Software-defining the future of telecoms

Software-defining the future of telecoms

25 September 2020 | Alan Burkitt-Gray

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After 17 years at Epsilon, Jerzy Szlosarek is starting again, this time a software-defined company that aims to deliver world-class connectivity. Alan Burkitt-Gray interviews the CEO of Neutrality.one

Jerzy Szlosarek, the former CEO of Epsilon Telecommunications, has joined an Irish-backed start-up that plans to deliver software-defined services to enterprises.

The new company, Neutrality. one, has partnered with Ngena, the Next Generation Enterprise Network Alliance supported by Deutsche Telekom, to support the adoption of SD-WAN solutions across Asia, the Middle East and Africa.

“This is one of the many steps we are taking to develop and deliver world-class connectivity, underpinned with an optimised end-to-end customer experience,” says Szlosarek, who is CEO. “We are bringing SD-WAN to new markets and making it simple for enterprises to benefit from new connectivity models.”

His official first name is Jerzy, and that’s how he appears on LinkedIn, for example. But friends and colleagues call him George. He studied at Kingston University in south-west London and then worked in ystems engineering in long-haul and optical switching at Ciena. But since 2001 he’s been working for operators, not vendors, with 17 years at Epsilon, based in Singapore, until early this year.

Neutrality.one’s main backer is Entegro, an Irish company based in Kilkenny that specialises in designing and building networks. In May it was awarded a contract to survey and design Ireland’s National Broadband Plan network.

But Neutrality.one is headquartered far from Ireland, at the Dubai Technology Entrepreneur Centre in Silicon Oasis, Dubai.

Global hub
Szlosarek is there in Dubai when I interview him. “We moved from Singapore last week,” he says. “It’s a great time zone. Dubai operates as a global hub, with key events and access to the market. There’s a growth-hungry, dynamic workforce.”

He’d been with Epsilon since 2003 and only formally left earlier in 2020. “After 17 years with Epsilon a lot was achieved. We took it from seed to becoming a global carrier.”

The latest seed — for what is now Neutrality.one — was planted in 2019, “an idea for a software-defined business”, he says. “I was looking forward to a break and then people came to ask me about a truly software play.”
Don’t put things into the ground, he summarises. Put them into the data centre. “The market is moving at a tremendous pace. It’s a shared-economy model, which is working in the retail world.”

Among the changes between Epsilon being a start-up and the beginning of Neutrality.one are that “in the past network performance mattered; now application performance matters”.

The approach persuaded him. “I got into it, the idea of building a truly software-defined model that’s an overlay. We focus on enabling companies.”

Entegro, the backer of Neutrality.one, “was doing a lot of work in the area”, says Szlosarek. “In a Covid-19 world, getting things started is a testament to how much you can do. We were building this for six months without leaving our homes.”

Move to the cloud and the edge At the top of the agenda is that services are moving from on-premises. “Around 90% or more are still on-prem,” says Szlosarek. “A lot will move to the cloud or to the edge.” And that means the networks will have to be reconfigured.

“We know from our experience that we need to rethink the network model,” he says. The current technology that is favourite for enterprises is MPLS — hardware-centric and static, heavily controlled by the service providers.”

In order to succeed “you have got to be software-driven”, he says. “You have got to have programmability and you have got to be predictive. Can I see my traffic? And can I control my traffic?” The lockdown caused by the pandemic has highlighted other issues: “You don’t want people putting files into a public domain. Do you want that to happen? SD-WAN offers all those things.”

Does this mean Neutrality.one won’t own fibre? “Sometimes you own, sometimes you buy,” he shrugs. “We are using a number of software-defined networks.” The company uses application programming interfaces
(APIs) to connect via a portal. “We can spin up and deliver [the service].”

Neutrality.one is targeting the enterprise segment of the market, plus petrochemicals, hospitals, retail and government, he says. “A lot of these are mid-to-large organisations with distributed resources and staff.” They were previously using MPLS “but now want to introduce agility and intelligence — which is why they are looking for SDN solutions”.

Szlosarek declares: “We are presenting global connectivity to global companies, companies that want a certain level of connectivity and service.”

Interdependent world Neutrality.one is not providing wholesale point-to-point services to carriers. “We are all interdependent,” he says, however. “No one service provider reaches everywhere. Is the idea of the carrier’s carrier dead? I think we’re moving to a shared economy — a digitised shared economy.”

But slowly. Some carriers have millions of dollars worth of assets in the sea and in the ground, he says. The business is changing, especially as what are still called over-the-top (OTT) companies are installing more subsea cables than ever before.

“People are building infrastructure to serve their own needs,” he comments. “That’s not our space. Partnering will always be there – telcos, OTTs and cloud companies.”

Szlosarek is one of a trio of former Epsilon staff on the management team. Clint Collins, chief commercial officer, was regional sales director in Epsilon for the Middle East and Africa. The other is CTO and co-founder Rick Hillson, who spent a year as an Epsilon director, until May 2019.

“We will be building up the team,” says Szlosarek, “but we will be lean, mean and agile. We’ve taken inspiration from Uber and Spotify.”

And then he asks the question that all telco executives should be asking: “Do kids place value on service providers?” He answers himself: “They place value on the service.”

The company said in its launch announcement that it will deploy Ngena’s SD-WAN-as-a-service solution — based on Cisco Viptela and Meraki — and benefit from full orchestration, analytics and performance management for medium-to-large enterprise customers.

Ngena CEO Bart de Graaff, who replaced Alessandro Adriani last year, said in the same announcement: “We live in a world that is dependent on complex global supply chains which are becoming increasingly automated and interconnected. Together, Ngena and Neutrality.one will offer the optimum solution to simplify how the modern digital enterprise connects, enabling next-generation networking services designed for a cloud-native and digital world.”

Ngena is essentially the brainchild of Deutsche Telekom, whose CEO Tim Höttges first spoke about the global IP network for business in early 2016. By then he had recruited CenturyLink of the US, SK Telecom of South Korea and Reliance Jio of India to become partners. He described the project at the time as a “Star Alliance” of the fixed-line telecoms world, likening it to the collaboration between international airlines.

Today there are 44 on Ngena’s website, including A1 Telekom Austria, BT, Colt, KDDI, PCCW Global, Telstra, Telus and Veon, as well as the original members.
Cisco was first named as technology partner, and now there is also telecoms IT company Comarch, data centre operator Equinix and cloud security company Zscaler.
Deep, smart technology

“Ngena has deep, smart technology,” says Szlosarek. “We’re using Ngena to do all the smarts and the automation. Connectivity will continue to grow.”

But there will be other partners as well as Ngena, Szlosarek adds. “We’re evaluating who they will be. Ngena has been published. Others have not been published.”

Among the questions to ask: “Are we aligned in our vision? Do we agree where the industry is heading?”

And, how’s business for Neutrality.one? There are customers “on our first circuits”, he says, before interrupting himself with “old habits die hard — I mean first services”.

This was all being done while Szlosarek and colleagues were working from home. “I had to get a second internet line in Singapore,” he says. The family were complaining that he was hogging the bandwidth.

“We all moved to Dubai at the end of July.” Being in Silicon Oasis means Neutrality.one has a range of incubators and other technology companies as neighbours. “Even at the coffee machine we never stop learning. It’s an exciting time for us.”