A new kind of connected cloud: Intel tech helps Rakuten Mobile achieve cloud operation automation

This article is part of a series highlighting the collaboration between Rakuten Mobile and its partners to build the world’s first end-to-end fully virtualized cloud-native mobile network. In this edition, we speak with Caroline Chan, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Network Business Incubator Division.

Peep under the hood of Rakuten Mobile’s new network in Japan and you’ll find one of the biggest names in the global computing industry. As well as being inside many of the world’s PCs and servers, Intel technology is pivotal to enabling the cloud-based automation that underpins Rakuten’s innovative approach to providing cellular service using cloud.

To help it harness the cloud technologies that have revolutionized the computing industry, Rakuten Mobile is deploying Intel processors and field programmable gate arrays (FPGAs) across its network. “Our silicon is in the radio access network (RAN), the base stations, in the remote radio heads, in the 5G ready mobile core — all in centralized and edge telco clouds: Intel technology has created an end-to-end foundation for this innovative infrastructure,” says Caroline Chan, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Network Business Incubator Division.

For example, the data centers in the heart of Rakuten Mobile’s fully virtualized network are equipped with servers that use Intel’s high-performance Xeon processors, and are supported by Intel’s FPGAs to achieve accelerated radio performance. Rakuten Mobile is also using Intel technology in its edge data centers, which are designed to provide very rapid response times for applications and rich media content. These standards-based edge servers are powerful enough to provide Rakuten Mobile’s customers with immersive experiences, such as video streams of live sport and other entertainment in high definition, while also supporting all edge computing applications, including online gaming and OTT (over-the-top).

Caroline Chan, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Network Business and Incubator Division speaking at the 2019 Rakuten Optimism U.S. event in San Francisco.
Caroline Chan, vice president and general manager of Intel’s Network Business Incubator Division, speaking at the 2019 Rakuten Optimism U.S. event in San Francisco.

“The real difference is that this network was built with edge services in mind from the ground-up, rather than as an afterthought,” explains Chan. “It is more service-orientated.  It will provide a multi-sensory experience for consumers that goes above and beyond the traditional KPIs (key performance indicators).”

Intel anticipates that as telecom operators harness a combination of edge, 5G and artificial intelligence (AI) technologies, their future will become much brighter. Supported by highly responsive edge computing, AI software could optimize applications and the services they support in real time, allowing a delivery robot, for example, to contend with a change in weather conditions. “It is not connectivity for the sake of it,” says Chan. “In our current environment, for example, networks are critical for remote education, supporting frontline caregivers and delivery of telemedicine.”

Crucially, Rakuten Mobile has utilized cloud technologies to achieve economies of scale that keep the capital and operating costs of the network efficient. “The innovations developed by Intel and our other technology partners have enabled us to deploy a full end-to-end virtualized mobile network that dramatically reduces our reliance on dedicated hardware and legacy infrastructure,” explains Tareq Amin, CTO of Rakuten Mobile. “As a result, we are able to reach new cloud-like operational efficiency and can pass our cost-savings onto our customers.”

A clean sheet of paper

Intel started working with Rakuten Mobile in June 2018.  As they could start with a clean sheet of paper, the two companies discussed how to build a cloud with connectivity, rather than trying to retrofit a cloud to existing connectivity, as most telcos have to do. “We drafted out the architecture at a meeting in Santa Clara in California over an afternoon,” recalls Chan. “Tareq had a very clear vision of what he wanted to achieve — this is the spectrum we have, this is the population we need to cover, this is how we want to upgrade to 5G. And there was a very heavy service element to it. It was a service-orientated cloud platform that has cellular connectivity.”

For Chan, who has been in the wireless industry all her working life, it was refreshing to see cellular connectivity being designed from scratch to be integrated with gaming, content, shopping, e-commerce, financial services and other cloud-based applications. “When Tareq shared this vision, we completely bought in,” she adds. “The cloud is Intel’s bread and butter.”

Intel has been working on how best to combine cloud and connectivity technologies for about a decade. “I joined Intel around the time we started working with the industry to build a network that would have all the common elements of the cloud,” says Chan. “We had the silicon and we built a development kit, specifically for an LTE (4G) network — a reference design …we wanted to create the software to help our customers, such as Nokia, Cisco and Altiostar, as they got started.”

Rakuten Mobile and its technology partners have deployed Intel silicon and an enhanced version of Intel’s reference software in the new network in Japan.  “When the network went live, I sent out a note to our CEO and all our engineers, saying: ‘we did this, we did this together. It is such a joy,’” adds Chan.

Intel technology is installed in servers at data centers across the network.
Intel technology is installed in servers at data centers across the network.

Preparing for cloud-native 5G

But the commercial launch of Rakuten Mobile’s 4G network in April was just the first step. Intel and Rakuten are now working towards the deployment of 5G services in millimeter wave spectrum in the summer. “We are discussing how they could deploy our agile resource management solution for edge sites, as well as expanding the network across Japan and enabling more and more services,” says Chan.

To support the forthcoming deployment of 5G, Intel is also helping Rakuten Mobile and software provider Altiostar to develop the world’s first container-based, cloud-native 5G RAN software. Containers combine an application with all related configuration files, libraries and dependencies to enable it to run in an efficient and reliable way across different computing environments. Intel is releasing various plugins for Kubernetes (an open source system for containerization) that facilitate the deployment of containers for RAN and mobile edge applications on Intel architecture.

Chan sees Rakuten Mobile as playing an important trail-blazing role for the global cellular industry. “Someone had to do this,” she notes. “They had to put their money where their mouth is. People talk about a flexible, virtualized network, but Rakuten actually did it.” Chan says that Rakuten Mobile has been very open with the industry about what it has learned from developing and deploying the first cloud-native mobile network. “When you are a pioneer, you are going to run into challenges,” she adds. “The learnings and experiences that Rakuten Mobile has had will benefit the entire industry as we go into the 5G world.”

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