A leading NFV use case, the virtual Evolved Packet Core (vEPC), enables new classes of applications for the mobile...
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network by improving network flexibility and lowering costs. Leading mobile operators are beginning to deploy vEPCs to enable Internet of Things (IoT) platforms, high-speed mobile data applications, enterprise wireless and virtual mobile networks.
The evolved packet core is a framework for converged voice and data transport on a 4G LTE network. It provides the centralized control, management, security and intelligence to connect a large number of mobile edge elements, such as base stations and base station controllers. The EPC is composed of a number of elements/functions, including:
- Mobility Management Entity: Authenticates and tracks a user across the network.
- Serving Gateway: Routes data packets through the access network.
- Packet Data Node Gateway: Acts as the interface between the LTE network and other packet data networks; manages quality of service and provides deep packet inspection.
- Policy and Charging Rules Function: Provides data flow detection, policy enforcement and flow-based charging.
- HSS (Home Subscriber Server): A central database that contains user-related and subscription-related information. Functionality includes mobility management, call and session establishment support, user authentication, and access authorization.
The virtual EPC abstracts and decomposes the various EPC functions and allows them to run in unique combinations on standard COTS servers.
Benefits of deploying vEPC
Deploying NFV allows operators to more rapidly introduce new services, design networks in new ways, reduce Capex and improve network management/operations. Mobile operators are starting to deploy programmable software-based core networks -- vEPCs -- that can be easily customized for specific user and application requirements.
The benefits of vEPCs include:
- Lower acquisition (Capex) costs: A vEPC can cost significantly less than a traditional EPC -- often resulting in savings of 30% to 40% or more.
- Lower operating costs (Opex): A virtual EPC can lower power consumption, require less space and be easier to operate and maintain.
- Flexibility: VEPC enables the rapid introduction of new innovative services and the targeting of specific services by geography or customer type.
- Agility: Virtual EPC allows providers to elastically scale services up or down based on network traffic and customer demand.
VEPC market opportunity
VEPCs will enable significant new business opportunities for mobile operators. The largest opportunity is to participate in the growth of the IoT market. IoT applications have very different network requirements and price points than the smartphone and tablets that predominate in the current networks. Providers have started to leverage NFV to build IoT-specific sections of their mobile networks with new virtual EPCs. EPCs are composed of many sub-elements, which will be used in different combinations for specific IoT applications. Virtual EPCs gives mobile operators the ability to cost effectively customize their networks for individual customers, industries and applications -- critical in the diverse world of IoT.
Other interesting applications enabled by vEPCs include:
- Enterprise-specific mobile networks
- High-speed mobile data
- Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs)
Challenges to implementation
Like many new, complex technologies, vEPCs create challenges for mobile operators. Traditionally, mobile operators have relied on one or two large suppliers (e.g., Ericssson, Huawei, Nokia and Cisco) to deploy their mobile cores. These mobile cores are typically implemented as integrated systems on optimized hardware platforms. Integrating new vEPCs with the existing mobile core and back-office systems (OSS/BSS) will be challenging, and may require significant customization.
Most large mobile operators have already built new, high-capacity mobile cores for their 4G LTE deployments. As a result, most vEPC deployments will be for either greenfield mobile networks or new applications (e.g., IoT) distinct from the traditional mobile network, which is optimized for smartphone traffic.
Dozens of mobile operators are testing and trialing vEPCs for various applications. Several mobile operators have deployed vEPCs, including Saudi Telecom (IoT), AT&T (connected cars), Telus (IoT), NTT (mobile data) and SK Telecom (IoT).
There is a large number of vEPC suppliers, including traditional mobile network equipment operators such as Ericsson, Huawei, Nokia (and ALU), Cisco, and NEC. New entrants with vEPC solutions include HPE, Brocade (Connectem), Affirmed and Lemko.
Initial virtual EPCs will be deployed in parallel to the production (4G LTE) EPC and will enable IoT, MVNO and enterprise services. These services have cost and traffic profiles that benefit from customized vEPCs. Mobile operators should leverage vEPCs to deliver new, innovative services at lower costs.
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