MD Charles Bligh explains to CBR how networks are enabling new business processes.
Charles Bligh, MD of TalkTalk Business and IBM veteran, tells CBR about how the network shifted from being a peripheral consideration to an IT service and an enabler of business.
CBR: You started in IT 26 years ago; how have IT priorities changed since then?
I started at IBM in the 80s, when the mini-computer revolution was still very much in full swing and the client server was only in its infancy. So it’s been a massive shift, with the cloud and everything else becoming more network-centric.
Centralised comuting with cloud models has come back in vogue. We went from where everything was centralised in the 60s and 70s, to being client-server with things being put out into the networks to get more empowerment and flexibility.
To some degree, things have come full circle. We’re now centralising all of those disparate islands that we’ve spent twenty years pushing out into branch offices and in client servers, so that we’re getting value from our data with network computing.
Right now we’re using the best of cloud, networking and central mainframe computing in a hybrid fashion.
To glue all of it together you need a fantastic network in the middle, or a series of networks; the internet is made up of lots of networks as well as private networks.
I ran IBM’s mainframe business in Asia-Pacific for a couple of years in the early 2000s, and everyone said that the mainframe was dead. The reality is that centralised computing is far from dead as a framework for delivering data analytics.
Whether you do it on a mainframe or a collection of blade servers, the reality is that you need centralised computing, as opposed to branch level and putting lots of processing out of the branch. That’s essentially what cloud computing is.
But what is constant throughout the 1990s, 2000s and certainly will be for the next 20 years, is network-centric computing.
CBR: In a business context, has telecoms become another IT service?
I think it’s becoming more blended. Where the cloud starts, the on-premise computing starts, the branch level is becoming very blurred. You’ve seen telecoms companies getting into IT around the world in the last 15 years.
It hasn’t been hugely successful and they’re all madly starting to sell them off; BT Global Services is the only one left that I know of, of scale. IT companies have tried to get into networking; the reality is that it blends.
The thing about IT, as well as networking, is that it is an innovation play. The fundamentals of how you build your network actually drives how your company runs, where you put processes and the central computing is so intertwined with the business model.
I was at IBM very much at the C-suite dealing with the managing directors of businesses about how their companies ran. More and more in the last four years at TalkTalk, considering our scale as one of the top three or four networking companies, we’re invited to talk to the C-level execs about how the network is intertwined with their business model.
It’s no longer that they just need some telephones and a few data connections. It of course depends on whether the company has a cloud model, whether they want to be more on-premise and whether they are global in nature or domestic-facing.
The networking side is an innovation play and it’s very much at the heart of business models.
CBR: How does the network drive business?
A great example is retail. We’re all using click-and-collect now. In the old days, a shop would mostly work in offline mode: collecting cash, making sure you understood what you had sold and uploading at the end of the day to replenish your stock.
In those days, you needed an offline network that would occasionally connect back and that was how your company worked. The central part of your company would be very much transaction-based processing for the warehouses and financials.
Now, in a retail sense, you need as much capacity to send to the stores in terms of data as well as the stores sending data to you at the warehouse, because some companies are doing 24-hour or 12-hour same-day click and collect.
At that point your business model is saying that if you want to utilise your bricks investment, you have to put the network at the heart of that strategy or it will just not work.
You put in as much upload as well as download; you put in different types of technology that are resilient. Typically when you do that you can save a lot of money by doing wi-fi in-store and voice convergence.
There are lots of examples in other industries as well, of how the business strategy is intertwined with how you build your company with infrastructure.
In the old days, you would have dial-up and we weren’t front-and-centre of the strategy, because they could function without us. Now companies can’t function without us. It’s a fundamental enabler.
CBR: How long has this been the case?
I think IT has always been a fundamental enabler since the 60s when it was a competitive advantage. With the network, you would just assume there was some sort of linkage. Now the network is fundamental.
Also, a lot of companies are now relying on third parties, for example for credit-checking or online stores. You’re so reliant on others to deliver your services. The connectivity to your company is so important.
It’s interesting in the SME area; we’re seeing a rise in the number of small companies spending an awful lot of money on connectivity. Instead of ringing up and saying they want broadband for £30 or £40 a month, they’re saying they want a fibre Ethernet for £1000 a month.
They are prepared to pay substantially more because it’s so core for them. If it’s off the air for a few days or a week it’s so damaging.
We’ve been quite surprised by small companies really over-indexing on their connectivity. I see this in the direct business, which is a small part of what we do, but increasingly through the 700 business partners we work with; they are saying this is what is powering our 40 to 50 percent data growth every year.