This article is part of a series breaking down the complex systems and technologies that make up the Rakuten Mobile network and Rakuten Communications Platform. In this edition, we speak with Anshul Bhatt, business unit head of the AI Platforms Division, Rakuten Mobile, and Ashish Madan, system integration specialist, Rakuten Mobile Singapore about how Rakuten Mobile is harnessing the huge potential of automation.
To break into a well-established market, you need to break with convention.
In Japan, Rakuten Mobile is doing exactly that by systematically embracing automation: Software performs many of the day-to-day tasks completed by human beings in a traditional telecoms operator.
On this path, with the final objective of building a truly autonomous cellular network, Rakuten Mobile has developed a framework to enable employees across the organization to automate as many processes as possible.
Automation allows employees to focus on rewarding work, rather than handling repetitive tasks. This approach has enabled Rakuten’s e-commerce platform and other cloud native businesses to grow rapidly.
The rationale? Automation cuts costs, meaning better prices for end-users. Even better, automation can equate to faster processes, secured access controls, smoother upgrades and fewer errors, resulting in a better customer experience. “When we have some trouble in the network, the first thing we ask is, was this not automated?” says Ashish Madan, system integration specialist, Rakuten Mobile Singapore. “And you have to do it end-to-end. The moment something breaks somewhere and you have to let the human in, that is the failure point.”
Indeed, automation allows employees to focus on rewarding work, rather than handling repetitive tasks. This approach has enabled Rakuten’s e-commerce platform and other cloud-native businesses to grow rapidly.
Making it simple and easy to automate
The new framework is pivotal to Rakuten Mobile’s automation drive. Encapsulating best practices developed by the company’s center of excellence, the framework simplifies the steps an engineer needs to take in order to automate a task. “We have made generic telco automation libraries, almost like creating our own programming language,” explains Anshul Bhatt, business unit head of AI Platforms, Rakuten Mobile. Rather than having to write 10-15 lines of code to program a specific action, the engineer can now key in a simple command or even click on a graphical icon to call up the relevant code from the library. “It becomes very easy for even a non-pure software engineer to implement this automation,” adds Bhatt.
We are completely shifting traditional telco operations into a software-based or SRE-based way of working. We have brought some of the best DevOps engineers from around the world to our Japan and India locations to write our automation libraries.Anshul Bhatt, Business Unit Head, AI Platforms, Rakuten Mobile
As this framework is now widely employed, Rakuten Mobile is quickly building a database of automation code that can be reused as appropriate. Initially, engineers tend to develop systems that will recommend a course of action, rather than implementing it without human intervention. But as they become more confident in the automated recommendations, the engineers can create systems that will simply go ahead and perform the required action.
“Essentially these are some of the practical steps we are taking towards our vision of creating a truly autonomous network. These automations will evolve into autonomous system driven actions with more data and time. We are equipping AI with right-action orchestration capability,” added Bhatt.
Automation… should actually make people feel more efficient in their job. It’s all about adaptation and welcoming the use of the latest technology and solutions.Ashish Madan, System Integration Specialist, Rakuten Mobile Singapore
Systematic automation can save a huge amount of time and resources, particularly in those parts of the business where the same components have been deployed in large volumes, such as the radio network. As every base station is the same, they can all be installed, upgraded and repaired in the same way. “We can bring hundreds of sites on air in one day and we can easily test hundreds more,” says Madan. “We can even deploy around one hundred edge data centers in a day because of automation.”
Automation is part of the job description
The importance of automation for Rakuten Mobile is evident in the fact that the engineers working in its operations can spend as much as half their time coding or automating manual actions. “It is how a SRE (site reliability engineer) would work in a web scale company,” notes Bhatt. “We are completely shifting traditional telco operations into a software-based or SRE-based way of working*. We have brought some of the best DevOps engineers from around the world to our Japan and India locations to write our automation libraries.”
“We have invested our energy and skillset into building a reliable and scalable automation framework,” added Madan. In fact, automation is giving Rakuten Mobile a competitive edge by developing proven solutions for complex and desired use cases in the wireless industry. Madan continued, “By virtue of this, we have achieved excellence in data center virtualization and in deploying workloads such as vRAN in just minutes. So, we are out of that era when it took hours for software installation and the radio sites commissioning process.”
Automation makes it efficient to configure, monitor, secure, upgrade, heal and scale all types of virtualized network function components. This is done by using standard interfaces and protocols, at the same time as integrating with software suites such as the centralized Orchestrator, Observability Framework, Inventory, IPAM and Configuration Manager. Similar functionalities are available for Layer 2 and Layer 3 networking devices as well.
“All this has come true because people of a similar mindset came together with disruptive thinking to overturn the traditional way of doing engineering tasks,” said Madan. This is nurtured by the dedication and determination of the development team, who convert thoughts into code by stitching together the outputs of various components and merging them with numerous functional logics. “The amount of effort and the endless hours that the team has spent with enthusiasm to deliver the development projects is truly exceptional and worth mentioning,” added Madan.
Faster, better customer service
All this has come true because people of a similar mindset came together with disruptive thinking to overturn the traditional way of doing engineering tasks.Ashish Madan, System Integration Specialist, Rakuten Mobile Singapore
Automation can also speed up and improve customer service. An automated system shows Rakuten Mobile’s customer care agents relevant information about an incoming caller and even performs basic system checks. “We are focusing on these kinds of use cases, because this brings value for everyone,” explains Madan. “If the agent is able to finish in less than half the time, then they can take more calls per day.” Automation is also helping to improve Rakuten Mobile’s customer satisfaction index by measuring subscribers’ opinions and overall sentiment.
For Rakuten Mobile, at least, automation isn’t about trying to reduce staff numbers. It is about enabling employees to focus on areas where they can add value, rather than performing repetitive tasks.“Automation should not make anyone scared that they’ll lose their job,” says Madan. “It should actually make people feel more efficient in their job. It’s all about adaptation and welcoming the use of the latest technology and solutions. Our zealous engineering team have not only come out of their comfort zone and routine manual work, but they are also hands-on with automation and are giving us new challenging use cases and valuable feedback.”
*Editor’s Note: A way of working in which a site reliability engineer splits their time between operations tasks and development tasks, such as creating new features, scaling the system and implementing automation.