Rakuten’s 5G network will be built with containers

Rakuten this week commercially launched its new greenfield 4G network in Japan. But the operator is already working on transitioning its network to 5G. And it plans to use containers, rather than virtual machines, for its network functions virtualization (NFV) infrastructure as well as part of its radio access network (RAN). Some of the vendors it’s collaborating with for containers include Robin.io, Altiostar and Intel.

It’s working with the Silicon Valley startup Robin.io — a five-year-old company with about 60 employees — to build its NFV container-based infrastructure.

For its 4G network, Rakuten operates one horizontal cloud layer above its macro cell sites, edge data centers and central data centers. That cloud runs on Red Hat’s OpenStack (virtual machine) platform with contributions from Cisco.

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But Rakuten is building its 5G cloud layer on containers. “When it comes to 5G, they want hyper-automation,” said Robin.io CTO Partha Seetala. The startup is providing several thousands of container clusters for Rakuten. Robin.io’s container software uses the Kubernetes container-management system.

Asked why Rakuten didn’t just start with containers to begin with, Seetala said containers have matured quickly over the past couple of years, but he speculated that Rakuten probably started with virtual machines as a matter of expediency because that system was fully mature at the time it started its network build.

“If you think about the 5G RAN core, it is different than the 4G RAN core,” said Seetala. “From the 3GPP, it is implemented as a micro-services-based architecture. For that they need to have a Kubernetes-based platform. So, they’re basically standing up another platform. The real estate is going to be the same data centers.”

Containers in the RAN

Other vendors working with Rakuten on its 5G build include Altiostar and Intel, which in February said they’re working with the Japanese operator to launch the world's first container-based, cloud-native 5G radio access network (RAN).

Altiostar is already the main software contributor for Rakuten’s 4G RAN. For its 5G network, Rakuten will take Altiostar’s software and further decompose the network functions into containerized applications that are fast to deploy and can be individually upgraded.

The server platforms that drive the virtualization technologies in Rakuten Mobile's network are based on Intel’s Xeon Scalable Processors. As part of its work with Rakuten, Intel will release various Kubernetes plugins that facilitate RAN and MEC application containers to be deployed on Intel architecture.

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Other vendors that will have a starring role in Rakuten’s 5G network include Airspan, which is deploying mmWave for the carrier, and NEC, which has developed a 3.7 GHz massive MIMO 5G antenna radio unit (RU) that will be manufactured by NEC at its facilities in Japan.