) with diverse platforms, capacities and application supports means the market is fully of anything but the same old thing.

How to hammer the message home

So, if we can agree that the mobile packet core, and the core in general, doesn't get the attention it deserves--at least for vendors trying to sell solutions into the space--the question remains: how do we remedy the situation? The first step is a simple issue of marketing. Mobile World Congress saw announcements from Cisco, Juniper, Tellabs and ZTE. Alcatel-Lucent made its news this week. Now, their mobile packet core competitors must follow suit, especially because (like Alcatel-Lucent, Tellabs and Juniper) they're leading with relatively new and untested gateway offers. The second step is a wee bit trickier, revolving around solutions. To avoid the trap of having the mobile packet core positioned as little more than plumbing, it needs to be positioned as an integral part of a larger mobile broadband solution--as much a part of any upgrade to HSPA+ or LTE as RAN, backhaul, application and professional service assets. 

Peter Jarich is an analyst with Current Analysis.