Mobile World Congress - mobile industry breathes deeply and prepares

Profile picture for user mbanks By Martin Banks March 4, 2015
Wearables are arriving, IoT is monitoring more, and 5G is on the horizon. And the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona sees the mobile community gearing up for the coming onslaught.

Wearable devices – OK several new contenders in the digital watch market by and large – may have been the primary headline grabbers out of this week’s Mobile World Congress show in Barcelona, but the underlying impression is of an industry standing back, girding its loins and taking a deep breath before the real onslaught comes with the arrival 5G transmission standards and the universal deployment of IPv6.

When that combination of events happens data transmission rates will be running at up to 1GBit/sec between enough IP addresses to access every atom not just in this planet but 100 more of them. The deep breath is required to absorb the knowledge that current cloud and carrier infrastructures are unlikely to cope very well, and to start building up some infrastructures that will.

At the same, the performance of individual devices will also need to take some serious steps forward, so some deep breathing is also visible at the Congress from the chip makers building the internals of all the devices and servers that will be needed.

While it is the curvy handsets and new wearable devices that get the immediate column inches and yards of TV footage from the media tech/fashion correspondents, it is developments in the two ends of the mobile spectrum – the chips, and the networking, distribution and management systems – that hold at least some of the keys to the speed and direction of mobile development.

Down at the small end

Even down at the chip end of the spectrum the focus of attention seems to be towards systems’ related activities.

The UK’s ARM Holdings, for example, is extending its design capabilities beyond just chips and is now targeting the transformation of network infrastructures so they can meet the scalability requirements of content-rich mobile services and IoT-based services.

Its answer, developed with some of its partners, it an Intelligent Flexible Cloud (IFC) environment which brings together platforms based on scalable, highly-integrated System-on-Chip (SoC) devices with compute capabilities that are supported by a common layer of enabling software and distributed network intelligence.

It builds on Software-Defined Networking (SDN) and Network Function Virtualization (NFV) to provide the building blocks for hyperconverged microservice architectures that are intended to accelerate time to market for new services.

Several solutions targeting IFC requirements have recently been announced by many of the major silicon vendors using ARM’s designs and a number have already started shipping SoCs for this role.

In the more specialised areas of chip development, SanDisk has pushed the capacity of the humble MicroSD card to very impressive 200GB of memory, which should tickle the interest of film makers and photographers. This is a 56% increase on the current highest capacity MicroSD, and comes about through SanDisk’s use of proprietary design and production processes.

There was some speculation that Qualcomm’s upcoming Snapdragon 820 processor would make its first appearance at the event but it still looks to be slated for a launch later this year. But it will be one to watch as it could provide a significant jump in not just brute performance but also programming possibilities.

This will be a 64-bit processor designed to offer neuromorphic computing capabilities that are modelled on mimicking the way the human brain operates by using neurons to fire, connect and share information.

A crowded conference

The situation was similar for Intel. For this year’s event the company’s big story has been the rationalisation of the numbering scheme for its range of Atom SoC processors. Again there had been some speculation that the latest Atom developments, the x5 and x7 SoCs, might make an appearance. Both are being aimed at the higher end of the Tablet marketplace while offering a better price than the company’s current offering for that market, the Core-M 4.5W products.

In the end there was not a lot of detail available about them, suggesting that they are aimed more at launch around the middle to late 2015. This is expected to coincide with the arrival of the next generation of Intel’s XMM 7360 modem, featuring up to 450 Mbps downlink and support for up to 29 LTE bands.

For Microsoft, MWC has probably come at an inconvenient time, for the inevitable marketing hoopla and product launch bonanza, including a flagship new smartphone, will be geared to the formal launch of Windows 10. OK, so it has missed a big industry-wide launch date target, but the potential upside is that the Windows 10 launch will not risk being swamped by announcements from other companies.

Meanwhile, at the large end

Up at the systems infrastructure end of the mobile world, that sense of deep breathing and preparation before the time for manic effort was perhaps more palpable. The next step in communications standards and capability, 5G, is coming.

Well, to be more accurate it is still coming, as it has been for a little while now. So in the meantime the big name vendors at the systems and infrastructure end of the mobile world are doing a lot of preparation work by developing systems and services that they expect to be needed by the carriers and service providers.

Their collective aim is to get carriers and service providers to react much quicker to the changes that are already underway with the arrival of IoT and wearables, and will come with a rush when 5G finally gets here.

For example, Nokia has announced an updated Radio Cloud portfolio, with the emphasis heavily on the twin ‘pre-5G’ themes that are permeating the whole industry – new Radio Access Network (RAN) architectures and the widespread use of virtualisation.

AlcatelLucent is showing increased interest in its IP router business, along with its traditional enthusiasm for deconstructed RAN architectures like small cells and Cloud-RAN. Meanwhile, Ericsson positions the RAN as just one element in a wide array of equipment, software and services for all kinds of operators, not just the cellcos. Its aim is to provide network platforms and capabilities for the broadest range of service providers possible.

Ericsson is placing much of its effort behind back end services by combining hardware and software with integration services. Its offerings emphasise this broad-reaching nature of Ericsson’s business model at a time when many of its European rivals are becoming more specialised. Overall, the company is pitching that it has the toolkit to help any carrier transform itself into a digital telco.

The soup-to-nuts, full end-to-end service provision message was also a big feature for the likes of Huawei and ZTE, with both still offering everything from devices, to base stations, and on to the IP core.

Huawei is using that soup-to-nuts capability to provide some leverage for its `pre-5G’, 4.5G-capability messaging. Not only does this point to giving carriers and service providers the ability to optimise the end users’ experiences by controlling the network but also allows it to add in 4.5G-compatible devices as part of the service. Hence the appearance at MWC of its `4.5G’ smartband.

The company will be rolling out its new technologies over the next year or so, while trying to shift the focus from capacity and speed to the challenge of building LTE networks flexible enough to support many different user needs, from video streaming and downloads to the constant, tiny updates of a smart meter.

It is also promoting its new Intelligent Modular Data Center Solution. This sounds like an approach to growing datacentre capacity that will already be familiar to users of IBM’s Softlayer division at the very least.

It is the adoption of a modular architecture for putting together datacentres using integrated interfaces, components, and systems (including power, cooling, cabinet and management systems). By exploiting the increasingly commoditised technologies used in datacentres, the solution features the advantages of easy installation and maintenance, rapid deployment, and capacity expansion.

The systems software corollary of this is Huawei’s new Business Enabling System (BES). This is a framework of products and solutions aimed at assisting service providers to grow and manage a digital ecosystem.

My take

It is inevitable that the mobile world will, in short order, be providing us with some startling new developments, and more importantly, new ways of doing things that, even at this range, are hard to predict. We are not quite there yet, but the industry is trying its collective best to get the carriers and service providers fit enough to cope with the inevitable explosion.