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Cisco tramples on Ericsson alliance with its own Open vRAN initiative

Just over two years after Cisco and Ericsson announced a far-reaching strategic alliance, there have been very few concrete indications of its progress – and now Cisco appears to be trampling over its remnants by moving into its Swedish partner’s most central market, the RAN.

The alliance, which led many to speculate that a full merger would follow, was supposed to generate an additional $1bn for each partner and allow them to address markets that had previously been closed. Cisco would be able to offer mobile RAN and end-to-end networks to cities, vertical industries and other key markets; Ericsson would have a full enterprise wireless platform and better access to corporate and IoT opportunities. But despite repeated insistence that the deal was still going strong, very few results have been shared, and in recent earnings calls, the alliance has scarcely been mentioned.

The last thing the troubled Ericsson needs is another competitor in its RAN heartland, but with the virtualization of the network and resulting breakdown of the traditional platforms, the drawbridge to its fortress is certainly down. Vendors from the IT and cloud sectors can now target the mobile network, and it seems that Cisco – whose previous attempts at the RAN, via small cell and WIMAX acquisitions, have fizzled out – aims to try, without the help of its supposed mobile partner.

At MWC, it announced the ‘multivendor Open vRAN ecosystem initiative for mobile networks’, whose goal is to develop an open, disaggregated and virtualized access network platform. This seems little different to the objectives of the new ORAN Alliance (see separate item), Facebook TIP or other open initiatives, but Cisco claims other efforts have “considerable gaps and challenges”.

The initial partners which will help it close those gaps include only one operator (though a powerfully disruptive one), Reliance Jio of India; plus vRAN pioneer Altiostar and a group of other vendors which are all active in open source telecoms projects – Aricent, Intel, Mavenir, Phazr, Red Hat and Tech Mahindra.

Ericsson CEO Börje Ekholm was asked about the news but would only say: “The Open vRAN initiative is something we will need to look into”. He did acknowledge that the Cisco alliance had not delivered what had been hoped when it was initiated though he insisted that his firm was “still working with Cisco to find new areas” of cooperation.

Cisco itself told journalists: “Cisco remains committed to our business partnership with Ericsson to advance next generation networks, and we are exploring new areas of cooperation. Together we have teamed on over 190 successful customer engagements.”

As well as trying to seize the upper hand in the new-look RAN, Cisco announced a full ‘5G Now’ portfolio which brings together existing and new offerings to create an end-to-end (or cloud-to-client, as the vendor says) platform for operators.

The main elements are:

  • Multi-cloud: Helping manage workloads across private, public and hybrid clouds to connect enterprise, consumers and service providers.
  • IP Core: supporting programmability and real time telemetry for network automation, based on the new Cisco NCS-500 Series of access routers and the IOS XR software as a single domain from the data center to the cell tower.
  • 5G Packet Core and Service Edge: The Cisco Ultra cloud-native, mobile virtualized packet core and edge platform.
  • Access: Cisco claims to unify cable, fiber, WiFi and licensed radio, including vRAN, and support automation via its self-optimising network (SON) tools, including the new SONFlex Studio which enables operators to create their own SON APIs and so customize their networks.
  • Client Services: These include Managed Cisco Spark for collaboration over mobile, virtual managed services for cloud-based SD-WAN business services, and the Cisco Jasper platform for IoT.
  • Security: Cisco announced a new 5G Security Architecture including Stealthwatch for breach detection and visibility within packet core and network slices; Stealthwatch Cloud for cloud-managed network security; and the Umbrella Security Suite.
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