Rakuten Mobile has a very different approach to vendor relationships, compared to most established operators.
For one thing, its greenfield nature and cloud-native platform have enabled it to adopt a truly multivendor approach, although its long list of suppliers has been assembled at the cost of huge inhouse engineering efforts.
And also, having set up Rakuten Symphony to commercialize its open networking platform and services with other operators, the company will choose its partners with that wider business in mind. If Symphony succeeds, it will be a far more important revenue generator for the Rakuten group than its Japanese MNO, which has to compete in one of the world’s most advanced but saturated mobile markets. The choice of partners for this platform is critical to future success, and Rakuten has already shown itself willing to acquire those suppliers it feels are most strategic, notably the RAN software provider Altiostar.
In February, Rakuten made another acquisition, of cloud platform start-up Robin.io. Robin.io was already being used to support multicloud mobility, automation and orchestration capabilities for Rakuten Mobile, and is now providing these for the Symphony platform also. But now it will perform a more foundational role as Rakuten migrates from a virtualized network based on virtual machines (VM) to the a fully cloud-native architecture based on more agile and modern containerization.
This will entail entirely replacing Rakuten’s first private cloud, which was based on Red Hat’s implementation of OpenStack, with integration from Cisco. This will lead to a network in which “100% of every workload will be cloud-native storage, completely microservices-architected, completely orchestrated by Rakuten Symphony’s own orchestrator and running on a 100% indigenously developed cloud environment,” Rakuten Symphony CEO Tareq Amin told Light Reading.
He claimed: “The cost that Robin.io will run at will be 50% less than what I have today.” The replacement is expected to be complete by March 2023.
Amin believes Robin.io will help to reduce the complexity of deploying telecoms networks in the cloud, by supporting agile microservices and providing new generation tools to automate the process. That, in turn, should reduce cost and risk, and has led to Robin.io being a key element of the Symworld platform that Symphony will market to operators and enterprise providers round the world.
“Deploying a single telco application, no matter how good you are, whether you are a public or private cloud, is a process that takes almost nine months on any cloud and that is largely because of the complexity or a lack of tooling that exists in the current architecture,” Amin told analysts in a recent briefing. “In 5G, we decided to evolve and move to our own platform called Symcloud through the Robin.io acquisition and we’ve seen unbelievable benefits.”
Of course, these benefits will need to be well proven, since Symphony is now pitching its cloud platform and stack against the hyperscalers, as well as vendors outside the Symworld ecosystem, such as VMware. Microsoft Azure, AWS and Google Cloud are all trying to attract operators to run their networks in the public clouds, and Microsoft has gone as far as to acquire AT&T’s inhouse network cloud platform. However, critics claim the public clouds are appropriate for the core network but are insufficiently distributed for the RAN, especially to support real time and Layer 1 functions. Even Dish, whose agreement to run its RAN in AWS was much-vaunted, said that, in reality, most of its RAN functions run on its own telco cloud, which is being built out using Dell servers and VMware cloud infrastructure, on a very distributed edge cloud. Some non-real time functions, as well as the core, will be the main applications on AWS.
Of course, Symphony must take care not to be too prescriptive, as that would belie its claims to support an open environment. Smaller operators will welcome a pre-integrated solution and that will often be sufficient to compensate for being, in effect, directed to use Altiostar and Robin.io. But larger operators will point out that access to a wide base of innovators is one of their chief goals.
Rakuten responds with promises that most of Symphony’s products will actually run on any cloud – for instance, it has sold site management tools to AT&T, which will run on Azure. But when it comes to the Altiostar RAN functions, those will only run on Rakuten’s own cloud, at least in the short term. “The complexity of running radio on a distributed unit needs quite a bit of integration,” said Amin. He believes Robin.io will be valuable to help operators use a hybrid of public and private clouds, by providing orchestration across multiple environments, as it initially did for Rakuten itself, before acquiring its expanded role in the world’s most famous Open RAN.
This is not the first example of Rakuten replacing its original 4G technology providers in order to migrate to 5G and cloud-native. Nokia and KMW were the 4G radio unit vendors, while NEC and Airspan are the main 5G suppliers, and NEC’s converged 4G/5G core, co-developed with Rakuten, is replacing Cisco’s 4G packet core.