Cisco scales its mobile core to meet the smartphone boom

digital data flow through optical wire

As smartphone and mobile app usage explodes, wireless equipment vendors have been forced to not only keep pace to with network technologies like HSPA+ and LTE, but also scale the mobile Internet infrastructure behind those radios. Cisco Systems on Tuesday unveiled its new mobile core, a gateway designed to handle the enormous loads of new data traffic the smartphone has heaped onto wireless networks.

Called the ASR5500, the core gateway is designed to handle what Cisco called the “new normal” of the mobile data network: millions of devices, each with dozens of applications in constant communication with the network. According to Murali Nemani, Cisco director of service provider mobility, that influx presents three distinct challenges: maintaining millions of sessions, supporting millions of individual transactions and handling enormous throughput.

You can distinguish between the three by breaking down a Google Chat conversation, Nemani said. Chat is constantly creating sessions over the network, pinging Google’s servers to see if an IM session is being initiated. If a chat session is opened, the messages sent between the participants are the transactions, while the actual payload of those messages – the text, video or voice – is handled by raw network throughput.

All of the background sessions and transaction signaling that makes our mobile apps tick run over the what’s known as the control plane, while what we actually experience – the services and content – ride the bearer plane. The capacity of both planes needs to be scaled enormously to meet the smartphone’s unquenchable hunger, but the problem facing carriers is that the capacity demands of those planes varies dramatically from site to site and time of day.

“In the morning there is a massive spike in signaling as people check e-mail and do social networking,” Nemani said. All of that signaling traffic places enormous demands on the control plane, but requires very little in terms of throughput, he said. “In the evening it’s throughput that’s in most demand as consumers shift to watching video and viewing other content,” Nemani said.

When designing the ASR5500 Cisco attempted to create an “elastic” core, which would prevent operators from having to scale both their signaling and throughput requirements for the worst-case scenarios of any given day, Nemani said. Rather than create dedicated resources for each type of traffic, the gateway’s processers are generic, allowing capacity to be shifted between the control and bearer planes in real-time. The result, Nemani said, is a dynamic mobile core that at any given moment can be signaling juggernaut or a packet-routing powerhouse.

Two carriers, Verizon Wireless and India’s Bharti, have already installed the new gateway in their networks, but given Cisco’s track record in the mobile core, many more operators are sure to follow.

While we often hear of the big radio network deals going to Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks, Cisco has been the unsung vendor in the guts of the network ever since its scooped up gateway specialist Starent in 2009. The core is a much smaller contract than the radio win in terms of revenues and it’s often less publicized. Synergy Research estimates that the mobile core market totaled $2.4 billion globally in 2011. It’s growing rapidly, but to put that in perspective a single large LTE radio network build can easily cost more than $2 billon.

Cisco, however, is by far the market leader when it comes to the mobile core. According to the vendor, it has won 270 3G total gateway contracts and is the core supplier for more than 30 LTE networks.

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