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White Paper

LTE/SAE & the Evolved Packet Core:


Technology Platforms &
Implementation Choices
Prepared by
Gabriel Brown
Senior Analyst, Heavy Reading

www.heavyreading.com
On behalf of Alcatel-Lucent

www.alcatel-lucent.com

April 2009

TABLE OF CONTENTS
I.

INTRODUCTION & KEY FINDINGS ..................................................................... 3

1.1
1.2

Key Findings.......................................................................................................... 3
Report Scope & Structure ..................................................................................... 4

II.

EPC MARKET REQUIREMENTS ......................................................................... 5

2.1
2.2
2.3

Outlook for Packet Data Services ......................................................................... 5


Functions of the Packet-Switched Core ................................................................ 6
Enabling Operator Business Objectives With EPC ............................................... 6

III.

IMPLEMENTING THE EPC NETWORK ARCHITECTURE ................................. 7

3.1
3.2
3.3
3.4
3.5

Logical EPC Architecture ...................................................................................... 7


Integration of 2G/3G Packet-Switched Core With EPC ......................................... 8
New Platform Requirements ................................................................................. 9
Implementation Options ........................................................................................ 9
Alignment with IP/MPLS Core Networks ............................................................. 10

IV.

PLATFORM ANALYSIS FOR EPC NODES ...................................................... 12

4.1
4.2
4.3
4.4
4.5

Economics of Platform Choices .......................................................................... 12


Vendor Strategies for EPC Platforms .................................................................. 12
EPC Bearer-Plane Requirements ....................................................................... 14
Toward the Access-Independent Gateway ......................................................... 15
Evolving Packet Gateway Requirements 3G to EPC ....................................... 16

V.

SAE GATEWAY PLATFORMS & OPERATOR CHOICES ................................ 18

5.1
5.2
5.3
5.4

Edge Router, ATCA, or Specialist Platform?....................................................... 18


Platform Heritage & Economics .......................................................................... 18
Edge-Router Platforms ........................................................................................ 19
ATCA or Specialist Platforms .............................................................................. 19

VI.

BACKGROUND TO THIS STUDY ...................................................................... 21

6.1
6.2
6.3

Original Research................................................................................................ 21
About the Author ................................................................................................. 21
About Heavy Reading ......................................................................................... 21

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I.

Introduction & Key Findings

Within five years, wireless access technologies will account for a greater number of global broadband connections than DSL, cable modem, and fiber combined. To support the rapid increase in
traffic, active users, and applications implied by this growth rate, mobile broadband operators
need to rapidly transition to a flat, all-IP network with the Evolved Packet Core (EPC) at its center.
The intent is to cost-effectively deliver superior application performance from the 3G/Long Term
Evolution (LTE) radio access network (RAN) across the core network and provide end-to-end
QoS in line with principles set out by the Next Generation Mobile Networks Alliance. The EPC
should act as a "business machine" capable of assuring end-user quality of experience and implementing an operator's business rules as it seeks to maximize productivity from network assets.
This report positions EPC in the wider market context and examines the major decision points
faced by operators evaluating the implementation of packet core in LTE networks. With this as
background, the second half of the paper focuses on the underlying technology requirements for
the System Architecture Evolution (SAE) Gateway elements the Serving Gateway (S-GW) and
Packet Data Network Gateway (P-GW) that interface between the RAN and external packet
networks such as the Internet.

1.1

Key Findings

The key findings of this report are as follows:


EPC represents a fundamental shift in wireless network architectures, introducing challenging new requirements to packet core equipment. With no circuit-switch domain specified
for LTE, the packet core must support carrier-grade voice, differentiated services using end-toend QoS, and vastly increased throughput per subscriber relative to 3G. Given the ten-year
investment horizon, this is likely to mean that most deployed and currently available products will
not fully meet operator requirements, which is driving discussion on which underlying hardware
and software platforms are most appropriate for the various EPC deployment options.
New hardware platforms will be required for EPC; many existing 3G products are not able
to scale to support LTE. A majority of packet core vendors have outlined plans to introduce new
hardware platforms for EPC, which reflects an inadequate legacy product base, and we expect all
major suppliers to have revealed next-generation platform strategies within the next 12 months.
While it is viable to support EPC applications on existing platforms and this will make sense in
some cases, operators need visibility into platform roadmaps to reduce the risk of being left
stranded with outmoded equipment.
Platform choices will mirror the EPC architectural split, with edge routers used in the
bearer plane for S-GW and P-GW, and blade server platforms used for the MME and PCRF
in the control plane. This is a broad characterization, however, and not representative of the
entire market. There's a subtle trade-off between platform types, with choices impacted by a vast
range of operator- and vendor-specific circumstances. Despite this hedge to our opinion, we note
that vendors with successful edge-router products have all opted to use this platform for SAE
Gateways, and that those without have opted for an alternative type of platform.
It is critical for operators to assess the resources suppliers are willing and able to invest in
the platforms on which EPC products are based. The ability and incentive to invest in product
development and provide long-term support is based on the revenue opportunity and/or strategic
importance of a product portfolio. Mobile packet core is a relatively low unit-volume market, which
has historically made it difficult for vendors to sustain and prioritize investment. For this reason,
leveraging edge-router assets for SAE Gateways is attractive; however, the risk is that given the
market size, vendors will not make EPC requirements a priority when developing or upgrading the
router platform.

