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Heavy Reading: The Road to Virtual EPC

Dan Jones

Heavy Reading expects that initial deployments of virtual EPC technology will start this year but is predicting that widespread deployments by the majority of mobile operators will take far longer to play out.

That is one of the key findings of "The Rise of Virtual EPC: A Mobile Packet Core Forecast & Analysis," a report by Heavy Reading senior analyst Gabriel Brown. Brown writes that all major vendors -- and several startups -- have virtual EPC product development underway, and several Tier 1 mobile operators have trialed early versions of the technology in anticipation of eventual widespread adoption of the technology.

He expects, however, that overall it will take time for typically conservative mobile operators to rip and replace such a crucial part of their network and replace it with a virtualized alternative that could promise opex benefits over time. "Virtual EPC needs to match the performance and reliability levels of 'classic' EPC solutions to be attractive as a complete core replacement," Brown writes.

What the EPC does
The Evolved Packet Core (EPC) is crucial to the mobile network system architecture and the delivery of services to mobile subscribers. The EPC performs functions including subscriber tracking, mobility management, and session management in the network. It sits between the radio network (RAN) and the IP network.

The Evolved Packet Core
Source: Heavy Reading
Source: Heavy Reading

"Technically, the nature of EPC and the relatively modest traffic volumes in mobile networks make it suitable for virtualization, although this depends somewhat on the specific application and deployment model," Brown writes.

The Timing on EPC Virtualization
Brown expects to see some limited deployments of virtual EPC technology this year. He expects the first moves to happen with machine-to-machine (M2M) deployments and small enterprise setups, largely through experiments with network overlays.

"Typically, the virtual EPC would target less technically demanding use cases, such as M2M, which might have limited mobility, quality of service (QoS), and throughput requirements. The overlay approach offers operators an opportunity to experiment with the technology without putting critical services at risk."

A small group of "leading progressive operators" is aiming for "complete virtual EPC replacement by the end of 2016," Brown anticipates. These operators, however, are the exception rather the rule, and Brown believes that a widespread move to virtual EPC is likely to happen in the years after 2016.

"Many advanced operators -- the ones most likely to be interested in virtual EPC -- have only recently deployed new EPCs and do not expect to revisit that investment in the next few years," Brown notes. "The bulk of fast followers will therefore look to EPC transformation after 2016, and the majority of operators, later still."

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

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