As Mobile World Congress opens this year, it’s already clear that we’re going to see a battle of relevance as much as one of technology. Network equipment vendors divide roughly into two groups: those with wireless 4G assets and those without. The former group has a direct link to wireless projects and investment, which means that they can pull through backhaul and metro gear in larger projects. The latter group is hoping to make their network-layer products relevant in a world driven increasingly by mobile and radio technology.
Cisco and Juniper have already announced products aimed at creating a mobile-accommodating backhaul and metro infrastructure, and at improving the management of the experience. Arguing over which of these vendors has the best “box x” or “box y” is an exercise in futility. The one area where they may differ in a tangible way is what we call the “service layer,” the software and “networkware” tools that reside above the normal transit/connection assets.
While Cisco is clearly widening its pool of assets at the service layer, it’s not yet integrating them into a single structure. Juniper’s Junos ecosystem does that, which makes it a bit easier to position the assets as symbiotic. Symbiosis among service elements is critical in assuring an end-to-end experience. It’s hard for me to believe that Cisco doesn’t plan something more ecosystemic at the service layer, but on the other hand, it’s had plenty of inspiration from competitors (including Juniper and Alcatel-Lucent) and it hasn’t made the move yet.
The big question for both Cisco and Juniper is whether Alcatel-Lucent finally had something going for itself. The lightRadio announcement is a strong one, and while both Cisco and Juniper have either developed or acquired products that can be used in hotspot deployment, they’re not able to address the radio access network (RAN) itself. Ericsson and NSN can address the RAN, but they don’t have a strong switching/routing portfolio. Alcatel-Lucent also has an increasingly cohesive service-layer strategy, and if it were to get that story to gel convincingly, it would make it a lot harder for any of their competitors to tell their own service-layer story, no matter how far along that story might be. He who sings first, wins.