Friday, September 18, 2020

Rakuten: the Cloud Native Telco Network

Traditionally, telco network operators have only collaborated in very specific environments; namely standardization and regulatory bodies such as 3GPP, ITU, GSMA...

There are a few examples of partnerships such as Bridge Alliance or BuyIn mostly for procurement purposes. When it comes to technology, integration, product and services development, examples have been rare of one carrier buying another's technology and deploying it in their networks.

It is not so surprising, if we look at how, in many cases, we have seen operators use their venture capital arm to invest in startups that end up rarely being used in their own networks. One has to think that using another operator's technology poses even more challenges.

Open source and network disaggregation, with associations like Facebook's Telecom Infra Project, the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) or the Linux Foundation O-RAN alliance have somewhat changed the nature of the discussions between operators.

It is well understood that the current oligopolistic situation in terms of telco networks suppliers is not sustainable in terms of long term innovation and cost structure. The wound is somewhat self-inflicted, having forced vendors to merge and acquire one another in order to be able to sustain the scale and financial burden of surviving 2+ years procurement processes with drastic SLAs and penalties.

Recently, these trends have started to coalesce, with a renewed interest for operators to start opening up the delivery chain for technology vendors (see open RAN) and willingness to collaborate and jointly explore technology development and productization paths (see some of my efforts at Telefonica with Deutsche Telekom and AT&T on network disaggregation).

At the same time, hyperscalers, unencumbered by regulatory and standardization purview have been able to achieve global scale and dominance in cloud technology and infrastructure. With the recent announcements by AWS, Microsoft and Google, we can see that there is interest and pressure to help network operators achieving cloud nativeness by adopting the hyperscalers models, infrastructure and fabric.

Some operators might feel this is a welcome development (see Telefonica O2 Germany announcing the deployment of Ericsson's packet core on AWS) for specific use cases and competitive environments. 

Many, at the same time are starting to feel the pressure to realize their cloud native ambition but without hyperscalers' help or intervention. I have written many times about how telco cloud networks and their components (Openstack, MANO, ...) have, in my mind, failed to reach that objective. 

One possible guiding light in this industry over the last couple of years has been Rakuten's effort to create, from the ground up, a cloud native telco infrastructure that is able to scale and behave as a cloud, while providing the proverbial telco grade capacity and availability of a traditional network. Many doubted that it could be done - after all, the premise behind building telco clouds in the first place was that public cloud could never be telco grade.

It is now time to accept that it is possible and beneficial to develop telco functions in a cloud native environment.

Rakuten's network demonstrates that it is possible to blend traditional and innovative vendors from the telco and cloud environments to produce a cloud native telco network. The skeptics will say that Rakuten has the luxury of a greenfield network, and that much of its choices would be much harder in a brownfield environment.

The reality is that whether in the radio, the access, or the core, in OSS or BSS, there are vendors now offering cloud native solutions that can be deployed at scale with telco-grade performance. The reality as well is that no all functions and not all elements are cloud native ready. 

Rakuten has taken the pragmatic approach to select from what is available and mature today, identifying gaps with their ideal end state and taking decisive actions to bridge the gaps in future phases.

Between the investment in Altiostar, the acquisition of Innoeye and the joint development of a cloud native 5G Stand Alone Core with NEC, Rakuten has demonstrated vision clarity, execution and commitment to not only be the first cloud native telco, but also to be the premier cloud native telco supplier with its Rakuten Mobile Platform. The latest announcement of a MoU with Telefonica could be a strong market signal that carrieres are ready to collaborate with other carriers in a whole new way.