CIO interview: John Linwood, chief technology officer, BBC

The BBC's CTO talks about Olympic preparations, digital media production, cloud computing, outsourcing and managing suppliers.

The BBC plans to cover every sport from every venue during the entire London 2012 Olympic Games. With more than 2,000 hours of live sport that means the pressure on the IT department to ensure that everything works will be enormous.

With only a few months to go to what is perhaps the broadcaster’s most ambitious coverage of a sporting event to date, the top IT man at the BBC, chief technology officer (CTO) John Linwood, has a lot on his plate.

There are multiple projects underway that are related to the Olympic Games, but Linwood is also busy driving a major modernisation of the BBC’s IT estate to bring in efficiency and deliver at least 16% of savings over the current licensing period – the corporation’s revenue is flat due to the licence fee freeze until 2016.

Availability during the Games is a major area of focus for Linwood’s 1,200-strong IT team. Data feeds and broadcasting will be running on BBC’s own infrastructure – the exception is the web, where content distribution networks will support the delivery.

“We looked across all of our connectivity and broadcast infrastructure for video and audio to ensure that it is fully resilient and has all the monitoring systems in place to handle peaks of demand,” Linwood told Computer Weekly.

“Our network infrastructure around the online environment has also been upgraded to provide additional resilience for our web and internet streaming services and we are also looking at a number of additional communication links between us and the Olympic video feeds and our own camera crews.”

According to Linwood, many of the challenges that are not strictly technology-related but have an IT impact have been considered for the Olympics. It is anticipated, for example, that BBC staff may encounter difficulties in getting to Olympic locations or the office, so additional work was carried out to ensure connectivity.

“We beefed up our remote access infrastructure, so that people can log on from home and work, and also support staff and tech staff to ensure they are on duty and available,” he says.

Linwood says the BBC will be spending some of its £400m IT budget in additional technology services for the Olympics over the coming months.

“A lot of it will be related to web services - buying additional circuitry, support services, additional bandwidth to support the additional video feeds and so on.”

Supplier accountability

Ahead of the Olympic Games, Linwood is also ensuring that the BBC’s outsourcing service providers are strengthening their support teams. Whereas Games-specific services have particular service level agreements (SLAs) associated to them, the IT chief says that, overall, normal rules of engagement apply.

“Our normal rules and standards are the ones we hold suppliers to. The BBC has a very high bar in terms of SLAs and nothing really changes from that point of view – our goal is to stay on air [during the Games] but there is nothing special [about the contracts],” Linwood says.

However, the CTO is keeping a close watch on what the BBC’s IT partners are delivering. A key area of focus is the 10-year, £2bn technology framework contract (TFC) , previously undertaken by Siemens IT Services [SIS] and now carried out by French IT firm Atos, which bought SIS last year.

The relationship between the broadcaster and SIS was not without difficulties - in March last year, the contractor was blamed for a faulty switch which took the whole of the BBC website network offline, with a number of internal services also being affected.

Since July 2011, the BBC has had its systems delivered by Atos and according to Linwood, the company “has been working very hard to deliver against the BBC’s requirements” and the new incumbent is “making good progress.”

“Just as with any outsourcing provider, there are areas where we would like to continue to improve the service, but there are other areas where they meet all our needs. But generally, we are in a good place when it comes to our outsourced technology delivery,” Linwood says.

To ensure that no further blunders occur, Linwood has strengthened the broadcaster’s supplier management organisation to ensure partners are held accountable and deliver the services that have been contracted.

“It is also about becoming a smarter customer. One of the things I have done was to roll out more technology skill within the BBC, so we are better at asking the things we need and helping suppliers understand what we need to make the organisation successful,” he says.

“This [approach] pays big dividends in service effectiveness and generates value for money in terms of the licence fee.”

Behind the scenes

As well as preparing for the Olympic Games, the BBC has a significant agenda of internal IT-led transformation. As well as moving more than 2,000 staff to Manchester, the BBC will also be transferring 3,000 people to a hugely refurbished Broadcasting House, near Oxford Circus in central London, where units such as the World Service will be based.

“For the first time, the BBC is bringing a large piece of its editorial teams together, which means that we will have a great new newsroom and fantastic technology, but it is challenging because we are have the Olympics going on at the same time,” says Linwood.

“[In 2012] you have the European football finals, the Queen’s Jubilee and the Olympics, so there is a huge amount of focus around ensuring the technology works when people move to the new locations, as well as resilience for all our services to stay on air, particularly during these major events,” he adds.

“At the same time we are continuing to drive our IT forward and upgrading it. It’s a major year for us, both in terms of resource and the huge roll-outs that are going on.”

Examples of ongoing projects include the upgrade of the BBC’s local area network (LAN) and a large-scale implementation of Windows 7 and Office 2010, which should conclude in the next three months and will be followed by the introduction of Exchange 2011.

