December 14, 2005

The state of ICT in Northern Ireland

Author: Joe Barr

Invest Northern Ireland, an agency of the UK government, recently funded a whirlwind trip to Northern Ireland by a half dozen journalists in order to show and tell them about Northern Ireland's high-tech industry. In exchange for footing the bill, they hope to see stories favorable to the area to attract not only new high-tech investment, but offshoring work as well. I took advantage of the opportunity to get a better understanding of the state of Linux and free and open source software in Northern Ireland.

Catherine Minford at Invest NI's Boston office said that Invest NI is a "non-Departmental Public Body (NDPB) of the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment (DETI) which is part of the UK government." According to Minford, Invest NI's role is "to promote innovation, enterprise, and competitiveness in Northern Ireland businesses, encourage new start-ups, and market Northern Ireland as a location for inward investment."

Peter Galli from eWeek, Erika Walker-Arnold from Fusion Authority, Paul McDougall from InformationWeek, Karim Khan from Business Facilities, and Neil Sutton of Computing Canada also made the trip. We began arriving at Belfast's famed Europa Hotel on Saturday and Sunday. The official tour began bright and early Monday morning, when Sarah Reid of Invest NI and Charlotte Simcock of UK Trade and Investment met the group in the hotel lobby and walked us to the nearby Invest NI offices for a round of briefings by government officials and IT industry executives.

The Troubles

The press in the UK refers to the violence between paramilitary organizations, the police, and the British army from the 1960s to the early 1990s as The Troubles. The bad old days are by and large a thing of the past, but Northern Ireland still has to face up to the image problems created by years of violence. While the violence has disappeared, some matters are still sensitive, and the perception of Northern Ireland as a violent place still lingers.

The morning session began with a backgrounder on the political situation in Northern Ireland, followed by an economic overview. The two subjects, of course, are interrelated. The degree of political stability achieved in the past few years -- read that as the absence of terrorism as a daily part of life -- has had a positive impact on the economy. The current rate of unemployment is 4.9%, the lowest level in 25 years. The value of exports is growing as well. The Information, Communications, and Technology (ICT) sector is one of the three major areas of the economy, along with contact centers and financial services, contributing to the growth of exports.

How safe is Northern Ireland today? One of the more surprising facts presented in the morning sessions was that, according to the World Health Organizations (WHO) statistics for 2004, people die of violent deaths in the United States at more than twice the rate that they do in Northern Ireland: 7.9 per 100,000 for the US versus 3.5 for Northern Ireland.

According to the presentations, and in spite of the perceptions by some that NI is a dangerous place to live and work, 70% those who invest in Northern Ireland reinvest over time.

The IT industry in Northern Ireland

Belfast street scene - Click to enlarge

A short list of well-known firms doing software development in NI today includes Nortel Networks, Northbrook Technology, Liberty IT, Abbey, HBOS, British Telecom, Raytheon, Skillsoft, First Derivatives, Vision Information Consulting, Kainos, Singularity, and OpenWave. Other firms with a high-tech investment in NI include HCL Technology, Allstate, Seagate Technology, Swan Labs, Wombat, Microsoft, and Oracle. Update: Seagate announced plans for an additional $300 million dollar investment in Northern Ireland yesterday.

The morning briefers stressed several times that NI does not wish to be seen as competing with China, India, and others for the low-cost, high-tech solutions market. Instead, they stressed the quality of the workforce, the excellence of their education system, advantages of a common language, the work ethic of the people, and a greater time-zone overlap shared with the US than Asia.

Once the government officials were through, we were joined by representatives of firms in the high-tech sector, and they touted their successes and happiness with NI as a base for their operation. One example is Allen Systems Group (ASG), an enterprise software and professional services firm headquartered in Naples, Fla. During lunch, even more execs joined our table, representing Relay Business Software, Ltd, the Momentum NI trade association, Asidua, and others.

Ian Graham, chief executive of Momentum NI and a longtime Unix user and Linux fan, dropped the news during lunch that Momentum NI was in the early planning stages for an Open Source Center for Excellence. When pressed for more details, Graham would tell me only that it was still in the very early stages of planning, but that more information would be available in the coming months.

I was tuned for any mentions of Linux and open source throughout the trip, and in addition to Momentum NI's early planning for the open source center, I heard Linux mentioned by several firms doing embedded work, especially in the communications industry. The standard thinking by those in the room who work in the field was that while Linux was once considered an inferior choice for such tasks, it is now definitely carrier-grade.

