Gary: Trevor, tell us a little bit about Ampliphae and what it does.
Trevor: Ampliphae is a start-up software company that’s in the Cloud networking space. What we do is to help enterprises make the transition from a world where their applications lived on-premise to one where those applications have moved to the Cloud. We’re in the middle of this massive shift in IT infrastructure – Amazon and Google’s Cloud offerings are allowing companies to run the workloads that their businesses depend upon out on the Internet, at much lower cost and much more flexibly. They can scale up, or scale down, whatever they need.
In this new world, what we do is give the IT guys a set of tools that help them understand their network connectivity up into the Cloud and help them to optimize the network to better suit the needs of their applications.
Gary: So in this new Cloud world, what are the problems of the IT team and how exactly does Ampliphae help?
Trevor: If you look at what has happened to the job of the IT person over the past few years, their focus of concern has had to shift. The process of bringing a new application into the enterprise used to be quite lengthy – the IT department got involved very early on, they helped assess the applications available on the market, they selected one, they designed the infrastructure upon which to run that application, they got servers and storage organized, and then they installed the application and supported it over time. This process has changed quite markedly.
More and more we’re seeing companies use what is known as Software as a Service (SaaS) – applications that are run by a provider and offered on a pay-per-use basis. As these SaaS offerings have appeared, the IT department no longer has to put in place infrastructure, and it often has no say in selecting the application, but it may still have responsibility for business continuity and security and the quality of experience of the end users. The problem is they don’t really have the tools in this SaaS-ified world that they need to keep the business running – and really put some governance and control around things.
So, effectively what we’re doing is using the network as a source of information that allows the IT team to understand a whole range of issues – what applications are being used inside the company, even when they are being delivered entirely over the web; are those the right applications, where is my data, what country does my data sit in? What we’re doing is using the network as a source of information to help the IT team get an understanding of what is happening inside the enterprise. Get their arms around it and exert some control again. You could really call it SaaS governance.
We’re a networking company, and our software runs at the network layer, it inspects the packets of information that flow across the network, but the implications are much wider than just networking – it’s really looking at the whole IT infrastructure of your stack and how the IT team gets some control back around that.
Gary: That all sounds very logical. You’ve got the Cloud and the new context for IT, you’ve got the need for exercising some level of control – this all seems very necessary – are there not lots of other companies doing what you’re doing?
Trevor: There are some companies addressing some aspects of the problem. The Cloud providers themselves recognize the fact that network connectivity into their Cloud is a big issue. So they offer larger enterprises the opportunity to connect their networks directly to their Cloud and thus take away some of the issues around network connectivity. But in terms of discovering what SaaS tools are on your network and helping with IT governance around SaaS, there are remarkably few companies addressing that problem directly.
And part of the reason for this is that there are a couple of quite difficult problems. And we’ve invested a lot of time and resource in trying to solve these. The first of those problems is that because SaaS tools tend to be delivered from a small number of hyper-scaled data centres – Amazon, Google, Microsoft – using the destination of the traffic is no longer a good mechanism for figuring out what type of data it is. It could be anything, it could be Netflix, it could be finance software like Sage, or anything else. So the traditional tools that a network engineer would have used to figure out what’s going on are really not that useful.
The other aspect of the Cloud is that we live in a world that is much more security conscious and encryption is becoming more and more prevalent. So virtually every SaaS service requires encryption. And then it becomes very difficult to figure out what’s going on inside the network communications – it’s all encrypted, it all looks like noise. So how do you figure out what’s going on? – is this a voice call, or a video conference, or someone watching Coronation Street on ITV Player? It could be any of those things. What we’ve been developing is some data science methods to look at the pattern of packets as they pass across the network, put them all into a massive data store, run some very clever data science algorithms and use that to develop, effectively, fingerprints for the different types of network traffic.
So without cracking into those data packets, without any snooping into anybody’s data, we can tell what the data is – voice, video, web browsing, a CRM tool. And then we can put that evidence together with lots of other data we collect both from the public Internet and the customer’s network and give a high probabilistic view of exactly what the traffic is, what it’s being used for and, importantly, whether it is business critical or not.
