Mobilizing at Internet Speed: Rakuten Cloud Innovation Lab

Thanks to a new innovation lab in Japan, Rakuten Mobile will be able to rapidly roll out 5G equipment and services from many different suppliers, bringing major benefits to end-users of its mobile connectivity.  The Rakuten Cloud Innovation Lab is designed to make it simple and straightforward for vendors to ensure their software works as intended with Rakuten’s new cloud-based network.

Developed together with Cisco and other partners, the Rakuten Cloud Innovation Lab (RCIL) provides “an exact carbon copy of our commercial network, it is a mini-me, a small version of our whole commercial network,” explained Dr. Ashiq Khan, Head of Rakuten Cloud Platform, at the Cisco Live event in San Diego held last month. Developers can transfer their software directly from their test labs to Rakuten’s labs, where they then test it further using a dedicated part of the network provided by Rakuten. If the software works well on the pre-production network, then Rakuten can confidently roll it out to the commercial network. 

Continuous improvements to connectivity

Khan said this approach will enable Rakuten to continually improve its network, releasing new features and patches as soon as they are ready, rather than waiting for the next biannual or even more distant network upgrade, as most network operators do today.

In other words, Rakuten’s network has been designed from the outset to evolve at internet speed, rather than traditional telco speed.  When the network was first being developed, “We had a meeting with Tareq Amin, Rakuten Mobile’s CTO, and I was just going through the first two slides and he said, ‘I’ll tell you what my problem statement is: I want to be completely agile. I want to be able to make 10-15 changes every day,’” recalled Vijay Raghavendran, vCTO, CX Cloud & Automation at Cisco, in a separate session at Cisco Live.

Raghavendran explained how Rakuten’s new lab uses a Cisco platform called the Continuous Deployment and Automation Framework (CDAF) to quickly develop and test solutions from multiple vendors.

Rakuten’s new lab is designed to be as transparent as possible, enabling developers to see detailed information about how their software performs in the pre-production environment. To date, approximately 10 vendors have supplied more than 100 software packages in RCIL to be used in Rakuten’s cloud-native network.  

Raghavendran noted that most of Cisco’s operator customers typically take three to four months to evaluate new software and subsequent upgrades to be used in their networks. But such a process is impractical for a cloud-native network, which is designed to be software-defined and programmable, supporting a wide range of microservices and open source applications deployed at speed.

Standardized hardware keeps things simple

Although the Rakuten Cloud Innovation Lab will play a pivotal role in enabling Rakuten and its customers to benefit from the versatility of 5G, it also needs to be cost-effective. Raghavendran explained that Rakuten’s use of standard off-the-shelf computer servers makes it viable to provide vendors with such a robust test environment. In his presentation, Khan noted that Rakuten is only using 10 different configurations of computer servers across its network in Japan, whereas a conventional mobile operator would use several hundred. “This is a huge benefit”, he explained, as it allows Rakuten to reduce both capital costs and operating costs by making deployment and maintenance straightforward.

Four of these server configurations are in several thousand “edge data centers” spread across Japan, while the other six are in Rakuten’s central cloud infrastructure. Designed to  host the virtualized radio network (vRAN) software, Rakuten Mobile’s innovation in collaboration with partners made the world’s first virtualized vRAN very responsive with low latency, meeting mobile telecom performance and reliability  requirements.

This unique architecture means that each of Rakuten’s cell sites only requires an antenna, a pole and a power supply unit. The baseband processing units that you would normally find at each cell site are instead hosted in the edge clouds in virtual machines on the low cost hardware. The small footprint required for each cell site is helping Rakuten find the space to build out a fourth mobile network in one of the world’s most densely populated countries. This approach “makes the cell site very simple,” explained Khan. “Japan is a very congested place, so not much space, and finding cell sites is a challenge. It also allows us to build cell sites much faster.”

By rethinking the architecture of mobile infrastructure from the ground-up, Rakuten has created a low-cost, yet highly flexible and versatile network that will easily be able to evolve from 4G to 5G and beyond, providing cutting edge services to customers at speed.

For more on how Rakuten is building the world’s first end-to-end cloud-native mobile network, visit here.

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