After lunch, the tour group departed the Invest NI building and visited with Dr. David Patterson, who is both a lecturer and researcher at the Ulster University Jordanstown campus, where the NI Knowledge Engineering Laboratory (NIKEL) project is hosted. NIKEL is a research and technology transfer organization which resulted from a joint venture between Ulster University and International Computers Ltd (ICL), a subsidiary of Fujitsu.

Patterson described the type of work NIKEL had done in the past and spoke briefly about the SOPHIA project, which stands for Sophisticated Information Analysis. If I understood him correctly, SOPHIA achieves disambiguation of search results by inserting a higher level of results between the search and the final results. In other words, if a search is done which returns 100,000 results, SOPHIA would group those returns according to a theme and present you first with the list of themes to select from, rather than simply hit you with all 100,000 results to page through in search of what you need.

I asked Patterson what sort of licensing NIKEL uses on its projects, and he explained it was done on a case-by-case basis, depending on the needs of the firm they are working with. While that doesn't sound very much like open source, he pointed out that NIKEL has made use of open source software in fulfilling its mission, citing a search algorithm developed by Waikato University in New Zealand.

Next we were whisked to a building adjacent to the shipyard where the Titanic was built. That's where the Queen's University, Belfast, Institute for Electronics, Communications, and Information Technology (ECIT) is housed. Godfrey Gaston, director of operations for ECIT, briefed us on their mission and operation.

Gaston described the Institute as more of a germinator than an incubator, and talked briefly about their work on a voice recognition project ECIT is working on with Blue Chip Technology which combines visual intelligence with sound in order to better decipher the spoken word.

Like NIKEL, ECIT handles intellectual property matters on a case-by-case basis. But, in general, Gaston indicated that the more ownership the client wants over work performed by ECIT students and employees, the more they have to pay for it.

The final working stop of the day came in a call at Aepona, Ltd. (The name is taken from a Celtic goddess -- with an A stuck on the front so that they show up first on lists of vendors at the trade shows.) Aepona is all about telecommunications standards, protocols, and technologies, most of which are way over my head. Some of their better known products are DMS (Device Management System), Causeway, and C-SIM.

In our meeting with Liam McQuillan, CEO of Aepona, we heard again about the tight linkage between NI's education system and the needs of its IT community. We also heard Linux mentioned at Aepona, and once again heard executives proclaiming Linux being carrier-grade these days -- and they should know.

The last item on the first day's agenda was a black-tie dinner at the Irish Parliament Buildings. The dinner was for the 2005 Exporter of the Year Awards, and we were MP Angela Smith's guests. The duck and salmon were very good, by the way, but the pecan pie with Drambuie sauce wasn't up to Texas standards.

A visit to Stroke City

Magee Campus, Ulster University - Click to enlarge

Early next morning we climbed into our bus and made the scenic drive from Belfast to Derry/Londonderry. Anthony McGurk, chief executive of the Derry City Council, told us at lunch later in the day that the town name is still a "sensitive issue" that divides Nationalists (Catholics) and Loyalists (Protestants) living in this city of approximately 100,000. The minority population of Loyalists prefer the name Londonderry, while Nationalists call it Derry. BBC has an audio clip explanation of how the town first came to be known on the airways as Derry/Londonderry, and eventually was shortened to simply Stroke City. The stroke moniker, of course, is derived from the slash between the two names.

Our first stop in Stroke City was Magee College, another part of Ulster University. The School of Computing and Intelligent Systems is based at the Magee Campus, and is one of five schools in Ulster University's Faculty of Engineering.

Dr. Kevin Curran, a lecturer and researcher at Magee, presented an overview of the School of Computing and Intelligent Systems, fielding questions as he went. Curran hit the same points as others had made during the trip about the ability to tailor educational offerings to the needs of the IT industry. As an example, he mentioned courses in game programming and design offered in response to the local gaming industry.

When I asked about the use of Linux and open source on campus, I was surprised to learn that there was little or no official use. Curran, like many of his students, likes and uses Linux at home, but Magee College is "a Windows campus," in his words -- so much so, he said, that two or three years ago a dual-boot machine he used in one of the labs had its Linux partition wiped clean because it was unauthorized.

In spite of the blatant and heavy-handed lock-in tactics employed by Microsoft on campus, Curran noted during the tour -- as had others -- that "Java had taken over" in terms of teaching and developing software.

The final stop on the official itinerary came after lunch, when we visited with Dermot McCauley, the director of strategy and marketing for Singularity, an award-winning software firm based in Derry. McCauley explained that the company's headquarters location was once a shirt factory famous for its "white shirt." Those shirts became the first choice of the London banking community. Today, he noted, Singularity products are used by 70% of those London banks.