According to Linwood, the broadcaster is also looking at VMware and Citrix virtualisation technology: “It depends on roles and individual requirements – for someone sitting at their desk all day [virtualisation] is not great, but for someone who is quite mobile it is fantastic. But we haven’t yet decided how and what we will use.”

The BBC is also assessing other systems to improve collaboration between teams, with more Sharepoint functionality, as well as Dropbox Lite to allow staff to move documents between their machines and with partners outside the BBC. There are also plans to introduce web-based interfaces for tasks such as expenses approval.

Over the past year, Linwood’s team has also been working on an internal portal which will allow journalists to share content if they are working on the same story and communicate more effectively.

The new BBC locations in Manchester and London also operate with full HD capability and are moving away from tape to digital recording technology.

Enabling a mobile workforce

A new Wi-Fi network has been put in place across the BBC and the majority of desktops have been replaced by laptops.

“We are equipping the BBC to be a 21st century broadcaster and at the same time making it more agile, mobile and flexible. We are doing that by enabling people to use laptops and mobile devices and access BBC services wherever they are,” Linwood says.

The broadcaster is working on allowing mobile access to its corporate network, starting with e-mail and calendar functionality. There are plans to make more services available during 2012.

From a governance point of view, Linwood says his team is still looking at some of the policies and issues that mobile access to systems will present. For example, he insists on using secure technology for the interface between the BBC e-mail systems and mobile devices.

“We are also looking at human resources policies around how our data on someone’s third-party device can be protected, as well as things like the BBC being able to remove data from those devices or the ability for device owners to protect their data if someone else is using their device,” the CTO says.

“Because we are starting with just e-mail, it is relatively simple at first, but as we move on to providing more services this will become more challenging. But my goal is to enable people to access BBC services from anywhere – whether it will be every single service I don’t know, but my objective is to get as many as possible.”

Customer-facing innovation

The BBC is part of the Presto Prime European collaborative project that is developing techniques to manage media files in the digital world. The archive was moved to a new facility nine months ago and the idea is to digitise more of the archive content to programme makers and eventually to the general public.

Another big piece of work at the BBC is around metadata, which has been rolled out as part of Digital Media Initiative (DMI), a project intended to allow BBC staff to develop, create, share and manage video and audio content and programming on their computers and drive further efficiency.

According to Linwood, this particular project is about the creation of a comprehensive metadata model which aims to give very rich information about all the content in the BBC’s archive and the broadcasting chain.

“We have been working with the Digital Production Partnership (a consortium of UK public service broadcasters) to come up with common metadata standards between us and other broadcasters and production houses, so if companies are, for example, producing content for the BBC or ITV, there is a common standard for it,” Linwood says.

There are other major programmes of technology-supported work at the BBC that are more directly customer-facing, one of them being the switchover to digital television.

Linwood says half of UK homes have been moved to the new standard already and the south-east of the country will move this year. The Crystal Palace transmitting station will go live in April with 12 million homes switching over to digital television in one night.

The cloud dilemma

Linwood says the BBC has been using cloud computing or is planning to use it for a range of areas including storage and digital production, but he points out that there are some fundamental challenges around the widespread adoption of the model.

“Our challenge – which we share with a lot of organisations – is that cloud –based services that are hosted in the US come under the auspices of the US legal system,” he says.

“The BBC is not only the world’s largest news organisation, but also one of the most trusted. And we are adamant about protecting our sources, so we are uncomfortable putting any of our journalistic or editorial content on the cloud at this stage. For that reason, we will not go forward with cloud-based e-mail or applications,” he adds.

“We are looking at cloud as a way of sharing content between computers to mobile devices, for on-demand resource for computer-intensive functionality and various pockets, but I wouldn’t say that we wholeheartedly adopted cloud computing across the BBC.”

Keeping ahead of the game

The BBC has a training academy and talent programmes which also encompass IT leadership. The broadcaster also allows IT staff to try different jobs and work around other areas to broaden their skill sets.

“I work with my management team both in terms of their personal growth and helping them grow their organisations as well. Clearly if you look around the media industry, you see a lot of outstanding ex-BBC people who got their training from us,” says Linwood.

Being able to tap into an excellent pool of talent is crucial for the success of the BBC’s goal of being a leader in a sector where the web has become so pervasive as a content distribution channel. It is also a way of keeping ahead of the game as an IT leader.

“You remain up to date by hiring great talent, having a fantastic research and development department, keeping an eye on the technology press. And quite honestly, vendors fall over themselves to talk to the BBC so they keep us updated on what is going on in the market and we keep them up to date on what we need,” says Linwood.

“Another key part of the job is working hard with the BBC internally to understand where the strategy is going so we can pre-empt changes and hopefully have technology to help the organisation get there. But you know, it’s a fast changing world and you never stand still.”

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