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EPC will initially be deployed as an overlay in parallel to the 2G/3G core, but will ultimately
become the converged core for all wireless access networks. This will minimize the risk of
disruption to mainstream data services and allow operators to experiment with LTE ahead of migrating to a converged packet core for 2G/3G/4G. We estimate that within one to two years of
commercializing and stabilizing the EPC, operators will want to start consolidating wireless
access networks onto a common packet-switched core. It is at this point that software upgrades
to deployed 3G equipment starts to become appealing.
Throughput, latency, active user capacity, bearer setup times, and traffic analysis capability
are the basic metrics used to determine SAE Gateway product requirements. Of these, raw
throughput is the least challenging; but whereas in the past, packet processing capability could be
sacrificed for greater control-plane capability, the move to EPC will also put great emphasis on
latency "through the box" and wire-speed packet inspection. This creates a requirement for faster
hardware and aligns SAE Gateways more closely with advanced wireline products.
SAE Gateways will likely be collocated with 3G equipment in centralized locations initially,
but could be distributed toward the edge of the network over time. Potential benefits of a
distributed model include traffic optimization, improved redundancy, and local Internet break out,
with specifics dependent on how the S-GW and P-GW are split. Relative to 2G/3G, it is expected
to be more technically feasible and attractive to distribute EPC gateway functions. Conversely,
there remains an argument for centralization, and the adage "don't distribute complexity" could
have been written for just this situation.
There is an opportunity to create a new "Access-Independent Gateway" product category
that incorporates SAE Gateway functions. In line with the desire to further flatten the network
and streamline operations, collapsing functions into a multiservice access gateway has significant
potential over the medium and long term, despite near-term implementation and organizational
challenges. Where wireless and wireline functions are required to be supported on the same
physical equipment, edge-router platforms are likely to dominate.

1.2

Report Scope & Structure

The report is structured as follows:


Section II places the EPC in context, with an outlook for packet data services growth (subscriber
adds, traffic volume, applications, operator revenues), a discussion of the primary functions of the
packet-switched core, and a view on the ability of EPC to enable operator business objectives.
Section III analyzes how the logical EPC network architecture, as defined by 3GPP, might be
implemented in practice. It discusses integration with existing 2G/3G networks and the merits of
overlay deployments versus a converged core. This section also looks at various deployment
alternatives, such as the centralization or distribution of SAE Gateway functions, and how, over
time, packet gateway functions may align (or overlap) with the underlying IP/MPLS network.
Section IV provides an analysis of platform choices for EPC nodes, with an assessment of the
functionality and performance of legacy hardware and its suitability for the next-gen packet core.
It includes an analysis of EPC bearer-plane requirements and discusses the use of blade server
platforms for control-plane and mobility management functions.
Section V highlights the major issues that operators should consider when evaluating platform
choices for EPC, and specifically for the S-GW and P-GW nodes.

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II.

EPC Market Requirements

This section places the EPC in a wider market context. It examines the outlook for packet data
services, discusses the primary functions of the packet-switched core, and offers a view on the
importance of EPC to enabling operator business objectives.

2.1

Outlook for Packet Data Services

The mobile phone is the fastest-growing consumer electronics product of all time, growing from
virtually nothing in 1990 to more than 3 billion active connections and 400 million devices sold in
2008. Mobile data, while not yet in the same league, is now showing impressive growth.
Active 3G connections (HSPA and EVDO) were in the region of 200 million at the end of 2008
and expected to grow to more than 1 billion by end of 2012. Mobile operator data revenues are
growing at around 40 percent annually. Advanced 3G networks now provide typical downlink data
rates of about 1 Mbit/s, and average busy-hour throughput per 3G (HSPA) subscriber is expected
to increase from around 250 bit/s in 2008 to 115 kbit/s by the end of 2012.
Viewed in this context, the long-term outlook for packet data services over LTE is positive. The
chart below shows growth in mobile broadband connections by technology through 2012. We
anticipate this strong growth in 3G (HSPA and EVDO) will prime the market for LTE, which will
launch in 2010, add approximately 3.5 million connections in 2011, and then ramp up from 2012.
Figure 2.1: Growth in Mobile Broadband Connections by Technology

In the longer term, LTE can be expected to gain greater scale than current 3G technology, due to
the unprecedented international alignment behind LTE and through features such as spectrum
flexibility, the unification of TDD and FDD operation, and the adoption of IP-centric network architectures. Heavy Reading's aggressive forecast scenario sees more than 450 million active LTE
connections in 2016, assuming a growth rate similar to 3G in the years following commercial
launch and a starting point of 4 million subscribers in 2011.
This growth in connections, average traffic per user, and demand for more sophisticated applications should mean that the mobile packet core market, which was worth an estimated $1.4 billion
in 2008, remains healthy and vibrant.

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2.2

Functions of the Packet-Switched Core

The packet-switched core is fundamental to wireless data networks. In LTE networks, the EPC
manages mobility, tracks users as they move between cell sites, and routes traffic accordingly. It
also serves to anchor mobility across access networks, as users roam between 2G, 3G, and LTE,
or (potentially) seek to access "LTE services" from generic IP access networks such as home
broadband or WiFi.
It provides connectivity to desired network services and, because all of an LTE subscriber's data
traffic must pass through the packet core on its way to the applications/service provider, EPC is
critical to LTE services, with extremely high value placed on reliability and performance.
The importance of the EPC is more significant in LTE than the packet core has been historically
in 2G/3G networks, because it marks the first time within a mainstream 3rd Generation Partnership Project (3GPP) standards release that a mobile network can be considered an all-IP network. With no circuit-switched domain specified in LTE/SAE evolution, EPC is responsible for
real-time services such as carrier-grade VOIP and video. This requirement for end-to-end qualityof-service (QoS), and by implication, to differentiate from best-effort services, is not unique to
LTE, but represents the first time it has become a critical requirement in mobile networks.

