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CXO Insight

Rakuten Mobile’s DNA – template, replicate, automate, accelerate

Rahul Atri, Managing Director, Rakuten Mobile Singapore, Head of Products & Engineering, Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP), has “worked for two or three greenfield companies” including Reliance Jio, which totally disrupted the Indian market, and various vendors.

Now at Rakuten Mobile, he works for the most disruptive greenfield of all and some think the business model behind his particular area of responsibility, the RCP, is more revolutionary than the network build. Atri says Rakuten Mobile’s network is foundational to RCP’s success.

How do you go about building a communication infrastructure unlike any other in the world? Atri says that although Rakuten Mobile sees itself very much as an IT company rather than a telco, it faced considerable challenges. Hence, “when we began, we focused primarily on the basic components – people, process then technology. Automation for us has been a necessity and part of the culture from the start,” he says.

Most of his team comes from a software engineering background. Even so, “We invested a lot in people to build the entrepreneurship, mindset and DNA to think differently, not as typical telcos. Then we focused a lot on processes to define how we go about ‘solutioning’ anything, and how to make the process more digital.

Fundamental to automation

The team soon realised that to automate everything demands a detailing & product mindset. “For instance, if we want to truly zero-touch auto-commission of RAN, we need to be very sure which server/node to logically map the radio site (Radio-vDU-vCU), how to validate & push the right configuration for the right endpoint (Serial Number/Mac Address, Geolocation),” Atri says.

In the interest of speed, Rakuten mobile was designing, building and operating the network at the same time. Atri explains, “We realised the whole idea of automation is not about integrating a couple of systems with APIs north and southbound, but to build integrated platforms to be able to manage/operate the network lifecycle end to end.”

“Automation was an absolute necessity because we had to launch this network and that’s how we were able to do that in one and a half years. We launched 200+ sites live on-air every day. We auto-configured 25+ cloud edges clouds every day, and then operations, especially in this COVID situation, became a little easier for us because we invested heavily in automation.”

He states, “For us there was no playbook, no cheat code, and no tools to configure the cloud-native network, and we had to learn & build our own. That is why we invested a lot in people and processes before the technology.”

Atri says, “[The team] went into detail of each and every call flow and each and every integration. We followed common practices of detailing & learning (failing fast & improving) end to end vertically & horizontally.”

Rakuten Mobile and Communications Platform Presentation

Open to the world

Rakuten Mobile is making its architecture and best practices available to operators around the world through the RCP, this, in turn, will help the OpCos to replicate Rakuten Mobile’s model and success. RCP allows customers to visit an online marketplace where they build their own platforms, apps and services.

Atri talks about the secret sauce “RCP’s OSS which is much more than the typical siloed OSS: In RCP we have 45+ OSS apps, these apps are integrated & meant to support operators for the entire network lifecycle management from design, build, secure to operate & upgrade.”

To get to this point with the RCP Atri says the team “burned through a lot of midnight oil, focusing on how to build industrialization & repeatability, with templates and standard interfaces. This helps us to be vendor & apps agnostic (onboarding & integrating applications, vendors & solutions becomes seamless).”

Atri says, “With the success of Rakuten in Japan, people are getting more open, they talk a lot about the success & our network architecture ( vRAN, E2E cloud-native). Coming to the business side, we really think RCP is the pivotal point where the ecosystem and the industry will change. “I personally love our network in Japan, we built it from scratch and with the same technology & learnings we are now taking to the world.”

Rakuten Mobile runs on virtual RAN (vRAN), commercially carries millions of users and their traffic on its end-to-end cloud network. He states, “[We] are managing the first realistic CI/CD [continuous integrated/continuous deployment] pipeline of automation where you have auto-rollbacks and upgrades when you’re talking about the [biggest] number of edge clouds for a telecom network anywhere in the world, where you’re talking about having shifted everything from bare metal to a cloud-native approach on VNFs.”

Embracing the edge

About edge, Atri says that from the earliest stages of network design Rakuten planned to deploy regional data centres with “media services, caches, storage, etc. . It was always about customer experience, right from the start, with Ultra HD video content, super-low latency, and superior service: being more reliable.”

Telcos usually have central DCs, and the industry challenge is how to design, deploy & manage so many DCs (Edge/Far Edge). In RCP, we have solved the challenge by Automation & our inhouse products:

  • Facility Designer: Design ( from Cable, Connections, Rack, Clusters )
  • Inventory: Design gives the BOQ, NIP
  • Ware & Logistics: Manage the BOQ, delivery
  • Digital WF: Digital Processes to deploy, capture digital inventory data
  • Config Manager, Lifecycle manager: To Auto discover & Configure Cloud, Apps

Do standards help or hinder?

Atri says in principle standards are good, if not matured with practical deployments, they can hinder innovation. “This is particularly true when it comes to complex lifecycle management, like self-healing especially at edge cloud, where power, size & external factors also become challenges to define automation.”

Atri continues, “With cloud networks individual monitoring &  integration of vertical stack (infra, cloud, app, network),  plays a major role. It is not as simple as monitoring the App KPIs & taking actions anymore.”

“On a scale of one to 10, I’d love to be standards compliant on eight, but still have the bandwidth to innovate.”

Raising the bar

Rakuten Mobile can carry out certain auto-upgrades across its whole network in eight minutes. On AI/Autonomous networks Atri adds  “The bar keeps going up. Initially, people were happy with auto-configuration, next was self-healing, now AI to proactively notify updates about the network.”

He concludes, “It will be very interesting to see [the impact of] AI and machine learning as we are only two or three years old as a network and there is a lot of network-related data that we are working on for other use cases such as energy-saving – we are looking at how to save 30 or 40% – and customer satisfaction and customer rating…they are very important – we are spending a lot of effort and building a lot of platforms there.”

Rahul Atri is an advisory board member and speaker at FutureNet Asia, 27th October, Virtual.