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Ericsson pursues end-to-end 5G deals with Juniper and ECI, bypasses Cisco

Poor Juniper has so often been a wallflower in the telecoms industry, despite some strong technology assets. In recent years, it has been linked to acquisition talks with both Ericsson and Nokia, but in both cases was passed over for larger partnerships (Cisco and Alcatel-Lucent respectively). Those deals reduced the value of its existing alliances with the big RAN vendors, particularly its ability to strengthen their end-to-end offerings with its traditional and SDN-driven transport offerings.

Now Juniper is back in the limelight, forging a new 5G-oriented deal with Ericsson which could, some speculate, be the prelude to a merger. Ericsson’s ambitious partnership with Cisco seems to be virtually dormant, and is rarely mentioned by executives any more, even though it had initially $1bn of additional revenue for each party, in the short term, in enterprise and carrier markets. That should make it easier for Juniper to get closer to Ericsson, and in turn improve its hand against Cisco, whose carrier business remains the most challenging aspect of its otherwise strong turnaround.

Juniper, of course, also needs to stay strong against other rivals in the telecoms space, especially those with leading-edge SDN (software-defined networking) transport products. Ciena is prominent in this group, but has been passed over by Ericsson (as has Cisco) in favor of Juniper in its newly announced 5G transport strategy. Instead, the Swedish vendor will turn to Juniper and to ECI Telecom to flesh out its end-to-end 5G network portfolio with their optical and packet technologies.

This shows Ericsson – like Nokia and Huawei – clinging to the hope that many MNOs will opt for the relative simplicity and risk avoidance of a single-vendor, end-to-end deployment for 5G, despite operators’ loud protestations that they want to break the OEM lock-in and choose multivendor, best-of-breed solutions based on open interfaces.

Both Ericsson and Juniper have made significant progress in introducing SDN and virtualization to their product lines, supporting open source cloud platforms like OpenStack, and working with new partners. But their business models will continue to thrive best with operators that work by traditional rules.

That means making the end-to-end solution fully convincing and taking some gloss over some of the emerging, cutting-edge open platforms. Ericsson will use Juniper’s edge and core packet transport technologies, while continuing to offer its own Router 6000 and microwave products as packet backhaul options. The OEM will also integrate and sell Juniper’s network security systems.

A separate deal with ECI Telecom will add an optical transport offering for service providers in the metro market and for “critical infrastructure” deployments.

The shunning of Cisco in this latest arrangement is another indication that the alliance, first announced in early 2016, is dead in the water. There have been other warning signs – in March this year, Cisco unveiled its own Open vRAN initiative, which seemed to be an attempt to take a different route into the end-to-end market.  The “multivendor Open vRAN ecosystem initiative for mobile networks” has the goal of developing an open, disaggregated and virtualized access network platform. The initial partners were 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. But no Ericsson.

However, being left out of Ericsson’s 5G end-to-end plan is a major blow. Operators make hark after new suppliers and open platforms, but Ericsson is a major force in the first wave of 5G deployments, especially in North America, Cisco’s homeland, where it is the leader. In the medium term, when some of the small vendors’ open products may be proven in a commercial setting, Cisco might be a candidate to be the big power pulling a new ecosystem together. But for now, it needs the big OEMs to secure a leading place in early 5G, and it will not have Ericsson’s support.

Earlier this year, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins emphasized the opportunity of providing core and backhaul systems for 5G networks. “Think about it: Once traffic leaves the base station, it’s all us. There is a lot of reality behind plans for 5G and contemplating the need to upgrade core infrastructure to support the amount of bandwidth at the edge,” he said in an interview.

He was looking for a major surge in investment in core infrastructure as “the core networks of these server providers who deliver the networks are going to have to really evolve to be able to accommodate it”. That surge is urgently needed to boost the firm’s operator business. The service provider unit was a rare black spot in its third fiscal quarter of 2018, falling 4% year-on-year, while the enterprise division was up 11% and total sales rose by 4%. CFO Kelly Kramer said the company was not expecting any growth in the service provider revenues in the near term.

To help change that, Cisco unveiled its 5G Now portfolio at Mobile World Congress in February. This aims to position 5G firmly within Cisco’s areas of strength, and as far more than a RAN. The offering aims to integrate 5G into the cloud environment and enable MNOs to manage workloads across multiple private, public, and hybrid clouds “to connect enterprise, consumers, and service providers”.

5G Now includes elements for security, client services, multi-cloud deployments, and is centered on Cisco Ultra, a virtualized packet core to support mobile and IoT applications. This core, integrated with Cisco NFV infrastructure within the Ultra Gateway Platform, was used earlier this year in a 5G fixed wireless trial, conducted by Orange with Samsung in Romania. That platform is also being used in Verizon’s 5G fixed wireless trials – Cisco is one of the suppliers which has worked on the operator’s pre-standard network along with Ericsson, Samsung, Intel, LG, Nokia and Qualcomm.

The imminent launch of 5G is timely for Robbins to reinforce the key message of his CEOship – a return to a laser focus on the network, Cisco’s core expertise. “Networks will power the future,” he said in a recent speech, harking back to a long history of the company seeking to concentrate intelligence and value in the network rather than the data center (though of course, in a virtualized world, the lines are blurring).