Because this is really what the business wants to know. Is this traffic which is passing across my network and using up a third of my bandwidth important to the business? If it is, you want to wrap some governance around it, assure it, make sure it keeps running, maybe plan an uplift to your network to cater for future growth and so on.
Gary: So, understanding what’s happening on the network is the first step for organizations in making sure their networks run in an optimal fashion?
Trevor: Yes, and our system really helps with this. There are so many Cloud-delivered applications out there these days – thousands of them – that keeping up with what’s out there and understanding whether the data on my network is really a business tool or not, is a major challenge. The investigative work involved in this is massive. So what we’re building in to our product is effectively a library of SaaS applications. We’re doing the legwork for our customers. It’s a little bit like an anti-virus product in this respect. And we have some machine learning tools to help streamline this work for us. So we are able to give the IT people an insight into what is this particular application, what is it used for, is it a business tool, and also what are the implications of having this running on your network.
Some SaaS tools may require a lot of bandwidth, or low-latency bandwidth – two way voice communication will have very specific requirements in the network, whereas someone simply interacting with a web form will have a completely different pattern of usage. So what we can do is give the IT team insights into how a given application might make demands on their infrastructure and help the IT team to adapt their processes and effectively get some service assurance around that application.
Even though it’s a SaaS tool, they now still have the ability to make sure that the path between the user and that service is preserved and optimized. Customers may want to route the traffic differently, depending on whether it’s business critical or not. Depending on how business-critical the traffic is, we can either send it out over the Internet, or we can send it over a direct connection to Amazon’s Cloud, so it never touches the public Internet, and it has the best, premium path to get there which is secure and uninterrupted.
So those are the kinds of tools we are giving the IT team. We can understand, we can identify and classify, we can optimize their infrastructure.
Gary: So, clearly there are benefits in what you have to offer. But if a CFO is sitting looking at a purchase order for Ampliphae’s products, are there financial benefits for his or her organization in using your products and services?
Trevor: Yes, absolutely. The most obvious one is that you can keep a handle on the ever increasing bandwidth used inside the organization. The classic networking approach to a problem is to go and buy more bandwidth. And that’s not always the right solution. Sometimes there’s a point at which you can’t physically add more bandwidth. But adding more bandwidth might not solve your problem. The application might be performing badly because you’re not routing the traffic the right way, perhaps it’s not be the right application, or it’s hosted in some really distant part of the world and the laws of physics are against you. So by giving the IT team some tools to understand what’s going on, you can avoid some network costs.
The other thing is, that the IT team used to have a really good set of IT service management tools to manage the infrastructure upon which the applications ran. These allowed the IT team to keep the servers up and running, keep all the data backed up, make it all resilient, make sure the applications didn’t go down. In the new world where those tools are off-site and owned by someone completely different, maybe in a different jurisdiction, the risk of downtime, of losing access to an application because you haven’t got the right network configuration is high. And for many organizations where the applications directly impact the revenue flow, losing access to an application can have a major impact on the business. So from the CFO’s point of view there is a risk-cost avoidance issue here as well.
Gary: So who would your typical customers be? Would they be larger enterprises or SMEs?
Trevor: There are really two types of organization interested in our software. The primary one right now is the managed service provider. Typically most smaller or medium sized companies will outsource the job of providing network connectivity to their potentially far flung set of branch offices. So they will ask a managed service provider to take over and do that. A managed service provider does a number of things – they will stitch together connectivity from a number of different telecoms providers, possibly putting in some connectivity of their own; they will run a core network that connects together all of those sites; and they will provide connectivity on out of that network into the Cloud and into the Internet. So by delivering our software to the managed software provider’s network, all the SMEs and enterprises that use that managed service provider get access to the capabilities that we offer, and get the advantage and the value-add of being able to inspect and control their network. The managed service provider gets a benefit because it makes their service more valuable to the end customer. And then at the higher end, where you are into larger global enterprises who have the resources to manage their own networks, they would be a direct consumer of our product.
Gary: So it sounds like those customers are going to be outside of Northern Ireland and indeed Ireland. How easy or otherwise, is it for a company based in Belfast doing business on that sort of global scale?
