A cyber city dream for Leeds
The boss of aql, which stands for A Quality of Life, believes that Leeds could be set for a genuinely world-leading chapter in its history when it comes to cyber. Mark Casci reports.
The reason he is so busy is that for himself and the companies he runs, notably aql, there is quite simply a never-ending chain of activity.
“To know what good looks like, you need to travel – we can’t live in a bubble and think that we’re the best, because quite often we are not,” he says.
“We need to build relationships, partnerships and to learn from others.”
Founded nearly 20 years ago by Dr Beaumont, who started his tech career in cybersecurity, the firm is engaged in a wide range of work.
Broadly, aql provides communications services. This can range from mobile messaging (it hosts around 50m UK phone numbers and routes text messages from Enterprise), IP telephony, fibre and wireless leased-line services for the growing demand of the Internet of Things (IoT) marketplace and security centres.
However, Dr Beaumont prefers to describe himself more succinctly as an “internet plumber”.
Among the many companies aql works with are the usual internet giants, but also some of the largest and oldest private banks and retail brands.
He is also a passionate advocate both for the Northern Powerhouse and for the city of Leeds, which he feels is in a unique position to be a world-leading centre of technological and digital excellence.
During our conversation he outlines with clear detail how Leeds could be both a world-leading pilot destination for driverless technology and a main point of connectivity between the United States and Eastern Europe for cyber.
He also discusses the challenges in getting all of this right, particularly those concerning cybersecurity and education.
He feels that the potential for Leeds to be a digital epicentre is helped by the fact that, in the South Bank, the city has an effective ‘blank canvas’ in which to build its infrastructure.
Perhaps most impressively, he states that the city can help tackle fuel poverty by utilising the heat his data centres generate as a byproduct to provide warmth for social housing – Dr Beaumont used to lecture in thermodynamics at Leeds University.
Speaking to Yorkshire Vision, Dr Beaumont said: “Ten years ago most businesses would have most of their IT running on site.
“Most business now are moving to the cloud. The only way you can move to the cloud safely is if you are sure that your internet connection has sufficient resilience, because if your connection goes you have lost all your services. By us building up, outside of London, a multi-network, resilient hub with many access and egress points into the global internet, that gives Leeds a much higher level of resilience and internet autonomy than other areas of the UK.
“You get a lot of businesses now coming into Leeds because of its digital reputation and taking the internet connectivity for granted. The reason it works so well is because we created that fundamental infrastructure.”
This investment in infrastructure has placed Leeds in a privileged position which the aql boss feels can have colossal benefits.
“Leeds is the only city in the UK where the main internet hub or main internet exchange lives right in the heart of the city,” he said.
“In London most of the internet capacity sits within Docklands. If you are a business in Mayfair it is actually really difficult to get good connectivity. That might sound strange, but it is actually the case.
“The internet exchange in Manchester has been built in the Science Park, which again is juxtaposed from the city.
“This does not matter too much for most applications. However, when you are starting to look at how we embrace future-facing technologies, such as driverless cars, we then need to look at how an architecture can support those technologies.
“A driverless car generates around four terabytes of data per day to allow it to navigate, park – all that kind of stuff. And a lot of that data needs to be processed in near enough real time, because we are making real decisions about how a car is going to conduct itself.
“The further away a data hub is from a car itself, the longer the delay in the decision-making chain.
“So an infrastructure within a city where there is going to be the highest density of cars, and therefore of autonomous decision-making, lends Leeds to be the perfect pilot place for driverless technology.
“Imagine if we could free up a lot of city-centre parking space, as the cars would go and park themselves somewhere else slightly less costly out on the periphery.”
And the benefits of this infrastructure could lend themselves to more than just technological innovation, actually benefiting the city’s society too.
He said: “As we start to build these trials it involves huge amounts of processing, and that processing generates heat from the computer clusters. We have designed all of these data centres to export heat to social housing, community centres and hopefully to the district heating service for the city.
“This is a joined-up approach to support innovation, but also make sure we are not wasting anything.”
Dr Beaumont acknowledges that there are many plates to spin in order to make this achievable but adds that he “likes to solve complicated problems”.
To support these kinds of growth he says that Leeds as a city needs to have a defined digital strategy – and even that Leeds could be a world epicentre for digital.
“If you look at the east-west connectivity, Leeds is one of the main connectivity points between the US, Ireland, Isle of Man, mainland Europe and the Baltics,” he says.
This unique blend of geographical serendipity and appropriate infrastructure is bringing business to the city.
“We are landing 15-year contracts in terms of telecoms delivery for some of the largest network operators in the UK. We are seeing serious investment in Leeds with our operating partners in data centres. This kind of business allows us to have a long-term view into how we support the city and our people.
“We are just about to sign a multi-million pound 10-year deal with one of the largest UK mobile operators which is also massively investing in the city.
“This rate of acceleration makes me feel we are going to achieve those kind of aspirations of being the UK’s number one city for data-driven innovation and that we are going to be the global top 10 connected city that we should be.”
A big part of realising this potential will come from ensuring a strong supply of qualified and passionate people to staff and enhance these areas. Dr Beaumont has praise for the city’s universities and the City College but says more work needs to be done to let young people know that Leeds is a viable destination to work in cutting-edge industries.
“There are not enough role models,” he says. “We don’t have enough awareness of what kind of awesome opportunities there are within the city.
“You only choose a career in tech if you feel part of a dream and have something to aim for.
“And there is not enough awareness of what careers are out there, what businesses within our own region would be an employer within those kind of STEM skills. This is the big challenge.”