If there’s anyone who knows about network automation, it’s Rakuten Mobile CTO Tareq Amin. He’s leading the charge to build a greenfield LTE network in Japan that will launch commercially in early April.
In advance of FierceWireless' virtual panel about network automation on Tuesday, March 24, Amin spoke with FierceWireless about Rakuten’s network automation work.
Rakuten has worked with a bevy of vendors, and it’s also orchestrated open source software to build this fully virtualized network, which currently has about 188 virtual network functions and 6,000 virtual machines. Amin said, “The truth is this was not easy, but I have never, ever felt for a moment of my life this will not work.”
He added, “We stumbled quite a bit, not in the areas I thought we would be most challenged. I thought RAN would be most complex. But of all my challenges I have faced, I attribute 10% to radio and 90% to everything else.”
Amin said Rakuten acted as a systems integrator for its own network. And it had to orchestrate all the pieces and parts together from the virtualized core to the virtualized RAN, to the back-office systems. “It was taxing. We really had to become the glue for everybody.”
It was the little things that caused some of the biggest headaches. For instance, working with the new BSS/OSS system for policy and charging was a challenge. The company is actually planning to acquire a start-up BSS/OSS company that it worked with on the project. Amin refused to name the company at this point because the deal is in final negotiation stages. But he said to look for an announcement in about three weeks.
Neil McRae, BT’s managing director and chief architect, will be participating in Tuesday’s panel on network automation. BT belongs to the O-RAN Alliance, which is developing standardized open interfaces for the radio access network (RAN). But the British operator isn’t all that enamored with commercial solutions that use O-RAN, yet.
BT isn’t religious about virtualization for its own sake. “We think sometimes you’re increasing the complexity of operations,” McRae said. “Today I talk to my supplier, and they resolve it. In a disaggregated network, I have to talk to more than one supplier; I have to have a programmer on my own staff to de-bug it. We’ve got a lot to learn how to operate the infrastructure. We will use the best solution for customer experience and that allows us to make a return. When you look at O-RAN it’s still not clear to me that there’s a really strong single direction for the parties involved.”
Amin acknowledges that it’s a lot of work to manage multiple vendors and open source software and act as your own systems integrator. He said Rakuten Mobile’s engineering organization is very flat, and he has a lot of direct reports, which makes his job even more demanding. But he wanted to make sure Rakuten was in charge of its own destiny.
For its part though, BT must deal with an old, established network. McRae said Rakuten doesn’t have to worry about 20 years or more of legacy equipment. “In cost terms, do we see any benefits of disaggregation in the mobile core? No, we see the opposite is true,” McRae said. “It’s more costly to run and with greater likelihood of problems.”
Vodafone, however, also must deal with a legacy network. But it’s become an early adopter of open RAN technologies. In November 2019, Vodafone announced that it would issue a request for quotes for open RAN technology for its entire European footprint.
Mostafa Essa, an AI and data analytics distinguished engineer with Vodafone, said, “If you use a specific vendor for the RAN and ask him to carry some new features for something you are needing that is impacting your customers, they have to go back to their R&D and build up features. Then we’ll test and give feedback. Right now, by using the open RAN concept, you can build up whatever you want whenever you want. It’s not connected to vendors’ roadmaps.”
Open RAN gains momentum
Dell’Oro analyst Stefan Pongratz has said, “Given the current progress and the overall readiness with both the open RAN and non open RAN virtualization tracks, we anticipate that the benefits with purpose-built RAN will continue to outweigh the benefits with virtual RAN over the near-term.”
But he adds that open RAN momentum is accelerating as the ecosystem develops, as partnerships are formed and as operators experiment with trials.
Rakuten’s Amin said, “When you deal with software, life is slightly a bit easier. I know I can fix software. We’re getting really good at isolating and fixing the problems."
Among its many leading-edge (or perhaps bleeding-edge) innovations, Rakuten has changed the process of how a vendor partner delivers software to Rakuten. It created a lab management platform in which its cloud and the R&D cloud of the vendor partners are tightly linked so that software development can go much faster. Amin said the dev/ops processes that in the past typically took six months have been sped up to a matter of days.