How close to the edge can you go? Quortus says right to it

Software EPC integrated onto Cavium small cell SoC for LTE+EPC in one chip.

Quortus, which markets a standalone EPC (Evolved Packet Core) in software, has taken its software core capability right to the edge of the network by integrating its solution onto a small cell SoC platform from Cavium.

What this means is that a small cell built on Cavium’s OCTEON Fusion processor that has Quortus’ software EPC embedded will have the capability to provide full service and network functionality.

A release from the two companies put it like this:
By embedding Quortus’ EPC on the OCTEON Fusion processor, the entire functionality of a mobile network can be held on the same chip; this means that a single small cell can become a highly portable mobile network. Furthermore, placing the radio and core layer on the same chip reduces the complexity of interaction between both layers, enabling the implementation of advanced functionality such as meshing, macro mobility and satellite backhaul optimisation features in a more efficient way.

That could allow for a small cell to be deployed in a stand alone manner, perhaps for public safety, emergency coverage or disaster relief, authenticating and providing service to users and SIMs without the need (or with a greatly reduced need) for satellite backhaul or IP connectivity to centralised core elements.

Small cell solutions are often used in disaster scenarios to provide areas of connectivity – for instance Vodafone’s Network in a Box solution was provided to the UN after 2012’s typhoon in the Philippines. In that instance, a satellite backhaul connection carried connections back to Smart’s core, allowing existing Smart subscribers to be authenticated to the central core. This meant they could make and receive calls to relatives, and receive money transfers. An edge core capability that authenticates a user where necessary over satellite backhaul could in theory provide more of a complete network in rural and remote areas, handling hand-overs and mobility management, with an HSS function providing subscriber management.

Quortus calls its public safety and military applications “tactical solutions” and says this Cavium integration would be ideally suited to Goverment or public safety applications. Other uses for Quortus’ technology include providing a private network capability for large enterprises, for example using local call handling to provide PBX functionality to mobile phones, and providing rural or remote connectivity or capacity.

Although this is a use-case specific implementation of software from Quortus and Cavium, Cavium is not the only processor company that has looked to embed increased software functionality at chip level into small cells. As long ago as early 2012, prior to Ubiquisys’ acquisition by Cisco, Intel and Ubiquisys were showing a small design that integrated Intel’s Atom processor to build an “intelligent” small cell, demoing edge-based applications from the likes of Edge Datacomms. A year later the company was demonstrating Quortus’ enterprise integration features on its Smart Cell.

Intel is also building up a portfolio of partners who use its platforms to carry out edge-based operations – such as caching, data optimisation, security, or hosting of localised services – either embedded within the individual small cells themselves or on nodes that control bunches of small cells.

So we can expect to see more approaches that enable operators to take advantage of small cells to site functions and services closer to the edge – including in a virtualised manner on common hardware elements. We are seeing something of that ilk with Nokia’s Liquid Apps strategy – which started as a macro-based product and which the company is also now positioning as a viable platform to provide services to its small cell FlexiZones.

These approaches use a controller or “anchor” node to act as a localised point of presence to clusters of small cells, or if integrated into a small cell rely on the talents of a system integrator to bring the elements together. But integrating both LTE RAN and EPC onto a single chip design, as Cavium and Quortus have done in this instance, seems to be a first.

Andy Odgers, CEO Quortus, says, “There are some ground rules, you can’t push authentication down to the edge where the small cell is effectively CPE, there are some legal intercept matters, but generically speaking you are trying to save on satellite back-haul, so to offload or aggregate signalling, be that iuH or S1, or do voice and data offload, call handover without the troubling core – these are all thing that don’t impact authentication or security.”

“But the benefits of doing the things we’ve talked about – meshing vehicles, voice data offload, satellite optimisation… that’s what we do. The feedback we get is that people are always fascinated about what can put on the chip and the applications for that.”

A complete “network in a box” approach has limited use cases, for sure, but the distribution of intelligence across the network, even to the device, is a current topic of consideration for network planners looking at small cell and Cloud RAN architectures, and is one of the topics the Small Cell Forum will look at within its Release 5 programme. The availability of software that can take advantage of processing platforms with the required power to enable localised and virtualised functions may be part of that discussion.