Rakuten CTO: We’re done with secrets

With a newly created entity Symphony what’s next for Rakuten and open RAN? According to CTO Tareq Amin, having already quelled much of the earlier uncertainty and doubts around the technology, the next phase of growth is around simple things.

“You could hold Rakuten Symphony fully accountable to something that’s never happened in this industry: no more secrets, we’re done with secrets,” Amin said in an interview with FierceWireless.

Beyond a phrase, he pointed to a newly announced win with 1&1 AG in Germany where Rakuten is acting as general contractor, taking over the build of active network equipment and mobile performance for a greenfield virtualized open RAN network and leveraging the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP).

“Our total cost of ownership to them was fully transparent,” Amin said. The company was given full access to entire pricing on hardware and software, providing a level of transparency he categorized as unique and new. 

RELATED: Rakuten creates Symphony, expands RCP ambitions

Rakuten Symphony is the go-to-to-market vehicle that brings together the Rakuten Communications Platform (RCP), automation and OSS capabilities from Innoeye, network function elements and other elements, packaged for operators either as a full stack or a la carte, if they want to deploy cloud-native open architecture networks and services leveraging the Rakuten ecosystem and learnings. More from Amin about those plans here

While open RAN sometimes gets flack as more difficult or less attractive for brownfield than greenfield deployments, Amin made the argument that it’s imperative the industry move to a more cloud-native and software-driven architecture.

“I believe we shouldn’t hide behind the fact that open RAN will have challenges, of course it will,” he said. “But the beauty, once you start implementing software, is you’re going to discover the elegance of software is you can fix the problems much faster.”

He is hopeful that Rakuten Symphony will have a brownfield win, secured in the near-term to prove that Rakuten has a use-case to show. It’s something he hinted could be surfacing very soon, where the company mixed open RAN and traditional RAN to explore how they coexist.

It’s helpful to show “a blueprint architecture of how you implement open RAN in a legacy deployment” and make sure that it’s interworkable, he noted.

The next hill for Rakuten to get over is to convince people that the platform feature based on its current software architecture “is simply amazing.”

He said his humble ask is:

“Give us a chance and allow us to prove, not in the lab, in a production environment that for your customers that our network will deliver on a quality that will meet objectives and exceed expectations,” measured based on user experience from feature sets.

RELATED: Rakuten to acquire open RAN vendor Altiostar

He also thinks Rakuten is equipped with a novel way to easily enable a “try-it before you buy-it” type architecture– not in a lab exercise but proving in a real network that its platform works and can carry actual customer traffic. And brownfields, he said, have a great baseline comparing traditional versus open RAN architecture.  For Amin it’s a major aspect for the industry as whole in order to know what additional gaps they need to focus on to not just be on par with legacy networks, but better.

The journey for Rakuten hasn’t always been easy and Amin pointed to the difference of telco cloud and public cloud.

“To understand how to build a telco-hardened cloud turned out to be an unbelievable challenge,” Amin.

One of the first challenges to tackle was how to get workloads like radio access, that come with latency requirements far beyond those of IT or enterprise applications, according to Amin, as well as radio access tolerance and mandates to support real-time processing of packets and applications.

“Rakuten had to work on enhancing the real-time kernel, enhancing the software architecture of the open RAN platform that Altiostar provided,” he said. In a related announcement, Rakuten on Wednesday said it’s acquiring open RAN software vendor Altiostar and bringing it under the Rakuten umbrella.  

Ahead of Rakuten’s commercial virtualized 4G LTE network launch in 2020, he acknowledged there were many scaling issues, including system crash and stabilities around software that needed to be fixed step by step.  Rakuten was doing 150 software patches per day – a number he said is unheard of in radio, where traditional environments see software introduced three times a year at best.

RELATED: Ligado to trial Rakuten’s RCP for 5G private networks

“But that’s the beauty of where you work on a virtual machine world, a container world, the ability to upgrade the systems are much easier than a traditional legacy architecture,” he said.

Once Rakuten Mobile was up and running, Amin said, the thought came to him that Rakuten “was sitting on a gold mine,” as it wasn’t just a mobile network but a platform.

Bringing together the totality of the network, cloud, network functions, and most importantly, according to Amin, RAN OSS and automation that provides a level of network automation he touts as unbelievable. 

Now is the time not to show off results in a lab, but to show how other operators can take advantage of these learnings and platforms in real-world deployments.