2.3

Enabling Operator Business Objectives With EPC

In addition to providing 3GPP-specified services, the EPC can also be seen as part of an operator's "service engine" used to deliver differentiated services and applications. The intent is for an
operator to extend its business outwards from basic connectivity into higher-value services that
diversify the revenue and margin mix and not to put too fine a point on it expand the operator's addressable market.
The ability to differentiate services is already important to 2G/3G packet core networks and will
become even more important in LTE. It is, however, an area that will need significant product innovation on the part of the EPC equipment vendors if operators and users are to capture the full
value of LTE access networks.
While current core networks offer interfaces to the higher-layer policy control and do a reasonable
job of enforcing this business logic, the outcome in terms of marketable services is often rather
coarse-grained and lacks sophistication for example, the technology is often used to block
bandwidth-hogging applications, but less often used to capture extra revenue from these users.
Part of the reason for this coarse-grained policy control is that end users are not yet receptive to
services that, in essence, seek to charge higher prices for superior experience. It is still early
days for mobile broadband, after all. Another reason is that, although technical mechanisms exist
to implement sophisticated services, they are often not practical to implement in 3G and depend
on hard-to-achieve alignment between technical and marketing divisions within an operator.
However, this situation will evolve rapidly with the introduction of LTE: The ability to elegantly
support differentiated services through core network technology will likely be a pillar of the LTE
investment thesis at many operators. The fundamental point is that, as well as wanting to capture
the lower cost per bit and superior data throughput of LTE, operators need to simultaneously
generate increases in revenue per bit through advanced services alongside low-cost, best-effort
Internet services and that's where the challenge of EPC really lies.

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III.

Implementing the EPC Network Architecture

This section examines the evolution of the 3GPP packet switch architecture from the 2G/3G core
through to the EPC, highlighting major implementation decisions and challenges.

3.1

Logical EPC Architecture

The EPC is defined in 3GPP Release 8 and is integral to the industry drive toward flatter, all-IP
networks. There are two main components. The first, TS 23.401, is an enhancement to the existing GPRS core network architecture intended to support the Evolved UTRAN (a.k.a. LTE RAN). It
uses GTP as an underlying protocol. The second, TS 23.402, is an architecture enhancement to
integrate non-3GPP access networks (such as CDMA) and uses Proxy Mobile IP instead of GTP.
The high-level LTE/SAE architecture is shown in the diagram below. A major feature is the split
between the control and bearer planes to allow each to scale independently. Specific EPC components are the Mobility Management Entity (MME) in the control plane and the Serving Gateway
(S-GW) and Packet Data Network Gateway (P-GW) in the bearer plane.
Figure 3.1: LTE/SAE Network Architecture & EPC

The Mobility Management Entity (MME) is a control-plane element that manages mobility in
3GPP access networks and carries out functions such as tracking users and making gateway
selections. In effect, the MME controls terminal handovers.
The Serving Gateway (S-GW) terminates the interface from the LTE radio access and is the
local mobility anchor point for inter-eNodeB handovers and inter-3GPP mobility. Other functions
include lawful intercept, and some charging and policy enforcement functions.
The Packet Data Network Gateway (PDN-GW or P-GW) terminates the interface from the SGW and connects to external packet networks. It provides the mobility anchor across non-3GPP
access, interacts with the IMS service layer, and is a key node for policy enforcement.
The Policy and Charging Rules Function (PCRF) is a control-plane element that is not, strictly
speaking, an EPC element, but is required to give dynamic control over bandwidth, charging, and
network usage.

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These nodes are specified as logical network elements, but can be implemented according to
operator or vendor preferences. The S-GW and P-GW could be combined into a single node, for
example, or an MME function could be implemented on the same platform as an S-GW.

3.2

Integration of 2G/3G Packet-Switched Core With EPC

The launch of GPRS in 2001 introduced packet switching to TDM-centric mobile networks and
defined the network architecture that served as the foundation for 3G deployment, and which prevails to this day. The first GPRS packet core products were designed for low-rate data services
and, initially, were based on sub-optimal platforms. When 3G was introduced a few years later, it
was deployed as an overlay to meet the step change in product and network requirements.
As 3G data service bedded down and dual-mode terminals became available, operators began to
migrate 2G data users to a combined 2G/3G packet core. However, the transition wasn't without
hitches. With the rise of mobile email (specifically BlackBerry), operators found that their highestvalue data users were exclusively on 2G, prolonging the life of 2G equipment, while 3G traffic
was sent over the state-of-the-art IP/MPLS networks to new-generation packet core nodes.
Could the introduction of EPC follow a similar trajectory? Many of the same dynamics are in
place: a step-change in data traffic and an equipment refresh are both anticipated. And, with data
revenue now critical, there's a clear need not to risk 3G data service quality. This indicates that
an overlay deployment for EPC will be the most frequent rollout scenario, with a migration to converged 2G/3G/4G packet core coming in a later phase.
However, mobility and terminal interaction across LTE, 3G, and 2G networks will drive demand
for tightly integrated core networks, even where EPC is deployed as an overlay. Unlike 3G, which
was first introduced to a small base of mobile data users, LTE will be marketed to a large base of
active data subscribers that will expect applications to work seamlessly between 3G and LTE.
The effect will be to generate high volumes of inter-RAT (radio access technology) handovers,
which will require tight integration between the EPC and existing 2G/3G network elements, such
as RNCs, HLR/HSS, and SGSNs. Some of these interactions are shown in Figure 3.2.
Figure 3.2: High-Level Interactions Between EPC & Legacy Packet Core

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Due to this complexity, and to reduce cost, operators will ultimately want to operate common
packet core equipment that supports both 2G/3G and EPC functions. To meet this need, some
vendors aim to offer EPC via a software upgrade to equipment already deployed in the field. This
could mean upgrading a GGSN to support P-GW functions via software, for example.

