BT needs to ditch its legacy to be competitive, says chief architect

The dinosaurs that refused to die out

Interview In a world of new “agile” network players offering over-the-top services, BT is something of a dinosaur, having been privatised as far back as 1984 after previously running as a state monopoly.

Certainly in terms of its systems, the business is weighed down by legacy in a way that newer network providers are unencumbered from.

"Moving away from legacy is very difficult,” says BT's chief systems architect George Glass.

“It is something we have been working on for many years. Some of the early systems at the heart of our core network have been there since 1984. And are still working away. So there is still legacy at the heart of our network,” he told The Register at the TM Smart City InFocus 2016 event in Yinchuan, China.

Trained as a software engineer, Glass has been at the company almost as long as its oldest systems, having joined the biz 29 years ago.

Glass says some legacy will remain for a while longer unless there is massive disruption into the market place. However, some eight years ago BT started to make a concerted effort to tackle its legacy. Now it is closing as many as 200 separate systems each year.

"We started off with about 4,500 systems, we are down this year to 1,700. and another 200 will go on top of that this year. So it is now in the DNA of our delivery teams to get rid of 10 per cent of the estate every year.”

Because the networking market has so many new entrants, BT cannot afford to maintain a lot of tin.

“You have to be ruthless in attacking the legacy, you can get complacent and say well its served us for years just leave it there and we will manage it as a cash cow and not invest in the future,” he said. “But if you look at what’s happening in the market place now, agile operators are coming in and are completely replicating your business model in a much more efficient and leaner way at a fraction of the cost. So you can’t afford to sit around and say it used to be good, so it will be good in the future.”

The demise in voice calls is the obvious case in point.

That was all because a couple of guys in a garage set up a little company called Skype, he says. "That went in as an over-the-top player and initially they killed the international voice calling market and now even the local voice calling market is largely gone and actually what people want is connectivity, data and broadband services.

"Most of us now get voice calls thrown in with our mobile package.. Even in the fixed world the charges we make from voice is much, much smaller than it used to be. So if we hadn’t transformed our business and moved away from being a voice provider, I don’t think we would still be in business in today."

Glass works in BT’s Technology, Service and Operations unit, which is responsible for the business’ internal networks and IT systems. BT has been busy reinventing itself from a voice business in a number of ways, he says. Like many big IT vendors, the company is busy rebranding itself as a cloudy integrator.

Last year it launched a “cloud of clouds”, intended to manage organisations’ multiple single clouds under one roof.

The biz has seen no shortage of partners for its cloud strategy, recently signing a deal with Oracle to provide the underlying network connectivity for its hybrid cloud. It also has partnerships with Microsoft Azure, Amazon Web Services, and HPE Helion. However, observers have pointed out BT has yet to win many high-profile customers in this space.

Network virtualisation is another big area for the business, says Glass. “That follows on from virtualisation of the infrastructure and data centres.”

He says the basic infrastructure of core computing technology is so cheap now that you can replicate the resilience, availability and speed of the traditional bespoke network at a commodity price. "Therefore what we are seeing is that is the network function virtualisation element of the programmable networks. The second part is to take the network function that sits on top of that infrastructure, be it a router, load balancer or firewall, which becomes just a piece of code.

"That’s the software-defined network. And if you can find that element in software, you can control that and change the configuration of your load balancer or your firewall dynamically and suddenly what you have is a completely programmable network and what you are seeing is computing technology merging and the skill set for that changing. And that is a big area we are moving into very rapidly."

Glass says advancing into this space is as much about using open source technology as it is cozying up with partners. “It’s not about buying infrastructure and bespoke software but having a refined set of programmable APIs. And that is something we are doing a lot of work on standards bodies."

As chief systems architect, Glass’ remit is broad and includes smart cities – unsurprising, given the name of the event he is attending.

"If you look at way smart city developing, the basic thing it needs is connectivity,” says Glass.

But to what extent does BT need to improve its act on broadband deployment, before it can seriously espouse the merits of ’smart cities?'

"In the UK most of our cities are really well connected. The problem is in our rural areas. Which is a much bigger problem and it is a problem worldwide. Our recent acquisition of EE now gives us mobile access [in terms of bringing connectivity to rural areas] which we didn’t have previously,” he says.

That’s all very well, but there are plenty of urban areas of the country that struggle to get full connectivity.

"Yes, if we could move all the buildings to the right location and put a new network in and it was a greenfield site every time it would be much easier. But there’s always, even in one area delivering to a densely populated area of flats – there sometimes just isn’t space for the equipment. It’s an issue that we are working on across the whole of BT.

However, Glass acknowledges that commercial interests also play a part in the firm’s broadband deployments.

“We have done a lot working with BDUK and working with partnerships in government to try and bring equal and fair access to everyone. We are a commercial organisation, we are not a charity. So yes we have to make money out of deployments. And in a large densely populated area like the UK, you will always find exceptions to the rule.

"You will find some cases where the broadband connectivity isn’t where it should be and unfortunately that’s what makes the press." ®

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