CIO interview: David Byrne, Carphone Warehouse - Connected World

Connected World Services is the Carphone Warehouse's modern take on "Tesco in a box". David Byrne heads up the IT for the business

Connected World Services is Carphone Warehouse's business-to-business offering, and is taking a platform as a service (PaaS) approach to supporting business partners, 

IT chief David Byrne wears two hats: enterprise architecture director at Carphone Warehouse and CIO for the mobile phone retailer's Connected World business.

Carphone Warehouse is known as a mobile phone retailer and, predominantly, it operates in the B2C (business to consumer) sector. "But every so often we have done interesting things [in other areas] which have been a success,” says Byrne.

For instance, in 2003, the company launched the TalkTalk broadband business.

Connected World Services is its B2B division and runs as a one-stop-shop service to the company's clients for all their communication needs. It currently provides business telecoms and communication services, but Byrne says: “Our core business seems to be doing well and we’ve always had interest in other companies who want to do similar things. 

"We have huge aspirations for Connected World."

Batch business

Some of the Connected World processing uses the systems in Carphone's data centres which power the batch processing; reconciliation of the retailer's commission for selling the customer a mobile network contract; and billing on behalf of networks. 

These processes run on different IT systems. “We started thinking about how a batch job started in Unix could be passed to another part [of the business process] running on Windows Server and decide what to do,” says CIO David Byrne. 

Carphone Warehouse runs hundreds of thousands of scripts every night so scheduling and automating batch jobs is a priority. When the company first started building the batch jobs, Byrne says of the scheduling technology: “They could not operate over heterogeneous platforms.”

So the retailer had to write its own software to support this functionality. It recently switched to a batch scheduler called Automic , which Byrne says has allowed Carphone Warehouse to cut over 100,000 lines of code from its systems. “Automic provides much more visualisation than we had before and we can change the order of tasks.” In addition, it provides visibility and auditing.

Automic is also being used to enable Carphone Warehouse to achieve SEPA (Single European Payments Area) compliance in advance of the February 2014 deadline. The tool was used to automate the direct debit collection process.

In a similar way to how Tesco developed its "Tesco in a box" strategy to encapsulate best practices, technology and services when the supermarket wanted to expand into new regions quickly, Carphone Warehouse is encoding its know-how as a mobile retailer.

It plans to provide knowledge of mobile phone retail to business partners via the Connected World PaaS. Partners will use the platform to create their own mobile phone retail operations.

“We see Connected World Services as enabling retailers, original equipment manufacturers and network businesses around the globe to leverage all the expertise and processes that we have built into our operations over the last 24 years,” says Byrne.

Early partnership

One of the early partnerships was with US retail giant Best Buy. The partnership took Carphone's business competence and its knowledge of mobile phone retail and provided this at Best Buy. 

"Previously we took people from our business and had them work in the partner business. We thought about a way to make it more efficient. This is where Connected World Services fits, to put the know-how into business processes packaged as the Connected World Services product,” says Byrne

Selling a phone to the public requires selling both a device and a network contract. The business processes are wrapped up in custom IT that Carphone Warehouse has built up. But, as Byrne explains, there is no off-the-shelf enterprise resource planning (ERP) that provides a system of record to capture the transactions. 

The process of the sale of a handset and a mobile phone contract is handled in bespoke batch-based systems (see box), and there is no compelling business driver to modernise. 

“In retail IT investment, there is a very strong emphasis on a short time to value so replacing something that works perfectly well, with something that does the same job may reduce TCO (total cost of ownership) in the IT group, but it brings no shareholder value," says Byrne. "So it is hard to make a good argument to replace the systems we have.”

Carphone Warehouse's retail business involves acquiring customers for mobile phone networks. Byrne says: “There are risks attached to different parts of the process in mobile phone retail. We have to make it predictable and error free.” 

In retail IT investment there is a very strong emphasis on a short time to value so replacing something that works perfectly well, with something that does the same job may reduce TCO in the IT group, but it brings no shareholder value

David Byrne, Carphone Warehouse

This is not only about providing the correct information for the mobile operators. 

He adds: “We are more likely  to get customers that the network will accept if we provide a good provider of credit checking or fraud detection.”

Part of the Connected World Services concept is about inserting these providers into the business process for signing up new mobile phone contact customers.

“We build in the steps and get it to work at scale as a PaaS. If we have a predictable and dependable process – every partner gets predictable and reliable service,” says Byrne. In addition, any improvements to the business process only need to be deployed once to benefit to all partners.

He says Connected World Services is built on a typical modern IT architecture. 

“It has to be deployable to people around the world. Our main driver for the architecture is we have to go where our business partners need us to go,” he says.

Building for the cloud

Byrne chose not to build Connected World Services around a traditional three-tier architecture, where an enterprise application is separated into presentation (the user interface), a layer for the business rules and an application server that runs the business rules. 

“Three-tier architectures can be somewhat constrained since we would have to invest in our own datacentre space, which  would be a capital expenditure,” he says.

Given Connect World Services is a semi-startup, Byrne believes it is better to buy services. As such, cloud computing is the main driver behind the architecture. It takes advantage of standardisation, and is built in a way that is deployed through local cloud providers. 

However, he says: “Our cloud strategy balanced against regulatory concerns.” 

So the architecture follows a cloud pattern but it may not be possible to deploy in the cloud in every market. He says: “We are building to deploy onto a cloud platform but it is not the right time to go fully into the cloud.”

Byrne believes cloud computing will become a bit like a National Grid for computing, with many providers offering cloud connectivity. He feels that the key players on such a cloud grid will be the brokers rather than the cloud service providers. 

So it could be a bit like the business model Carphone Warehouse has pioneered in UK mobile phone retail since 1989.

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