3.3

New Platform Requirements

We are somewhat skeptical about the opportunity to upgrade deployed equipment via software to
full EPC functionality, and instead believe that an overlay deployment will prevail in the majority of
networks. This will minimize the risk of disruption to today's mainstream data services and allow
operators to optimize LTE and EPC ahead of migrating to a converged 2G/3G/4G packet core.
With existing packet core networks running at around 50 percent capacity, and with any headroom earmarked for the ongoing ramp in 3G data, the EPC overlay would logically utilize new
equipment. This likely means new hardware platforms rather than reuse of 3G products.
Within one to two years of commercializing and stabilizing the EPC, however, operators will want
to consolidate wireless access networks. This is likely to mean migrating 2G and 3G to the newgeneration packet core equipment, which will effectively turn EPC and the new-generation
equipment into the foundation of the converged 2G/3G/LTE core network. It is at this point
when that mix of 2G, 3G, and LTE services has been proven to work that software upgrades
start to be appealing. If an operator's installed base of 2G/3G equipment was deployed recently, it
could become attractive to reuse that asset as part of the converged core.
The question then becomes one of operational cost: Does the legacy equipment have a cost of
ownership that makes it worth retaining and upgrading? Or does the new EPC equipment generate sufficient savings to encourage operators to migrate 2G/3G rapidly? Related to this are the
potential opex advantages to selecting EPC equipment from the vendors that already supply
packet core and/or IP networking equipment to the operator for example, to retain common
management tools and processes.

3.4

Implementation Options

Practical implementation of the System Architecture Evolution (SAE) defined by the 3GPP
presents numerous decision points for operators that must be realistic in the short term, yet retain
the flexibility to align with a long-term vision for the network. In practice, this is likely to mean that
EPC will be deployed in much the same way as 3G currently is, leveraging the same facilities and
operational processes. In later phases, however, operators will need to take a view on their target
network architecture and address how to scale EPC. This is where the uncertainty lies and where
operators will take different decisions based on individual circumstances, refresh cycles, and
product capabilities. Some of the key decision points are outlined below:
Should the S-GW and P-GW be combined into a single node? Given the desire to simplify the
architecture and flatten the network relative to 3G, a unified "SAE Gateway" is appealing. Yet because S-GW and P-GW perform different functions and scale differently, it could be appropriate
to deploy them separately (as is the case with SGSNs and GGSNs today). The P-GW provides
the interface to external packet networks, and performs traffic analysis and policy functions, which
are not required in the S-GW. The S-GW is linked more closely to the RAN, is focused on mobility
functions, and interacts with large numbers of base stations.
To what extent should "SAE Gateways" be distributed or centralized? This depends in part
on the split between S-GW and P-GW, but relative to 2G/3G, it is expected to be more technically
attractive to distribute packet gateways in the EPC to cope with anticipated LTE traffic, improve
redundancy, and enable local Internet break out. Conversely, the adage "don't distribute complexity" could have been written for just this situation. Network size will be a key factor in the decision,
with very large networks likely to have a mixed topology.

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Where will MMEs be located? And which team will manage them? The MME is expected to
be a centralized node more so than an SGSN but where it should be deployed is an open
question. In the converged core, there may be a requirement to combine some MME and SGSN
control-plane functions. This is challenging from some perspectives, however, and could impact
deployment choices.
How will the overall policy management architecture impact EPC? The EPC is responsible
for policy enforcement, making interaction with policy control and business rules software critical.
With more sophisticated QoS being used in LTE, it will also have to integrate more tightly with
resource management mechanisms at the cell site, with the underlying IP transport layer, and
with third-party application providers.
How will transport network choices influence deployment? 3GPP defines an architecture
that is largely independent of the transmission layer. In reality, however, the transport network
architecture could have a significant impact on EPC for example, where Layer 2 Carrier Ethernet dominates, a more centralized SAE Gateway may make more sense. Alternatively, where the
network leans more toward Layer 3, there is also an opportunity to distribute gateways and perhaps integrate that capability with edge routers. Again the distinction between S-GW and P-GW
may be important, with S-GW more likely than the P-GW to be integrated with the transport layer.

3.5

Alignment with IP/MPLS Core Networks

This is an area where the choice of hardware platform for the S-GW and P-GW could potentially
have an important impact.
In the first instance, the EPC deployment model will be one of dedicated mobility nodes (S-GW
and P-GW) installed on top of IP/MPLS core networks. In most networks, the IP core has ample
capacity and functionality to support the introduction of LTE and absorb the ongoing growth of 3G
traffic and support the discrete bearer-plane and control-plane model. In this scenario, the S-GWs
and P-GWs could be equally based on either an Advanced Telecom Computing Architecture
(ATCA) platform, an edge-router platform, or a specialist mobile gateway platform, assuming other feature requirements are met.
For most deployments, we expect this model to prevail over the medium term, not least because
transport and packet core organizations are typically separate entities, with different planning
horizons, priorities, preferences, and so on. This is especially the case where the operator is both
a fixed and mobile service provider.
Over the longer term, however, there is potential for a blurring of the boundaries between the IP
network and the EPC "mobility layer," as functions such as packet classification, security, policy
enforcement, etc., can be carried out in either domain. Moreover, in the scenario where gateways
are deployed to the edge of the network (i.e., toward RNC or MTSO sites), the S-GW and P-GW
applications could be supported on multiservice edge-router platforms that also operate as nextgeneration backhaul equipment in the metro network. Such a scenario faces challenges, but it
does have some appeal in line with the goal of flattening the network to reduce costs, and several
vendors are now positioning around the concept.
Initially this deployment strategy could be adopted by smaller national or regional operators as
they deploy LTE. For example, if the backhaul network needs to be refreshed and re-architected
anyway, and the operator selects a multiservice edge-router product, it might make sense to add,
say, an S-GW blade with a view to streamlining the overall network. Another area where this
model could make sense is in turnkey buildouts where the vendor is contracted to a "buildoperate-transfer" type deal with potential for ongoing managed services business. In this case,
the onus is on the vendor to provide an end-to-end LTE network and to minimize the cost of operations and maintenance as much as possible. Clearly, such an implementation would not be
suited to blade server platforms or other non-router platforms.