Ericsson’s latest decision will not help this strategy at all, especially as it is tough for Cisco to work with Huawei in many markets – especially the USA, where the Chinese giant is barred from major 5G infrastructure deals – and Nokia has its own products via the Alcatel-Lucent acquisition. Product overlap was also likely to have been a factor in Ericsson’s choice – the Swedish firm is keeping IP systems which sit “near the radio” in the network, such as its  Router 6000 and microwave systems, inhouse, and these compete with some Cisco offerings, while Juniper focuses only core and edge rather than “radio-near” products.

Nishant Batra, Ericsson’s global head of network products, insisted that the Cisco deal was still alive in other areas. He told LightReading: “The intent was to look at alternative IP solutions, with strengths in enterprise and service provider segments coming together. That intent still exists, but with IP backhaul we’ve both realized this is not ideal and so parted ways.”

This is also a blow to Ciena, with which Ericsson signed a “global strategic agreement” in 2014 to develop joint optical transport solutions. “Ciena’s assets are more suited for the optical core and we were looking for optical in the metro space, where ECI fits well,” said Batra, again insisting that the existing relationship with Ciena remained strong.

Ericsson added that the Juniper and ECI platforms are “fully interoperable with Ericsson’s transport portfolio and will be managed by the same Ericsson management and orchestration (MANO) solution. This will simplify the overall management and control of 5G across the radio, transport and core network”. That MANO solution will also provide integrated SDN control for Ericsson, Juniper and ECI nodes, enabling automated network control to support network slicing and traffic optimization.

“The partnerships help us strengthen areas where we are not building organically,” Batra said in the interview. “Instead of making a blanket commitment to be in IP, we have segmented into radio near, core and edge, and it’s the radio-near part we’ll address with our own products.”

Ericsson has other partnerships in other areas of the network, and one of rising importance is fronthaul, to support distributed and virtualized RANs. A fully interoperable fronthaul interface between cell site (remote radio) and centralized baseband is a key goal of operators, because it would allow them to escape the end-to-end lock-in imposed by the semi-proprietary nature of the current interface, CPRI. Open initiatives like Facebook Telecom Infra Project are working on new Ethernet-based options. But only a handful of vendors have products of sufficient power and low latency to support fronthaul. Ericsson has some of its own products, based on its 2005 acquisition of the remnants of Marconi, plus an alliance with Calix, which acquired Ericsson’s GPON fiber assets in 2012.

Ericsson was also upgrading its ‘5G-ready’ RAN offering, Ericsson Radio System (ERS), which it says has driven the large majority of its sales in this market over the past year, especially in China.

“The portfolio we are launching now is for 2019 and 2020 and will allow operators to deploy 5G more seriously with thousands of sites,” said Batra.

For instance, Ericsson aims to make it simpler for operators to deploy a true Cloud-RAN, with many baseband functions virtualized and centralized in the cloud. It has introduced RAN Compute features to support that.

RAN Compute is an architecture that allows service providers to distribute RAN functions, such as beamforming and radio control, flexibly where they are needed to fine-tune use case performance while also lowering total cost of ownership, said the vendor. The RAN Compute portfolio includes all the current basebands in addition to four new products that provide up to three times the capacity of current basebands.

Two of the new RAN Compute Basebands enable service providers to deploy RAN functions centrally, or at the radio site, according to the use case. They are accompanied by two RAN Compute Radio Processors, which enable functions to be placed closer to the radio to support low latency applications and small site footprints.

The 3GPP has identified seven possible splits between central and remote functions (and between physical and virtual), and most operators will deploy two or three in different scenarios. For instance, for low latency, edge-oriented applications more functions will be kept at the cell site, either in physical form or as locally deployed virtual network functions (VNFs). Where an operator needs maximum flexibility to allocate resources on an as-needed basis, a highly centralized approach will be favored.

Another key feature is new spectrum sharing software, a clear response to Huawei’s highly innovative, two-year-old CloudAIR offering. Both allow spectrum to be shared between different radio technologies, and allocated to any radio on a dynamic, millisecond basis.

“There is more demand for this technology than I have ever seen,” Batra claimed. “This is the first time in the last few years that I have had six or seven leading operators say they want to be the first to launch.” In particular, Ericsson Spectrum Sharing will allow operators to run 5G in 4G bands without a complete refarm, adding to the capacity they will be able to harness in the early stages, even before most auctions have been held.

The new functionality can be implemented through a remote software installation on Ericsson Radio System radios shipped since 2015.

Ericsson also introduced a full platform centered on its Street Macro radios, which are designed to make it easier to deploy 5G in high frequency bands such as millimeter wave, to boost capacity in urban areas. The ‘mini-macro’ base stations, which bring macro-class performance but can be mounted on street furniture, now work with an adapted version of the Fronthaul 6000 product to enable an all-in-one deployment with the option of a centralized baseband to support a cluster of urban  cells.

All the new solutions will only become commercially available in the second half of 2019 but they will be shown off, with further details provided, at this month’s MWC Americas conference in Los Angeles.

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