Interview: Dave Scammell, CEO of Sohonet
We speak to the head of Sohonet, a service provider built for the film and media industry in the centre of London
Soho, in the heart of London’s West End, boasts an exciting history, from its early days as the hunting grounds of Henry VIII to the centre of the UK sex industry – reviled and revered in equal measure.
In more recent years, the district has become synonymous with film-making, playing host to numerous production companies and offices from Soho Square to Wardour Street.
But while Soho might be great for post-production, the studios are nowhere near central London and stretch out into the English countryside or overseas to the Hollywood hills. This distance means a good network is essential for production to run smoothly.
“Sohonet was founded in 1995, set up by a number of post-production houses – in spite of the telcos – as they had the need to start moving data around. The telcos fitted neither budgets nor requirements at the time,” says Dave Scammell, CEO of the Soho-based service provider, speaking to Computer Weekly today.
The coalition of post-production businesses – 10 in total – formed Sohonet and began to buy up and lease dark fibre, firstly within the area to serve themselves, but later across the world as the need for connections grew.
“We grew quite slowly up until 2000, when we were taken over by a small UK telco [called] Neos Networks," says Scammell. "But it subsequently discovered it didn’t have the appetite for the level of service the media industry required,” .
As they had during their early days, the production houses knew best, and Scammell led a management buyout of Sohonet in 2003.
“If you look at the history of telco, a company lays fibre, adds service, expands and it is constantly changing,” he says. “We extracted ourselves from that cycle and have been growing since then by about 20% every year.”
“The original 10 houses were pretty much the only ones we served up until 2000; we grew our customer numbers slightly, but in 2003 we really expanded – not just in Soho but around the world. We now have offices in the US and Australasia and have around 500 customers worldwide.”
If you look at the history of telco, a company lays fibre, adds service, expands and is constantly changing. We extracted ourselves from that cycle
Dave Scammell, CEO, Sohonet
Scammell said the technology behind the network was a mixture of supplier-provided systems and development that Sohonet has carried out itself.
“The core infrastructure is dark fibre, which we buy and lease from many different suppliers,” he explains. “We then light the fibre with pretty standard equipment, dependent on the service.”
“What we add on is our own custom-designed diagnostics and monitoring. It is designed to be responsive and give a good view of the large-scale networks we work over.”
Overall, Sohonet relies on 40 carriers across the globe to carry its customer’s traffic, but Scammell says the extra controls that it put in place with its own technology ensures good service levels for its users.
“What is unique about Sohonet is that we are carrier agnostic and designed to deal with a variety of companies from that perspective,” he says.
“The thing is, fibre gets cut – it is not too difficult to work out a diverse data path and build that into the network. However, these days, the most serious incidents we see is when large telcos constantly add and change their networks.
"Almost on a weekly basis some carriers are doing upgrades and the number of times it goes wrong is astounding," he adds. "By using diverse carriers we can get around that.”
One example of how the company navigates around these issues is the way it links its Soho post-production companies with the famed film industry in LA.
“A lot of our clients need to send data between London and Los Angeles, so for this we triangulate our network,” says Scammell. “We have one carrier service that takes us from London to New York, a separate carrier from New York to LA and a third carrier between LA and London. If one of them has network problems, we can route that traffic across other parts of the triangle.
“Do we have incidents? Yes, but it is because our carriers do. However, we have plans to avoid such things and we have always got our customers in mind, working on the basis that we are happy if our customers are happy.”
And the customers are well-known names, ranging from Warner Brothers and HBO in the US, to Pinewood and Shepperton studios in the UK.
“Within the studios, we then deal with a lot of productions, from small projects lasting between three and six months through to large scale feature films or projects like Harry Potter, which can go on for years,” says Scammell.
Now Sohonet is looking to the future, to continue to growing its customer base and to add new services.
“We are planning to expand and have great new projects in the pipeline,” says Scammell. “Our customers have huge data, huge security needs and want to know they can call someone 24/7. As such, we are always looking for more value adds to roll-out to our customers.”
As well as launching new storage and compute on-demand services, Sohonet is launching FileRunner, enabling its customers to send files to one another faster, with the same levels of service and security.
However, despite the need for extra capacity and infrastructure, Scammell said it was not going to become a datacentre company.
“We are in the process of opening up what we like to call Soho Centres,” he says. “We are not trying to be a datacentre company. We are not looking to build and operate them as there are already a lot of major datacentre suppliers that do that.
“But, we do want to offer specific locations for more integrated systems for Sohonet customers, typically located with support staff who can be hands on, giving our clients an extra level of reassurance.
"There is already one open in Australia, a London location is next and LA will have its own Soho Centre 'within the next month or so'.”
“We pride ourselves on being agnostic so if Amazon offers the best solution for a customer, we will offer that over our network, but if they can’t and we have got something we can offer, then we will,” adds Scammell.
“We are not trying to be too rigid as every production is difference. Their uniqueness sets them apart and we need to be responsive. We can’t do a one size fits all, cookie-cutter approach; others who have tried that have failed.”
Then, it comes down to location, as the company wants to set up operations in more countries as its next avenue of growth.
“We will expand to offer more of these products and expand into more geographical areas,” says Scammell. “We have just opened an office in Vancouver and we are starting to expand more around the EU, thanks to huge demand, both where clients want to collaborate with people that work there or those based there want to share what they have.”
The CEO concludes: “All these services rely on a really good network and we can offer the security, the connectivity and the service to our unique customers.”