In conversation with Rakuten Group CTO Tareq Amin
Q: In describing your vision for network automation, you’ve used the analogy of Level 4 autonomous driving for vehicles. Could you give an overview of to what degree your network operations are currently benefiting from automation and describe how you get from where you are today to this future Level 4 degree of network autonomy?
A: When we looked at building Rakuten Mobile network with a fully-virtualized architecture, we also thought that we had a remarkable opportunity to transform the foundation of what we call our data pipeline. In that context, legacy systems such as operations subsystems, orchestration and many others, we had a great opportunity to fundamentally transform the thinking of how the construct of all of these comes together to provide true telemetry, real-time performance management, move away from counter-based way of monitoring and managing network to real-time customer experience. The journey started with a complete fundamental transformation of the OSS layer. We went from monolithic boxes—from fault [and]performance management, configuration, accounting, security, workflow—into one modular architecture, and what a remarkable thing that we have seen when we have done this.
I’ve always talked in the industry about this dream towards Level 4 autonomy in networks and today…I feel this is more pragmatic reality, more of a tactical approach. I am not underestimating the complexity that we need to go through to really achieve that vision. But wouldn’t it be exciting if the industry we’re in today talks about the concepts of autonomous networks the same way that you hear in autonomous cars. I think now that the excitement that we see is that the reality is in reach. I’ve always talked about this. I really believe we are within a 24-month window to be able to achieve a considerable level of advancements in the concepts of autonomous networks.
If you look at Rakuten Mobile today, I would say we’re about 55-60% into the journey but the good news for me personally is that the foundation has already been built. That was the tough part. The tough part was just getting through these early stages of how you extract telemetry from the virtual network functions, or from our containers, or from our elements whether it is radio, core or other elements, in real time; how you ingest them into large big data platform; how you develop the AI and machine learning that sits on top of this architecture to be able to make decisive decisions on whether it is network isolation, healing, elasticity and many others. I think all in all I believe the hard work is behind us, which is about the foundation, building and now most of our focus is just about continu[ing]to really emphasize the development and the advancements of the use cases on top of this foundation.
Q: With a software-centric network, what type of changes to your workforce and what type of skills are necessary to successfully operate that network?
A: The skill sets to run and manage a software network platform in my view needs to be a remarkably different skill set. The challenges are very, very different. If you come into our operation room, you’ll discover that the traditional organization structure of operations just doesn’t exist. We only hire people that have software backgrounds and capability. We have quite a bit of SREs running and managing this network. And the mentality, by the way, it’s not just about the fact that you have software engineering skill sets…I think it’s a bit more of a cultural issue as well.
The concept that we go through is if you look at traditionally what we have done in telecom, you know, we always followed standard method of procedures, various checklists. Well these checklists maybe could have been created a decade ago and maybe today they don’t apply. These checklists today have been transformed from more documents to digitized workflows and that’s really fundamentally required a cultural awareness that writing code to address automation is a critical thing. Finding every opportunity that there is manual work that is happening, and the way I told my team is wouldn’t life be easier if you didn’t have to wake up at night because of outages. I want you to have balance in your life. In that context, we focus and do two things. One is the skill sets for sure. If you don’t have a software background, I think you will struggle to sustain and develop your career as the network moves into a software architecture and a software platform. So reskilling existing resources is very important and hiring the right talent and the right pipeline of skills to be able to look at today and tomorrow’s challenges in the software world is very, very different.
In addition the second pillar is also I believe as important. The second pillar is about this cultural awareness that we need to transform, we need to evolve from manual way of engagement and manual methods of procedures into fully digitized workflows, fully automated, and that requires a level of commitment that, believe me today, even within Rakuten, I tell you you need to constantly push this energy towards automation and towards a discovery of problems and solving these problems via code rather than developing a manual method of procedure to address the issue that was discovered.
Q: Considering what Rakuten Mobile has done and will do in Japan, and what other operators are doing globally in regard to 5G, what do you see as some of the key elements that will lead to service monetization in both the consumer and enterprise segments?
A: I tell you the struggle that I personally had is trying to explain, especially for technology and operation team, that we are here because of the customer. How do you take every hing that you build, you develop, and you evolve, with a customer-centricity mindset. It’s been like honestly a struggle, a challenge to say an engineer that’s on the front line understanding as they are building whether it is responsible for core or for radio that all of the work you are doing today to drive service agility and enhancements on offering, are also all done just to address a big, important segment in our organization which is focus on customer-centricity.
When we look at 5G, you know I’ve always said that for the first time I feel there’s a technology that has the essence to fundamentally transform the way that consumers consume data allocation, new age applications, and not just for consumers but also for enterprises. And in that context we focus on ensuring that the 5G platform architecture built is not just about super big highways in terms of massive bandwidth capability at the radio side. You must also build an edge platform architecture that is able to deliver to you an ultra low latency application.I think the construct of organizational awareness about software, the construct of service agility, I believe that is going to really unleash a level of innovation in telecom that maybe we haven’t had in a while. The ability that you could introduce services in days not months–just think about the process, I’ll give you an analogy about the process of a software upgrade in a traditional network for a large element, it could be a packet core, an IMS core, or even the radio. And what happens if this upgrade happens in almost real time? What happens if this upgrade doesn’t need to wait for maintenance windows? What happens if we could do this inline upgrade during the day with the objective to drive faster delivery of services and agility to consumers. I think we are really on that edge, the edge of trying to find a big breakthrough in this industry. It’s a really exciting time in my opinion to be in telecom because I can see the benefits of what most global mobile operators are hard working on to deliver new 5G services to their consumers. I think we will see shortly, much faster than what we’ve seen with 4G, I’d say advanced applications that demand ultra low latency and advanced applications that will benefit from the standalone architecture that are being built and as well as the enablement of true end-to-end network slicing into especially the enterprises. I think the construct of both the organization, the people, and this architecture that modern networks is built on is going to help substantially advance services and mostly service agility into consumers and businesses.