Colt and the culture of innovation

16 April 2019 | Natalie Bannerman

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Rajiv Datta, chief operating officer at Colt, speaks to Natalie Bannerman about the culture of innovation and automation in the telecoms sector, and how Colt is rising to the occasion

It’s not often that we come across a person who neatly slots into both of our special report categories – but Rajiv Datta, COO of Colt, is one of those people.

During his time as CTO, Datta is credited as one of the main people responsible for Colt’s automated SDN-based network, while throughout his career he has been at the centre of various innovations and new product offerings.

These traits are mirrored over at Colt. Only last year the company in partnership with Verizon demonstrated the industry’s first two-way inter-carrier SDN network orchestration. As a result, both companies were able to make real-time bandwidth changes in each other’s networks.

Entering the test phase

Speaking about that particular demonstration and Colt’s work within that space, Datta says it’s nothing new, as the company was also first to demonstrate inter-carrer on-demand capability with AT&T over two years ago. Colt has offered an on-demand capability on its network for a couple of years now.

“Ours is the first commercial product that’s been widely deployed, and it’s available across our entire footprint. To us, on-demand provides the kind of agility that some customers need for certain use cases and this automation offers that kind of agility,” he says.

However, the Verizon demonstration is not the most recent trial; Colt has also participated in the MEF LSO demonstration – a set of specifications for lifecycle of services across multiple networks.

“This is important because, once we started to talk about the work we’re doing in the on-demand space, we got a lot of interest from wholesalers to do more work in this area – but it’s much more effective if we actually commit to an industry standard for this kind of automation,” he adds.

Speaking to Datta, one thing becomes clear: ultimately, Colt is on a journey, changing world of connectivity from things being static and manually managed to everything now shifting to the cloud.

“To us, we’ve been on a multi-year path to build out infrastructure that facilitates that level of network automation, and that has required a great deal of innovation,” explains Datta. The result of those efforts is the Colt IQ Network. As Datta puts it, “you can add automation and innovation from a customer-facing perspective, but it has to have a foundation of the actual network capability”. So as well as the entire Colt IQ Network being designed to support a range of next-gen capabilities, all while being 100G optimised, it is also distributed, and that’s crucial, according to Datta. “It’s not just a traditional telco network that fits in a traditional node or point of presence (PoP), it is distributed to data centres, cloud aggregation points and places where increasingly traffic originates or terminates.”

Trying out blockchain
Colt has also participated in a number of trials with emerging technologies – including blockchain, in a collaboration with PCCW Global to demonstrate a proof of concept (PoC) for the inter-carrier settlement of wholesale international voice services. “We thought that there were a number of things that happen between telco service providers that could be improved if we had this seamless, trusted network amongst carriers to settle things that have been done manually for many years,” explains Datta.

He says that the company is exploring ways to use blockchain in a customer-facing way. “We’re looking at other interesting use cases where we could leverage our connectivity, global reach and capabilities to offer an enterprise solution that would benefit them.”

Impact of robots

Colt is also working in the area of robotic process automation (RPA). “It’s already had an incredible impact within Colt,” he says. Effectively RPA is about taking steps, which are manual, and automating these steps using robots so that you can actually use your human resources where they are most needed. The company has already deployed close to 20 RPAs within Colt, and they are already providing value.

As if that weren’t enough, the company already has an artificial intelligence (AI) project that is under way right now. “We’ve been looking at network health prediction. So, could we predict an outage? That is the essence of the question we’re trying to answer. And whether we could use AI to do that,” he says.

The drivers of automation from an enterprise perspective are based on two things. Aside from cost-efficiency and the fact that enterprises don’t have budgets that are progressively increasing, the first is simplicity. “The enterprise network is getting quite complicated, much more complex than it used to be,” says Datta, “especially as enterprises as navigating an IT environment that is undergoing its own transformation with new applications being deployed in the public cloud that have varying security requirements.”

The second driver is agility, because Datta believes that customers are simply trying to understand what the dynamics of their needs and use cases are going to be. “It’s harder to predict for enterprises how things are going to manifest themselves.”

The answer to both these needs, however, is SD-WAN. “Fundamentally, what SD-WAN offers is simplicity, like the ability to go to a portal and manage various access sites,” he says.

No matter how many innovative trials and PoCs the company is involved with, Datta maintains that Colt’s entire strategy is focused around high bandwidth connectivity. In order to do that, you need to have the right network platform, something Colt has invested heavily in – including optical DWDM systems, Ethernet platforms and IP platforms, all of which make up the Colt IQ Network. “It’s very easy to say I have this incredible piece of new network equipment in my node or PoP. That’s what telcos typically do, but what’s harder is to distribute that so that customers can feel that scale and capability,” he says.

But Colt has managed to do it in two ways. Firstly it has taken the Colt IQ Network and deployed that to more than 300 key data centres, carrier hotels and cloud aggregation points. Secondly, it has invested in fibre, which is a key requirement in delivering high bandwidth services.

“You can deliver incredible amounts of capability to some core nodes, but if the customer wants to feel that capability, you have to have fibre to the end. What we have is an asset base built up over a 27-year period focused on heavy distribution within the densest urban enterprise environments.”

Innovation is cultural

So what makes Colt the innovative environment many telco struggle to replicate in their own organisations? “I think innovation is a cultural dynamic”, he says. “It’s all about what you place value on. Innovation – and spending time and resources, which is always the case with these types of things – requires you to believe in a future that’s not apparent today. They tend to be things that have longer cycles, in terms of return on capital. That’s always a challenge,” continues Datta.

In terms of automation, the biggest challenge many companies face is the shift in mindset from hardware to software focussed. “That mindset shift from hardware to software might sound straightforward, but it’s not. It’s something that has to be managed,” he adds.

Another challenge Datta has noticed for telcos is how you take automation beyond what he calls the “water’s edge”. In short, if you want to create a solution for the customer that goes beyond the core network – one that needs to leverage a partner network – that partner has to have the same level of innovation and automation as Colt does; otherwise, it becomes the weakest link.

“That’s why the work we’re doing with on-demand standards is so important, because if we need to leverage a part of the network from a partner, we can still deliver that agility and innovation,” he says.

Beyond the work already done, Datta says that Colt is on a very clear journey towards helping customers navigate the surge in bandwidth requirements, while internally aiming to be a “best of breed connectivity provider to both enterprises and wholesale players”.

Denser metro fibre

The company will also be making some further public announcements this year around how it is investing in densifying the metro fibre in key cities.
“The goal in this space is not about fibre to the end; it’s about fibre to the edge,” explains Datta. Overall, the company is investing in having “all the tools in the toolbox required to manage a raft of dedicated connectivity needs.”

Both Datta and Colt show no signs of slowing their journey of innovation and automation. He says: “I’m excited for the year ahead to see how The Colt IQ Network continues to evolve to ensure it is the connectivity backbone required for the transformative business landscape of today.”