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The counter view also holds weight: Rather than pushing Layer 3 routing and SAE Gateway
nodes out toward the edge of the network ("don't distribute complexity"), the focus instead should
be on low-cost Layer 2 Ethernet transport backhauling traffic to "super" EPC nodes, which are
highly intelligent devices capable of advanced traffic management (traffic shaping, DPI, enforcement, etc.) from a centralized location. In this case, an ATCA blade server platform, for example,
is potentially as suitable as an edge-router platform.
In the broader sense, there is increasing alignment between the advanced service features supported on IP networking equipment (e.g., edge routers) and the features required of S-GW and PGW nodes. This may offer benefits in terms of being able to the leverage expertise and capability
in the IP domain in the EPC for example, IP subscriber management capability, enterprise VPN
services, and hardware-based packet inspection.

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IV.

Platform Analysis for EPC Nodes

This section provides an analysis of platform choices for EPC nodes, including an assessment of
legacy hardware and its suitability for the next-gen packet core. It also provides an analysis of
EPC bearer-plane requirements and how these influence SAE Gateway product design.

4.1

Economics of Platform Choices

Decisions about which product platforms technology suppliers will use to support EPC applications are informed by two key questions: What would be ideal for the application? And what other
platforms do we have in the portfolio that would be suitable?
Having tracked mobile packet core vendors' product evolution over several years, Heavy Reading
believes leading suppliers have paid unprecedented attention to their platform choices for EPC.
As well as creating an advantage that will enhance competitiveness across a vendor's LTE product portfolio, vendors also know they'll need to support EPC products for a decade or more. This
requirement for long-term support tends to focus minds.
The current mobile packet core market is relatively low-volume in terms of units approximately
1,000 per year of GGSNs, SGSNs, and PDSNs and, at around $1.4 billion per year, is not a
huge market in absolute terms when split among vendors. Given the low product volume, supporting bespoke platforms is economically challenging for vendors. Even with ongoing growth in
the mobile packet core market over the next five years and Heavy Reading anticipates this
segment will grow faster than wireless and telecom overall this basic economic reality will prevail. EPC is a critical and strategic product area, but will remain a relatively low-volume market.
Given this context, operators need to look hard at the underlying EPC platforms. Aside from the
performance of the product itself, operators need to see how much support the vendor is putting
behind the platform, what the shipment volumes are like, and what the longer-term roadmap and
support outlook is. In essence, what is the vendor's depth of commitment to the platform?
While the 2G/3G packet market shows there is some room for bespoke mobile packet gateway
platforms, most vendors are likely to repurpose platforms for EPC that have already been used
successfully in other telecom applications. In the bearer plane (S-GW and P-GW), for example, a
tie-in with edge routers is a logical platform choice, allowing vendors to leverage scale and accumulated R&D resources.
Operators should view this strategy as a positive, as it effectively delivers capability beyond what
the EPC market alone could support financially. The danger is that EPC will not generate enough
revenue to drive development of the underlying router platform or seriously influence its direction.
The worst-case scenario is that the core business of selling routers takes precedence, leaving
EPC innovation to wither. Nevertheless, we are yet to see a mobile packet core vendor with successful router products adopt anything other than a router platform for bearer-plane applications.
Vendors that don't have a successful carrier-grade edge router in their portfolios obviously need
to take a different approach to the EPC product platform. Historically the tendency has been to
partner with router companies, and while this has been modestly successful, it is falling out of
favor. Instead, vendors are looking to build products optimized for the mobile core using ATCA or
bespoke non-router platforms. This drives a system design that leverages off-the shelf components, potentially including chassis, compute boards, processors, middleware, etc.

4.2

Vendor Strategies for EPC Platforms

The size of the packet core market in the grander scheme has meant that products have, arguably, suffered from lack of investment and innovation. For big vendors, the revenues associated

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12

with the packet core are not tremendously exciting, and while the gross margins are welcome, it's
the strategic aspect of packet core and the role it plays in pulling through business in the RAN,
transport, and services domains that makes it critical.
This situation has meant that at each phase in the product refresh cycle, equipment vendors have
tended to take the low-risk option and develop on legacy platforms. ATM switch and compactPCI
hardware legacies, for example, live on in packet core products from several leading vendors.
Vendors perceive the move to LTE and EPC as a major threshold, however, and are taking a
long-term view of product requirements. There is broad acceptance that a new breed of IP-centric
platform will be needed at some point in the product cycle, preferably for the start of LTE deployments. Figure 4.1 summarizes the EPC platform strategies of seven leading mobile packet core
equipment suppliers.
Figure 4.1: Comparison of Platform Strategies for EPC
VENDOR

AlcatelLucent

Cisco

Ericsson

Huawei

Nortel

NSN

Starent

EPC PLATFORM

Introduce 7750-series router platform for S-GW and P-GW

EPC applications on new "Mobility Services" blade

Introduce new ATCA platform for MME

Retain 7600 router platform for S-GW & P-GW

EPC applications on new "SAMI" blade

Introduce Redback router platform for new S-GW and P-GW

Retain proprietary platform used for SGSN, MME, and S-GW

Offer software upgrade to current PS core products

Introduce NE-series router platform for S-GW and P-GW

Introduce new ATCA platform for MME

Offer software to some current PS core products

Introduce new ATCA platform for S-GW & P-GW

Introduce new ATCA platform for MME

Introduce new ATCA platform for S-GW & P-GW

Introduce new ATCA platform for MME

Upgrade current PS core products via software

Uses bespoke hardware platform for all applications

Expected to introduce new platform within two years

S-GW & P-GW


PLATFORM

Edge router

Edge router

Edge router

Edge router

ATCA

ATCA

In-house

Along with this broad-based transition to new platforms, a number of suppliers will also offer a
software upgrade from 2G/3G to EPC for at least a proportion of their installed base. While we
don't expect this to be the dominant way operators will introduce EPC (see Section 3.2 above),
the offer of a software upgrade may mean operators can avoid having to write down asset values
on legacy equipment prematurely.
Some of the more modern equipment installed in networks would also be capable of supporting
EPC for a limited time. GGSNs on the market today, for example, are capable of several Gbit/s of
throughput per cabinet/rack sufficient for the near-term load from LTE RANs, although perhaps
not adequate over a five-year view. And as noted above, once software upgrades are in the mix,
the question then becomes one of the operational cost of the existing equipment.

