Thanks for 2017!

By Simon Woodhead

As we near Christmas I wanted to say a huge thank you to all of our customers and wish you and your families the very best for the festivities.

Last year, I broke with the established tradition of describing 2016 as our most exciting year yet. Whilst some of those issues continue to focus the mind, particularly on the importance of family, there have been some new highlights too such as the arrival of my third child – another girl! The business has absolutely flown thanks to all of you, both longstanding and new friends, so I can safely but honestly resume saying: this has been our most exciting year yet!

February saw us put out notice of our new IP addresses and other key interop changes to begin migration to our ‘new stack’, something you’ll see we concluded successfully this weekend! Whilst we told you about new features such as Opus, better encryption, and our then fledgling use of anycast, the real changes here were under the hood. We were migrating away from using bare metal servers for running media gateways, and vSphere for everything else, instead running containers on bare metal for everything. One of the largest changes here was in our development workflow and in particular the discipline of changes, and the ownership for deployment. Gone are the days of one person making network changes, another person creating VMs, and then a third adding their code while a fourth modifies firewall rules; now the developer does all four and all are contained in the same place which heralds in an era of continuous development. We’ve commented on this along the way, starting with ClueCon Weekly in March, Kamailio World in May, ClueCon in August, and Astricon in October. Whilst similar in basic content, you’ll notice the evolution in these talks as we’ve learned a huge amount and adapted to challenges along the way.

I reckon probably 80% of our technical bandwidth this year has gone on the new stack, especially if we consider the new Arista network upgrade started late last year. The result is that rather than a complicated network stack, in key PoPs we now have a very simple flat and ultra-high performance and low-latency network, connected directly into large bare-metal hosts. Those hosts run RancherOS, giving us Docker but everything network related is done differently. Each host is a full router, as is each container now. This means we can spin a container up and it is self-describing to the network including its security requirements. It also gives us Anycast which means requests stay local, and this is especially beneficial with internal services such as throwing millions of CDRs around! This all makes the continuous development side of things greatly improved and, for example, we put our portal and API live as anycasted services late March / early April so your requests now hit one of a few dozen containers, the closest one to you, and if one is being upgraded you won’t notice!

We celebrated our 20th anniversary in June, although by ‘celebrated’ I mean we wrote a blog post! We were far too busy to party but I hope many of you will join us for a combined 20th / new office do in February 2018. Invites are going out soon for that as well as SimCon1, but if we don’t have your address, do speak to Frazer.

That brings me on to our new home. We moved to Bristol for the beginning of September which was a very positive step in many ways. We were sad that Marke, who I know many of you spoke with, couldn’t come with us but our growing tribe of millennials all relocated completely! Lots of change for them which seems to be working out.

If you’ve visited us in Bristol, it is an anonymous uninspiring building site at the moment. We’re camping temporarily upstairs while the ground floor, which’ll be our main home, is comprehensively fitted out. Rather than putting some beanbags in a corner and claiming we’re cool because we’ve got beanbags like Google, the fit-out design is very much ‘Simwood’ and is going to be an authentically awesome place to work. We’ve had some great new colleagues join us there already, such as Alex Richards our new Senior Network Engineer, and I hope we’ll continue to attract more. We’re designing the space very much with the communities we’re part of and our customers in mind, so I hope you’ll be able to make use of it.

In the summer we took one of the biggest steps in our history, in bringing up PoPs (leveraging our new architecture) in San Jose and New York and becoming a certified CLEC in August, something we know of no other UK operator achieving. The US is a very important market for us going forwards and, given our attraction of new global customers, is a major traffic spot. After about 8pm we’re doing more volume in the US than the UK already but that time is shifting further back as we move forwards. I’m very confident it’ll overtake the UK overall in 2018.

In 2015 I determined that the largest existential threat to our future was Ofcom and many of our changes since then have been in an effort to mitigate that. In 2014 they removed 86% of one of our income streams overnight, and have followed that up with numerous other changes. All have been well-intentioned and aspired to benefit the consumer but instead have gifted margin to retail operators at the expense of wholesale. Whilst this market distortion also benefits our customers, I feel it most significantly benefits the largest retail operator: BT. Combined with continued neglect of number portability and what I’ve described for some years as re-monopolisation in the UK, but blogged about at length this year, I can’t help feeling our desire for a fair and transparent marketplace is more realistic outside the UK! We’re not going anywhere and are as committed as ever to our customers, most of whom are in the UK, but our future is global. I recently worked out that with the various price changes that have come through, to stand still we needed to have grown volumes 17x since 2010, just to stand still – that’s 50% per year every year. By contrast a retail operator following the distorted market would grow 50% year on year whilst standing still. That is neither fair nor sustainable, but thankfully, while other pure wholesale operators have naturally contracted, we have not only stood still but grown quite strongly.

Readers might be questioning why we don’t just operate at retail. Indeed ‘me too’ have a stated aim of growing their direct business at the expense of their customers, and we’ve heard some war stories. Competing with our own customers isn’t our style, which perhaps is why we’re trusted with so much new business. Our challenge going forwards is many-fold therefore;

  • Resist the tide of “resellers” who wish to cut-out the middle-man – that just increases our support costs. They should be our customers’ customers and some of you are making great strides there.
  • Continue to help our customers grow strongly whilst monetising away from the ‘minute’. Our new packages represent this, along with us daring to charge for unique value we add such as trunks.
  • Continue to attract the big but clueful.

Thankfully we’ve been particularly successful at the third point fishing in newer waters. We’ve always described ‘wholesale’ as measured by competence and haven’t cared about size, but it was taken as read that competence meant small. It transpires you can now be both huge and immensely capable and if you are, Simwood is quite attractive and totally unique. We’re very grateful to have won substantial business away from multi-billion pound operators because of what we stand for and what we uniquely offer.

We continue to punch well above our weight in the communities we operate in and we’ve spoken at more international events in 2017 than ever. In 2018 we’re adding another US trip to the list with IP Expo, or more particularly, Asterisk World where we’ve also been invited to speak. Along with our own SimCon1 and CommCon - a new UK based event where we’re Platinum sponsor and hope, but aren’t confirmed, to also be speaking. Coupled with our regular attendance at LINX member meetings, we’re more engaged with the communities we’re part of than ever. We learn and share something at everyone and would recommend attending any or all of them.

Last but not least, we concluded the reorganisation we started back in 2015 and are now, along with our new US sister Simwood Inc, a part of Simwood Group PLC. This changes nothing for customers other than being a platform for the future, a future that may succeed me (no present plans!) and a future that sees our growing team truly invested in the business.

So as we leave 2017 behind, I’d like to wish all of you the best for 2018 and once again extend a huge thank you for trusting us with your business and working with us. Given the platform changes, 2018 looks exciting! It is a scary time to be in this industry but with the platform, the team and the customers we enjoy, I’m very optimistic for our next 20 years!