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Virtual Mobile Core – Why? And When?

The mobile core network is a prime target for virtualization. In a Heavy Reading operator survey completed earlier this year 29% and 23% of respondents said they expected to start virtualizing IMS and EPC respectively by 2016.

Clearly, operators see an opportunity to optimize their networks and prepare for the next wave of growth and service through NFV and cloud technologies.

But why is this? And are the professed timelines realistic? Part of the enthusiasm is because virtual EPC and virtual IMS are serious enough applications to demonstrate that NFV can have a meaningful impact. This makes virtual mobile core a great NFV showcase and favorite of the trade show floor. But there are also more substantive reasons for operator interest. After detailed discussions with a large number of mobile operators, we have identified the following drivers:

  • Mobility and cloud are inherently well matched. With mobile users accessing content and applications hosted in many different locations, and given that services are now cross-network and cross-device, it becomes clear that to anchor users on a static, single-function core network will not meet future needs. Operators instead will look to leverage the benefits of in a dynamic cloud infrastructure.
  • Time to market for new services. Operators want investment in new technologies and architectures to yield benefits in terms of services and revenues, as opposed to simple cost efficiency. The ability to deploy new core instances to meet new use-cases is an attractive aspect of NFV -- for example, the ability offer virtual enterprise P-GWs, and associated value-added "SGi-LAN" services opens-up new and potentially lucrative enterprise services.
  • Modular scalability. Virtual network functions (VNFs) designed for the cloud can scale according to demand in a way not practical with classic hardware appliances. This is particularly useful in the mobile core, where operators may want to scale the control independently of the user plane (e.g. in EPC), or the state module independently of the transaction module (e.g. in IMS). Moreover, a surge in demand related to a special events, emergencies or new commercial opportunities can also be more easily accommodated.
  • Cost efficiency. Leveraging the economies of scale in data center hardware, and the automated management processes native to the cloud, operators should be able to drive material savings in the cost of deploying and operating the mobile. They won't spend less overall, but it will mean they can meet future demand for mobile broadband and remain profitable.

So, when might operators put their NFV strategies into action in the mobile core?

It will take time -- many years -- for the entire industry to move to NFV at scale. However, we are already aware of operators preparing for commercial launch of virtual packet gateways for machine-to-machine (M2M) services and a good number using what could be termed "pre-NFV" virtualized Telephony Application Servers for upcoming VoLTE deployments. Some very progressive operators are also targeting 2016 for the introduction of virtual EPC into the main production network.

Mainstream, large-scale deployment of virtual mobile core is still some way off -- it will be perhaps three to four years before it's the default option -- because it involves a very challenging set of applications that are inherently risky to experiment with. Therefore, even for operators considering a core refresh in three years' time, now is the time start planning and trialing NFV-based products and architectures.

— Gabriel Brown, Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

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