Virtual Mobile Core: Time to Get Real

Mobile operators feel an urgency to virtualize the EPC, and are exploring a variety of ways to move forward, on an ambitious timeframe.

Gabriel Brown, Principal Analyst, Heavy Reading

June 16, 2015

4 Min Read
Virtual Mobile Core: Time to Get Real

In May 2015, Heavy Reading conducted an operator survey on behalf of Brocade on the topic of network transformation. Below, I've extracted a chart on the operator plans for virtual Evolved Packet Core (vEPC) deployment that I think shows the technology is now at the start of commercial deployment -- it's still early, to be clear, but it is real.

Virtual mobile core is one of the big themes we discussed at Light Reading's Big Telecom Event in Chicago last week, as we sought to gauge progress in technology development and commercial deployment as the telecom industry transitions to the New IP era. As I've argued elsewhere, the mobile core comprises a set of applications that are suited to cloud infrastructure, and are in high demand, making them prime candidates to showcase NFV in demanding, real-world use cases.

The survey shows that of the 66 professionals (out of a total 106 qualified respondents) working for operators with mobile networks, a full 70% expect to deploy vEPC commercially within three years, and 19% expect to deploy within a year, as shown in the chart below.

Figure 1: Plans for Deploying vEPC Source: Heavy Reading's May 2015 Network Transformation Survey, sponsored by Brocade; n=66 Source: Heavy Reading's May 2015 Network Transformation Survey, sponsored by Brocade; n=66

This is a bullish stance. At first glance, my thoughts are that this is an ambitious timeframe, and perhaps reflects a desire among progressive operator survey respondents to push ahead with an important, high-value transformation project. Having covered the mobile core for over a decade, I've learned that factors such as service continuity, security, BSS, legal intercept, amortization, etc., are influential on the pace of change on the ground, and this makes me a little more cautious on timing, even if the vEPC technology itself works to a commercial standard.

Working through some vEPC deployment scenarios, however, and the urgency to move forward becomes clearer. Operators can introduce vEPC in a number of ways, some associated with overlay use cases with new revenue opportunities, and others on efficiency and refresh, including:

  • Full EPC refresh/replacement. Perhaps the least likely option in the near term because a) it's difficult with today's state-of-the-art technology; and b) many operators have relatively new EPCs working just fine. Nevertheless, NTT Docomo has a target of 2016 to introduce vEPC into its main 4G backbone network (Docomo has particular reasons for this aggressive schedule) and, working over a three-year view, preparation for an EPC refresh is already important for large, progressive operators.

  • Capacity expansion. As operators upgrade capacity, it may make sense to do this with additional virtual instances deployed "in pool" with the physical EPC functions, rather than adding new chassis. One implication is that, by deploying in pool, the operator has to go with the same vendor for classic and virtual EPC.

  • Overlays for the Internet of Things. IoT services will generate a different traffic profile to the consumer smartphone users (e.g., more transaction-oriented) and operators can create vEPC instances optimized for this type of service. SK Telecom in South Korea is pursuing this model, and AT&T expects parts of its connected car service to run on this type of platform.

  • Mobile virtual network operators. Sophisticated MVNOs tend to want their own core networks, so that they can control their services independently of the host operator. This can be time consuming to set up and inefficient. Using NFV operators can offer MVNO wholesale customers with their own virtual "core-as-a-service." Elephant Talk, which provides mobile virtual network enabler services for Vodafone, is an example of this model.

  • Greenfield operations. The first vEPC to be deployed in commercial service was announced back in 2013, on behalf of a new operator in Myanmar, so clearly this model is workable. There aren't that many "classic" greenfield opportunities any more, but there are some, as the current speculation around Dish Networks shows, and you could also put MVNOs and IoT providers building their own cores into this category.

  • Virtual private enterprise networks. This is an intriguing opportunity that isn't yet well-developed, but has the potential to be important in the high-end enterprise market, and therefore to operator revenue and profitability. The idea is to offer an enterprise a hosted virtual private network configured to its specific needs (and configurable by the customers). Segments with proprietary processes and unique research, such as aerospace, finance, pharmaceutical, etc., are the best opportunities for this type of service. You could also think of it as an extension of the wireline Cloud VPN services now in the market.

Looked at from that perspective, the opportunities for vEPC in the New IP era are coming thick and fast. Operators have the desire for transformation and need the technology, products and processes to make it happen.

— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

This blog is sponsored by Brocade.

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About the Author(s)

Gabriel Brown

Principal Analyst, Heavy Reading

Gabriel leads mobile network research for Heavy Reading. His coverage includes system architecture, RAN, core, and service-layer platforms. Key research topics include 5G, open RAN, mobile core, and the application of cloud technologies to wireless networking.

Gabriel has more than 20 years’ experience as a mobile network analyst. Prior to joining Heavy Reading, he was chief analyst for Light Reading’s Insider research service; before that, he was editor of IP Wireline and Wireless Week at London's Euromoney Institutional Investor.

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