The five-minute CIO: Cian Maher, Intellicom

14 Oct 2016

Pictured: Cian Maher, CTO of Intellicom

“We are committed believers in open source and are active members and contributors to the communities for the software we love and use,” said Cian Maher, CTO of Intellicom.

Intellicom is a fast-growing telecommunications solutions and service provider delivering on-premise and cloud communications, ISP services, voice termination and contact centre solutions.

Every evening Cian Maher, CTO and co-founder of Intellicom, had to be surgically removed from his London secondary school’s library, which was home to various Macintosh Plus and Macintosh SE Computers.

Although born in Clonmel, his family moved to London for part of his childhood and he finished his secondary education in Cavan Vocational School. Computers were always his obsession and, following his Leaving Certificate, he set his sights on electronic and computer engineering at Athlone Institute of Technology, a college that he now proudly counts as one of his customers.

While he has an interest in all types of technology, his huge passion for open-source software and platforms means the heart of his tinkering is with CentOS, OpenSUSE, Asterisk, Gaim, OpenSIPS, Corosync, LXC, OpenOffice, DRBD and MySQL.

His first dealings with Asterisk, the world’s most widely used open-source telephony software, was in 2003 and it is that early involvement in this field, and his experience since, that makes him a leading voice on this technology in Ireland.

Intellicom is headquartered in the DCU Innovation Campus in Glasnevin and has a regional office in Birr, working with a development house in Bosnia and Herzegovina.

Can you outline the breadth and scope of the technology roll-out across your organisation and what improvements it will bring to the company?

While in the earlier days of Intellicom, our business was primarily contact centre and professional services, over the last four years we have seen a dramatic shift towards cloud-based services. As a result, we now have around 80pc of our customer base on an Intellicom-designed and built cloud service platform that is Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), or as we like to call it, Intellicom as a Service.

A significant amount of our time and investment in technology is in ensuring our network and services are both resilient and future-proofed. This year alone, we have invested nearly €250,000 on improvements to our services with our development house in Bosnia and Herzegovina, and introduced hardware efficiencies by building our application sets on secure Linux Containers (LXC).

We are committed believers in open source and are active members and contributors to the communities for the software we love and use.

What are the main points of your company’s strategy?

We intend to stay ahead of the curve in terms of engaging with new functionality and technology. We invest in technology and training very wisely and look for solutions that have the flexibility to adapt and scale to changing business needs. By doing so, we can always improve our services and add bolt-on features which enhance our product sets, and allows us to compete head on with all of the other better-known vendors and brands in the telephony and contact centre solution space.

Can you give a snapshot of how extensive your infrastructure is?

We currently have infrastructure in three data centres around Ireland. At the core of our network, we have our high availability routers and firewalls – all of which connect to our private layer-3 network switches. All sites are interconnected with high capacity carrier-grade infrastructure, allowing routing and communication across all three sites. From this network, we provide three core levels of segregation:

VoiceLAN: Here is where our core voice infrastructure resides. This consists of carrier interconnects for voice traffic, SS7 and SIP Gateways, and in-house developed class 5 softswitch and billing system.

DataLAN: From here, we provide our core ISP services and site-to-site communications.

PeerLAN: Peering with customers or other suppliers is provided though this network segment. Peering can be as simple as standard IP peering and as complex as OSPF /BGP-based peering, depending on the type of services we need to provide.

How complex is the infrastructure, are you taking steps to simplify it?

Convergence introduced a lot of complexity to the normal day-to-day activities of most IT departments. In some cases, telephony was a foreign concept delivered by a box somewhere in the building that was largely feared rather than welcomed.

Over the last 10 years, most businesses have taken steps to simplify this complexity and telephony has been brought in from the cold. It has generally been replaced and enhanced with a unified communications solution, allowing the integration of many other forms and mediums of communications as well as ‘voice’.

All our development is done in-house which, combined with a deep knowledge of what is driving our customers’ businesses, has enabled us to develop very responsive and feature appropriate solutions. We’ve engaged with customers quite extensively to ensure that change requests and new features are added to our roadmap without leading to ‘bloat’ in the solution.

Absolutely core to what we deliver is a feature-rich, user-friendly interface to our services which enables customers to benefit from technology without having to get lost in it. Most businesses want the benefit of technology but not the complexity.

For our own infrastructure, we have to have the same approach. We need to focus on making our products and services better than our competitors, as well as being available at a very competitive cost, and also to provide our customers with excellent customer service. This can only be done if we can truly trust that our network and hardware deployments in our data centres are easy to manage and maintain, but that they are also self-healing in case of any unexpected issues.

Complex networks and system deployments make this harder. We attempt to simplify everything but without losing the benefits.

Do you have a large in-house team, or do you look to strategically outsource where possible?

Our teams’ primary focus is our customers and our core systems, and we outsource as many other ancillary functions as is practical. We build and maintain, in-house, our own network and voice systems appliances that we deliver to customers.

As for our core business and administration functions, our requirements are not particularly unusual so typically, we use cloud solutions ourselves such as:

  • Samepage for our project management, document storage and collaboration. This tool gives us a central repository for all our data and allows real-time team communication.
  • Xero for Invoice and Accounting
  • Freshdesk for support management, issue and bug tracking
  • Capsule for CRM and customer and supplier contact

As we focus our time building new services and improving our existing services, we don’t want to have to maintain systems that provide very standard core business management functions. For this, we look to the cloud.