Trevor: Well, it can certainly be a challenge. But thankfully some of our customers here in Northern Ireland themselves address a wider market beyond this island. For example, one of our customers is Novosco, a major managed services and Cloud provider which does a lot of business throughout Ireland and in Great Britain. So this allows us to address a wider market through them. Outside of the UK, it can be challenging to scale up a direct sales team to address the market. To date we’ve been doing the leg work ourselves, attending conferences throughout Europe on a regular basis, and we do some work with telcos across Europe. In the future as we expand, we will need to build our sales capacity outside the UK and develop other channel partnerships that will allow us to go to market on a global scale.
Gary: You’ve been going, now, about 2 years. What have been the major challenges for you during that time?
Trevor: Just about everything! You need to go and raise the capital needed to build up the team, you need to build your product, go and find customers. But the most important thing is building your team – both the founding team and the first set of hires. It’s critical. But Northern Ireland has a rich base of talent. We’re in a good position now that because we’ve had a lot of FDI coming into Northern Ireland over the past twenty years or so in the software and telco space, so we’ve built up a community of expertise. There are a lot of people here who have worked for successful American companies which have established here – they’ve got good expertise, and as a start-up, the ability to attract those people is key to our success.
Gary: And in fact you’re an example of that yourself, Trevor, of someone who worked for a US company that set up here and has gone on to establish a new company.
Trevor: I started out in BT a long time ago before moving to Nortel Networks and effectively building the devices and physical network technology on which the telcos operated. I then went from Nortel to a small company, Intelliden, based in Colorado Springs, but which had come to Northern Ireland to set up a development team, and which supplied network management solutions for telcos. That business was acquired by IBM, and after that I had the opportunity to help establish another FDI company in Northern Ireland. That company, Vello Systems, from California, was an early pioneer in the Software Defined Networking space. So I’ve seen all aspects of the networking industry; after Vello, I and my co-founder, Tim Croy, decided to establish our own company rather than just build something up for someone else – that was the start of Ampliphae.
Gary: You’re the CEO of the company, Trevor. From what you’ve described, you’ve a very technical background. Is that advantageous in the particular business that you’re in, as opposed to just having a more general management background? How does your in-depth knowledge of the technology help?
Trevor: In our space this is important. Software, networking and Cloud is a very fast-moving business. Technology is moving all the time and a good technical knowledge is important, not just for me, but for executives in companies at any level these days. But I’m an engineer by background, I like to build things, and at its core a technology company is all about building something. You need to put your heart and soul into it and make sure its as good as it can possibly be. And what we’ve found is that the market we’re addressing – we’re talking to IT teams inside large organizations, or service providers, typically it’s a very technical conversation – there are hard problems to solve, there are big technical challenges and being able to discuss things properly on a technical level is very important. If I couldn’t go to a CIO and discuss in detail how we can solve his or her problems, then the conversation won’t go very far.
Gary: What are your ambitions for the company, Trevor?
Trevor: Well we’re still at an early stage. Our near term ambitions are to continue to roll out our product – we’re effectively in early production at the moment. We need to add features to the product, make it even better. And then, of course, get this out into a wider market, and scale things out.
Gary: What have you enjoyed about being involved in a start-up?
Trevor: For me, having come up through American corporate culture, the level of independence and speed of decision making that we have as a small company is great. In a large corporate there are always great ideas bubbling up, but getting decisions made and getting those ideas to market can be very difficult. In a small company we can be very fleet of foot, we can make decisions, change direction, build a new product, do something new. Having the shackles taken off is a great benefit!
Gary: So what is it that Trevor Graham is really good at and how did you get good at it?
Trevor: Well, we were just talking about how understanding technology is a really important part of my job. Over years in the telco industry, I really understand that industry from top to bottom and I understand the technology at a deep level, and that’s what I bring to the table with Ampliphae. And having seen the needs of people trying to apply telecoms technology to their business and understand how that technology can be used to make their business more efficient – giving them new revenue streams and new ways of going to market and solving those problems for them with our technology, is I really enjoy doing, and that’s what I’m good at!
Gary: Thank you Trevor.