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4.3

EPC Bearer-Plane Requirements

While discussion of the suitability of different hardware platforms for EPC applications needs to
be placed in the economic context discussed above (Section 4.1), there are nevertheless some
requirements that any platform must take into account, including: throughput, latency, number of
users, simultaneous bearers, and more nebulous on-board "intelligence."
One way to position platform requirements for S-GWs and P-GWs is shown in Figure 4.2, which
identifies the relative balance between control-plane and data-plane capability in packet gateway
products. Mobile packet gateway products have historically traded control-plane capability against
throughput, and are positioned in the top left quadrant. GGSNs and PDSNs, for example, have
tended to focus on metrics such as number of simultaneous users (or active PDP/PPP contexts),
rather than raw throughput. Wireline products, conversely, need to manage far fewer individual
connections, with each connection generating far more traffic, and are placed at bottom right.
Figure 4.2: Relative Balance of Control & Bearer Capability in Packet Gateway Products

This divergence in wireline and wireless products is unlikely to be fully bridged in the medium
term, yet increasingly S-GW and P-GWs will need to evolve to meet new control- and bearerplane requirements, as outlined here:
Control Plane: S-GWs and P-GWs aggregate traffic from thousands of eNodeBs (base stations)
and millions of subscribers, and therefore require greater control-plane capability than wireline
products. The difference in EPC, relative to 2G/3G, is that there is no intermediate radio controller
to aggregate traffic: Each eNodeB communicates directly with the S-GW. This architectural
change alone increases control-plane requirements on the S-GW.
When mobility is introduced to the equation, the signaling load (potentially) increases substantially due to the need to set up, retain, and tear down bearers on the S-GW as users roam across
the network. One illustration of the impact of mobility on control-plane capacity is already seen in

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Direct Tunnel implementations, where the SGSN savings generated from bearer-plane bypass
can be up to 100 percent greater in a low-mobility scenario than in a high-mobility scenario.
The result is that SAE Gateway platforms, and specifically the S-GW, will need to continue to
scale control-plane capability. This requirement is expected to be substantially more important
than increases in raw throughput.
Bearer Plane: Raw throughput is far from the primary challenge for mobile packet gateways, and
while it may be a challenge for legacy products, it should not be a major concern for the new
generation of S-GWs and P-GWs.
Consider the difference between wireless data and fixed broadband access traffic volumes: Even
accounting for the increase in LTE access speeds (relative to 3G/HSPA) and the smaller packet
size associated with VOIP services, S-GW and P-GW capacity requirements will not get close to
those offered by advanced edge-router products. More significant will be other bearer-plane capabilities, such as latency, traffic analysis, and security.

4.4

Toward the Access-Independent Gateway

Many of the advanced characteristics of wireless packet gateways are increasingly relevant to
wireline products, or are now a common requirement across both domains. As vendors and operators look to increase platform efficiencies and simplify networks, a requirement is emerging for a
new product category that Heavy Reading has termed the Access-Independent Gateway (AIG).
The AIG is essentially a common product platform defined in software for various applications,
either operating in single mode (e.g., 2G/3G only) or multiple modes (e.g., an SAE Gateway and
edge router). Key features are identified in the table below.
Figure 4.3: Characteristics of an Access-Independent Gateway
BEARER PLANE

CONTROL PLANE

Common resource management across bearer and control planes


Mandatory
system
design
requirements

High throughput
(minimum 10 Gbit/s)

High transaction capacity (minimum


5,000 transactions per second)

System-level redundancy (fast failover


and across blades with in-service updates)

Common hardware, software, and


management resources across different
session and policy management features

Tunneling protocols

Mandatory
on-board
features

QoS (flow maintenance)

Authentication and admission

Wire-rate packet

Mobility management (for wireless


AIGs and converged AIGs)

classification

Standard interfaces to third-party session


and policy management network elements

Routing
Aggregation

Additional
on-board
features

QoS (packet labeling)

Traffic shaping

DPI (enforcement)

DPI (policy)
Security (other)
Session border controller

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The AIG is very much an emerging product category at this time, and our definition is not tied to
any particular platform type; nor is it necessarily about using the same equipment for wireline and
wireless access, although that is one example of an AIG. Another example would be a gateway
that can function as a GGSN, SGSN, S-GW, P-GW, or ePDG; while exclusively a wireless product, this would still count as an AIG.
In the EPC, the questions to be answered are: How specific are the requirements of S-GWs and
P-GWs? Are they best met with upgraded edge-router platforms, or do they require bespoke platform development? If the latter, can the application justify that development commercially? The
following section looks at some of the evolving bearer-plane requirements.

4.5

Evolving Packet Gateway Requirements 3G to EPC

With a majority of vendors saying they will introduce new or upgraded platforms to support EPC,
it is worthwhile to consider the key differences between today's 2G/3G packet gateway requirements and the EPC. Some of these are outlined in the table below:
Figure 4.4: EPC Packet Gateway Requirements
REQUIREMENT

VOIP &
Real-Time
Services

Latency

Security

Throughput

Traffic
Analysis

QoS

IMPACT ON SAE GW

Ultra-low-latency packet processing

Maintain throughput at 64-byte packet size

Ensure priority QoS handling

Sub-50s "through-the-box" latency

Minimal switching delay

Terminate secure tunnels

Requires dedicated crypto hardware

Significant increase in traffic per subscriber

Need 10s of Gbit/s and ability to scale further

Wire-rate packet classification

DPI with minimal impact on system capacity

Heuristic analysis for encrypted services

Upgrade libraries regularly (outside standard software release cycle)