Cloud services sometimes may be seen as a cost to a business, but by selecting the correct tools and getting the level of integration needed by the business, it can save significant time.

What are some of the main responsibilities of your own role, and how much of it is spent on deep technical issues compared to the management and business side?

In terms of a time split, it’s probably 80:20 technical to business. My job is my hobby. I get to do what I love and what has been my hobby for decades.

I’m very engaged in the investigation, testing and deployment of new and innovative solutions here at Intellicom and once it gets to this stage, it is then our product management, sales and support teams who take ownership of the solution set and I can move on to my next task. I obviously remain on the escalation path if any issues arise but, as we’re very keen on innovation, the fresh project streams are always there.

As one of the founders of the business, alongside Neil Wisdom as CEO, I also have a significant business responsibility. This insight to both the technical and business side of the company – with decision-making capabilities in both – brings great benefits. As part of any decision-making process, whether it’s a new technology implementation or a change of business focus, I can see it through the eyes of my other role.

For many CIOs/CTOs, they are constantly having to spend time making business cases to the other executives and I’m very fortunate to not have to invest significant time in that. As the CTO, I know Neil respects my judgement and vice versa applies too.

Exposure to the business side also means I’m sharper at seeing and understanding business drivers for customers when we’re exploring and designing new and enhanced solutions for them.

These roles also bring me all over the world to conferences, demonstrations and exhibitions to ensure we are staying ahead of the game.

In terms of managing budgets, what are your key thoughts on how CIOs/heads of technology should achieve their goals?

  • What are the business challenges and objectives that you are trying to enable or achieve with the technology is a key question before deciding on a solution.
  • Technology for technology’s sake is not a good investment – avoid being blinded by the best marketing campaigns for a technology which may not really suit your business.
  • Flexibility of the solution into the future is paramount for many technology implementations. The more flexibility it gives you to adapt to business changes in the future is critical to extracting the longer term value from the project.
  • Look for the best implementation and after-sales service and relationship, not just the product today.
  • Be driven by best practice and quality, not just by price.
  • Ensure that the business leadership is aware that buying and implementing technology is only the start, and that those who use it to achieve business goals need to invest time in extracting the best functionality from it to enhance for their teams, their productivity and/or their competitiveness.

What are the big trends and challenges in your sector, and how do you plan to use IT to address them?

Right now one of the challenges we, like all other telecoms and enterprise organisations are facing, is the constantly developing and growing focus on data protection and new legislation compliance, both in general terms and also those specific to key industry sectors such as finance and health.

It seems that every few months, new regulations are being proposed or implemented, many of which can have a major impact on systems specifications, business governance and, in particular, highly secure data storage infrastructure. Everything needs to be tracked, stored and secured.

We need to constantly develop and improve secure and robust systems and storage infrastructure to facilitate and provide adherence with all relevant industry and customer-requested business-critical compliance rules, regulations and recommendations

The requirement for data storage has moved from six or 12 months several years ago to two, five or seven years of data retention being the standard now. In some cases, it is indefinite. While there are bulk storage solutions out there, the challenge is that customers want the storage in their country to comply with data protection rules and regulations, and also have it easily accessible.

For some of our customers, in the insurance industry for example, they have very specific requirements in terms of what, how and for how long some information must be kept and also what information must not be retained (eg credit card payment details).

This year, we have assigned further budget for the continuing deployment of a new generation of Intellicom secure, accessible and scalable storage infrastructure, using the most recent technologies, security and encryption systems, and methodologies at the core of our network.

Another challenge we face is as a result of being a fast-growing business. Our business to date has largely been in Ireland but we’re now deploying solutions with as far a geographical spread as Romania, Zambia, France, the Caribbean, Canada, USA and the UAE.

What metrics or measurement tools do you use to gauge how well your infrastructure is performing?

We have developed our own management and monitoring and data collection portal called Silo.

From Silo, with customer approval, we collect information on our customers’ deployments, resources and performance. This, together with another cloud service we use called Monitis, allows us to collect, analyse and report on the performance of our network, services and customer usage. We are very proactive and our team are constantly monitoring our services.

Are there any areas you’ve identified where your technology can improve, and what are they?

Technology doesn’t stand still. It is a highly fluid thing and is constantly changing and developing through innovation and market demands.

There will always be ways to improve any system, application or infrastructure and I don’t think anyone or any company can always get it right or keep it right.

However, by trying our best to stay on top of new features and functionality in existing technology used and always looking at ways to improve, by either changing that technology or enhancing it, we think we have achieved a good balance at this time.

In any technology business, you know that at some point in time a competitor will have some offering that a particular type of customer will want and, as a result, they will win that customer. At Intellicom, all we can do is try and ensure that we do what we do well and we always look for constructive customer feedback on ways to improve what we do.

What other projects do you have lined up for the year, and what will they contribute to the business?

As mentioned above, we have planned a complete overhaul of our storage infrastructure to allow for greater amounts of intelligent storage. We have also decided to bring some more core development resources back to Ireland and are actively hiring.

2017 will be a big year for Intellicom as we introduce version 5.0 of our ICP unified communications product set. This will give businesses enhanced multichannel communications.

We will be further integrating social media/SMS/email and live chat to our cloud service, where previously this was only ever offered in our on-premise system deployments.

We will also be deploying our first US-based data centre and we plan to expand our fibre network and ISP services.

2016, so far, has been a time of great growth in the business, as not only our customer numbers grow but also the range of services we deliver to existing customers increases.

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years