Singularity employs 70 people in India, and almost that many at its headquarters location. Their software development is done in India, and their design and concept work in Northern Ireland. They are famous for their Business Process Model software, and they have won more awards and honors than I could keep up with.

It was interesting to hear that this award-winning Microsoft partner, whose software at present runs only on Windows, is considering a switch to Java rather than to C#. Why? Because a lot of banks are not keen on Microsoft, and Java allows them to use Linux, another flavor of Unix, or OS/2 as they see fit.

The Belfast LUG

Belfast LUG - Click to enlarge

While the official itinerary left precious little time for off-the-cuff activity, I did manage to spend an hour or so visiting with members of Belfast's Linux User Group (BLUG). BLUG has been around for as long as my home group in Austin has. Like many older LUGs, its existence today is based primarily on its mailing list rather than face-to-face meetings. I made contact there on IRC before the trip to try to meet with LUG members during my short stay in Ireland. Two members of the BLUG, Marty Pauley and Dr. David R. Newman of Queens University, and I met in the bar of the Europa Hotel and visited for an hour on Tuesday evening, my last night in Belfast. Both men are longtime Linux users.

When I mentioned that I hadn't found as much Linux usage among the firms we visited on the tour as I had expected, Pauley pointed out that -- just as Linux became a part of enterprise computing through the backdoor here in the United States -- it was more likely a matter of the presenters simply not being aware of its presence in their own environments. He also noted that Northern Ireland seemed to lag behind the rest of the world by about two years, saying they had only gotten word of the dot-com bust last year.

Pauley runs an ISP, uses Debian, and prefers the CLI. We discussed the history of our respective LUGs and noted the similarities between them. Pauley is confident that the Belfast LUG will become an active, well-attended group again. He may be right -- the last topic I read on the BLUG mailing list was about arrangements for a LUG Christmas dinner.

Newman -- a lecturer in Information Systems at the School of Management and Economics at Queen's University, Belfast -- prefers the Mandriva desktop. He's also involved with a funded research project called the E-Consultation Research Project which is studying the use of electronic computing and communications in consultation practices. According to Newman, "just about everything" being used by the E-Consultation project is open source. The project utilizes Linux, Apache, TikiWiki, PHPSurveyor, phpBB, PHPlist, WordPress, Kannel, and a number of other open source packages to build its sites and trials.

Conclusions

This trip showed the IT community in Northern Ireland to be a close-knit, competent group. It seems to have originated from British Telecom and Nortel software development centers based there in the '80s. We heard several times during the visit that many IT execs today know each other from previous service at BT or elsewhere. The total population of Northern Ireland is only 1.7 million, so that's not too surprising.

But as evidenced by the legacy skills at Liberty IT, where COBOL and JCL are still spoken fluently, and by the cutting-edge concepts and methodologies that make Singularity such a hot property today, telecom is not the only game in town. In addition to the old hands from BT and elsewhere, the universities in Northern Ireland are producing highly skilled computer science graduates year after year. While many leave NI in search of higher pay, enough remain -- or leave and then return home -- to keep the IT community growing.

It's a safe bet that companies investing their software development dollars in Northern Ireland are not just doing so because they like the countryside, or the friendly people, or the golf courses. It's more likely they come because they get a better return on their development dollars than they can get elsewhere.

Conversations outside the official itinerary during my brief visit left me convinced that while the violence of the bad old days might surface again someday, Northern Ireland is as safe or safer than most of the Western World right now. I heard troubling reports that some five-year-olds are still being taught to hate "the other side," but the majority of the population no more wants a return to The Troubles than New York City wants to be visited by terrorists flying into its buildings.

Perhaps Curran's family situation best illustrates the new Northern Ireland. He and his wife are both evangelicals, but one is Catholic and the other Protestant. That they happily work and live in a town where something as simple as the name you called it has been a trigger for violence speaks volumes for the changes that have occurred over the past decade.

As for the status of Linux and other free and open source software in Northern Ireland, it appears to be in similar shape to what I've seen elsewhere in the world. While widespread adoption may be lagging in NI compared to other places, FOSS is certainly well-respected by key elements of the IT society, and with plans being made for things like the Open Source Center for Excellence, things look good for the future.

Perhaps the most important message I brought back from my trip to Northern Island is the one I saw painted along a wall that surrounded what appeared to be low-income apartment buildings in Belfast. It was printed in block letters large enough to be read from our bus as we rode toward Stroke City. There were stick figures -- I think they were a mother and child -- at both ends of the text. It read simply: "WE ARE NOT YOUR STEREOTYPES."

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