Shaping, policing, and marking of traffic flows on a per-app/user basis

Extend QoS classes into RAN and transport domains

Apply to QoS to third-party service providers

Perhaps the key difference is that the packet-switched domain must now support all services,
including real-time VOIP, creating a need for ultra-low-latency packet processing. Even though
packet core products have improved considerably over recent years, core networks still tend to
induce undesirable amounts of delay to bearer setups, applications, and so on whether due to
the products themselves or the way the network is implemented. Given that latency reduction is a
pillar of LTE and the flat network architecture, there is no tolerance for core network equipment to
add delay to the service or session.
A related element is the requirement to support advanced services, with wire-rate packet inspection and traffic-analysis techniques (heuristics, etc.) as a starting point. Traffic analysis is critical
to give operators an understanding of traffic flows and enable them to take action to assure that

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business logic can be applied. This does not automatically imply blocking or degrading of applications or users, although that is one application of the technology.
How exactly packet inspection and DPI is implemented is important. Two points stand out: First,
reduced performance in other parts of the system due to DPI being "turned on" is less acceptable
than in the past, and a greater volume of traffic (and a greater proportion of traffic) will have to be
analyzed in the EPC. Second, if DPI and traffic analysis is to be tightly integrated on, say, the
P-GW node, there must be a way for vendors and operators to upgrade the libraries and rules
engines more frequently than in the past.
Another advanced requirement is the role the SAE Gateway plays in extending QoS management
from a core network feature (as is the case today with 3G) to an end-to-end requirement. This is
expected to work in both directions: Downstream, the EPC will have to enforce policy and allocate
resources according to the prevailing radio access conditions; while upstream, it will have to interact directly with large numbers of third-party providers, as well as the Internet, or corporate networks. Developing end-to-end QoS is important to the LTE business case, and while technically
possible in 3G, it is not yet practical to implement.
These advanced bearer-plane requirements are the product of a more sophisticated, intelligent
packet core, which in turn drives the need for greater control-plane capability on the S-GW and PGW elements. For this reason, the ideal evolution from today's mobile packet core products is to
increase packet-processing capability (on the x axis of Figure 4.2) while simultaneously enhancing the control plane (on the y axis).

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V.

SAE Gateway Platforms & Operator Choices

This section highlights the major issues operators should consider when evaluating platform
choices for EPC, and specifically for the S-GW and P-GW nodes.

5.1

Edge Router, ATCA, or Specialist Platform?

The platform on which S-GW and P-GW applications are based is not the deciding factor when
operators select packet core suppliers, but one of many components to a complex decision. With
pros and cons to all the products on the market, a certain platform type may be more appropriate
to a particular vendor or operator, given their respective product and network refresh cycles.
This "horses for courses" situation is likely to prevail with the move to EPC, not least because
many of the early LTE deployments are expected to be end-to-end, with RAN and core provided
by a single supplier in the first phase to ease the implementation. In this scenario, the RAN
equipment is likely to dominate the purchasing decision, with the EPC secondary. This "RAN +
core" purchasing pattern explains why the leading radio vendors roughly mirror their market share
in packet core. Conversely, EPC can influence the competitiveness of a vendor's RAN portfolio
which, in a bit of circular logic, is why the underlying platform question is critical.
The mobile core market today is split roughly 50/50 between vendors that offer packet gateway
products based on edge-router platforms and those that use some kind of non-router platform,
such as ATCA, compactPCI, ATM switch, or a bespoke platform. This bifurcation of platform
strategies is likely to persist in the transition to EPC, albeit with router-based products gradually
gaining share, due to the changing market-share picture in the wireless market as a whole.

5.2

Platform Heritage & Economics

Perhaps more important than the straight choice between edge router or non-router platforms are
the business motives that determine the vendor's choice of hardware platform for EPC and the
extent to which they align with operator's own best interest. Some of the key questions to ask
about SAE Gateway platforms are:
How important is the SAE Gateway platform to the supplier's wider business? This is a fundamental point. A platform that is orphaned within a vendor and only used in a single or few applications is likely to suffer lack of R&D investment. This is especially the case at a time when
vendors are consolidating platforms and streamlining development organizations. Conversely, if
the platform is financially successful for the vendor and has a history of being refreshed, then it
can be expected to secure a larger share of ongoing development resources.
What are the shipment volumes of the underlying platform? Closely linked to the above issue
of financial viability are the unit shipments of the underlying platform. As noted, the mobile packet
core market as a whole is relatively low-volume, which strains the ability of vendors to support
platforms, influence component suppliers, and so on. A platform that ships in volume for other,
related applications is more likely to enjoy long-term support.
Is the underlying platform an in-house technology initiative, or is it provided by a partner?
Wireless vendors as a group have often partnered with specialist packet core vendors or used a
partner's hardware platform to run their own application software. While there is still a place for
this type of arrangement, especially where the operator has a best-of-breed purchasing strategy,
using a third-party platform for an in-house product is decreasingly viable today. We expect Tier 1
vendors to migrate to fully-owned platforms which they control exclusively.
What is the total cost of ownership (TCO) profile of the platform underlying EPC? There are
multiple facets to this question, related to the age of the operator's installed base, the vendor's

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product cycle, the availability of skills in the market, and so on. One area for operators to be wary
of is that the product sale may be a vendor's stalking horse for services and integration work. This
is of particular relevance to EPC vendor selection, because TCO will ultimately make the case for
a converged 2G/3G/LTE packet core.
How tightly are the EPC application software and hardware linked? This is a difficult point.
Tight integration of application software and hardware enhances performance, but reduces flexibility. Loose coupling aides the portability of application software and increases the vendor's
"platform agility," potentially increasing the frequency of product updates. With vendors adopting
new hardware platforms for EPC, and intending to port 2G/3G applications to the new platform in
the future, software portability is a valid question.

5.3

Edge-Router Platforms

For CTO teams evaluating packet core evolution and for the executives and engineers with direct
responsibility for this part of the network, there is a definite allure to edge-router platforms. Many
of these people have backgrounds in IP networking and are drawn to the "router priesthood" a
trend that is reinforced in the move to EPC and all-IP wireless networks. At the same time, it is
appreciated that mobile networks are different than wireline, with distinct product requirements.
Moreover, it's obvious that not all routers are created equal, and that S-GW and P-GW applications are not implemented equally well by each router vendor. Key questions to ask are:
How exactly are EPC applications implemented on the router? In most cases, a dedicated
module or blade is added to the router to provide EPC functions. The question then becomes, is
this module/blade the S-GW or P-GW itself, with more blades added for extra capacity in a serial
fashion? And is this a self-contained SAE Gateway, or would additional modules/blades be
needed for advanced services, such as DPI or content charging?
How, if at all, does the EPC product benefit from the router's inherent service capabilities?
This basically comes down to which advanced services the router supports natively (e.g., packet
classification, QoS control) and how these features can be used to enhance the S-GW or P-GW
capability. Packet classification integrated in silicon or bearer QoS control would have relevance
in a P-GW application. If this is already embedded as a feature of the underlying platform, it may
provide performance advantages.
How would the edge router support the addition of control-plane elements to the chassis?
While it is anticipated that control-plane nodes such as MME and PCRF will tend to be deployed
as distinct network elements (based in blade-server platforms), in some cases operators may
want to add these functions to packet gateway products. For example, an MME may be appropriately collocated on an S-GW platform in certain circumstances.
Does the router platform align with the rest of your IP networking infrastructure, and will it
allow tighter integration between EPC and the IP transport layer? Where the operator uses
common equipment in the IP layer and for EPC, there could be substantial operational advantages (skills, maintenance, etc.). In the longer term, network architecture evolution could also trend
toward a further flattening of the network and tighter integration with the IP layer, as discussed in
Section 4.4.

5.4

ATCA or Specialist Platforms

One widely held view is that mobile packet gateways are emphatically not routers. The requirements in terms of mobility management, number of simultaneous users, and advanced services
are so different that this justifies a different platform type. This has led some vendors to develop
purpose-built platforms or press compactPCI or ATM switch platforms into service. More recently,
a number of suppliers have adopted ATCA for their next-generation S-GW and P-GW products.

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This is a clearly a viable platform strategy, and one that has proven successful in some cases.
Some key questions to ask are:
Do the packet-processing capabilities of these platforms meet the data rates and latency
requirements of LTE and EPC? It is possible to build high-density, low-latency products on
ATCA or proprietary "non-router" platforms, and there are examples of where this has been
achieved for mobile packet core applications. Equally, there are examples in which performance
and features have been marred by poor hardware choices. Without the IP networking experience
inherent in routing vendors, operators considering non-router platforms must be comfortable with
the depth of IP expertise and capability within the vendor.
Will non-router platforms scale with changing LTE demands over a five- or ten-year span?
Packet core product requirements evolved significantly in the transition from 2G to 3G, and a
change of a similar magnitude can be expected for EPC. This forward-looking stance must be
reflected in today's platform strategy. The risk is that product concepts originally designed to
support low-rate 2G/3G services (e.g., content-based billing, MMS bypass, URL filtering, etc.)
may not scale to support broadband IP functions.
If ATCA is used for SAE Gateways, does the vendor have a broad commitment to this platform across product lines? If so, what is the evidence that it has been successful, or otherwise? Has the vendor chosen ATCA due to a lack of other options, rather than for its inherent
properties? Operators should also question how well the vendor is able to manage issues such
as updates to firmware or middleware by third-party suppliers, and what knock-on impact that
could have in the product itself (e.g., in terms of testing cycles and software updates). This will
partly be a function of how much of the product is based on commercial-off-the-shelf subsystems
and how much is developed in-house.
How will the selection of non-router platforms impact the evolution of the wider network
architecture? A design assumption of ATCA-based or purpose-built SAE Gateway platforms is
that mobile network applications (e.g., S-GW, P-GW, ePDG) will generally be deployed on a
routed IP/MPLS network. This is a logical positioning in line with the classic "church and state"
distinction between 3GPP functions and transport. Over the medium term, however, this reduces
the opportunity to flatten the network and converge functions currently resident in distinct layers.
This speaks to the AIG concept discussed in Section 4.4.

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VI.

Background to This Study

6.1

Original Research

This Heavy Reading White Paper was commissioned by Alcatel-Lucent, but is based on independent research. The research and opinions expressed in the report are those of Heavy Reading
and do not represent the official views of the Alcatel-Lucent.

6.2

About the Author

Gabriel Brown Senior Analyst, Wireless, Heavy Reading


Brown's coverage at Heavy Reading focuses on wireless data networking technologies, including
3G/HSPA, WiMax, and LTE, and particularly on how these technologies impact the wider mobile
Internet services market. Brown has covered the wireless data industry since 1998, previously as
Chief Analyst of the monthly Unstrung Insider, published by Heavy Reading's parent company
Light Reading. Before moving to Heavy Reading, Brown was additionally responsible for the
overall editorial planning of Light Reading's entire line of Insider research newsletters.
Prior to joining Unstrung, Brown was the editor of IP Wireline and Wireless Week at London's
Euromoney Institutional Investor. He often presents research findings at industry events and is
regularly consulted by wireless networking technology leaders. Brown is based in the U.K. and
can be reached at Brown@HeavyReading.com.

6.3

About Heavy Reading

Heavy Reading (www.heavyreading.com), a unit of Light Reading (www.lightreading.com), is an


independent market research organization offering quantitative analysis of telecom technology to
service providers, vendors, and investors. Its mandate is to provide the comprehensive competitive analysis needed today for the deployment of profitable networks based on next-generation
hardware and software.
Heavy Reading
32 Avenue of the Americas
New York, NY 10013
United States of America
Telephone: +1 212-925-0020
www.heavyreading.com
www.lightreading.com

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