Q&A: Neil Thomson, Microgen

Founded in 1974 and listed on the LSE since 1983, Microgen is experienced in the delivery of software, solutions and consultancy services in a range of sectors including financial services, energy, asset & wealth management, commercial, transport & logistics and public sector. The Group implements bespoke applications, product software solutions for the world’s largest financial institutions, multi-national corporations and public sector organisations. We spoke to the CTO of Microgen, Neil Thomson, to get a better understanding of IT’s role in the finance sector.

What technology trends do you see increasing in prominence during 2011?

With speed becoming critical for all businesses, regardless of industry, I believe we’ll see in-memory processing really rise to prominence. As the boundaries between memory and persistent storage have blurred, we have seen a step change in the volume of data that can be processed and stored. This has made the technology not only more powerful, but also cost effective.

From an IT perspective this is great news. In-memory in 2011 will mean that they can run bigger applications to support the business on less expensive platforms. This is especially important against a backdrop of the need for finer and finer granularity. Think of it like a Google map. A few years ago people were content with a satellite view, now they want to zoom in and see their house. The same scenario applies to business. Where once a birds eye view was sufficient, this is no longer the case.

Businesses want more control at an enterprise-wide level and in-memory delivers just that. It might not be as ‘sexy’ as cloud computing, but I’m hedging my bets that it will be the IT dark horse of 2011.

2011 is a fresh start, how can companies ensure that they are well placed to have a great year?

The customers we’re speaking with see 2011 as a key year. Commentators are insistent that we’ve seen the worst of the recession, but companies will continue to play their cards close to their chest and rightly so.

Many companies still operate on legacy systems. Often these contain information that is hard to expose, creating blind spots and risks for companies. It is unrealistic to say that businesses will rip out and replace their IT infrastructure. But the need to generate transparency at an enterprise-wide level and operate more efficiently is undeniable.

As such, businesses will look at how the can deploy technologies that enable of them to shine a light into the dark corners of their IT and ‘expose’ this data. A complete view will enable them to make more informed business decisions and better manage risk.

Have companies learnt any lessons from the last couple of years?

Before the financial crisis, many companies will readily admit that different departments often operated in silos and were over reliant on manual processes. The issue with manual processes is that they are prone to increased risk, they are slow, databases become cumbersome to maintain and they don’t operate in real-time.

That business processes need to be automated is undeniable. There is still some way to go, but the majority of companies recognise the importance of IT in not only protecting their business and becoming more efficient, but also future proofing it for new operational challenges.

If you were a CEO what would you be asking your IT team to invest in?

Technologies that are tied to a Service Oriented Architecture (SOA), its associated standards and protocols such as SOAP, XML, and WSDL have made implementation of the product objectives much simpler. So, if I were a CEO operating against the back drop of VAT increases and austerity measures, that would be my number one priority. The simpler it is to bring products and services to market cost effectively, the more competitive I can be.

What’s your view point on the finance sector—stuck in an IT rut or leading the way?

It would be wrong for anyone to dismiss the finance sector as stuck in its ways or behind the times technologically. All companies are facing ever increasing numbers of transactions from mobile payments, through to music downloads and many are struggling to cope. This is particularly prevalent in the digital music arena. There are so many people in the supply chain that untangling the web of complexity and processing payment to the right parties in a timely manner is a significant challenge.

The financial services sector has been dealing with this challenge from day dot. As consumers and traders are given more and more interfaces with which to interact, the volume of transactions has rocketed. However, because they’ve invested in technologies that create an agile environment they have been easily able to scale to meet new demands and challenges. When it comes to processing these transactions accurately, at speed and assessing their business implications, the finance sector really is leading the way.

In your opinion, where is the UK in terms of the investment and support given to tech companies? Will it ever be a great technology nation?

It’s well known that the British technology industry has never really measured up to it’s US or even European counterparts in terms of overall market revenue. This is because there are relatively few ‘pure play’ technology providers which have sprouted out of the UK market. That’s not to say that there aren’t some who have succeeded, in fact those that have are dominating their respective fields.

The problem is perhaps that there isn’t enough public investment or confidence in small businesses, meaning that it’s hard to grow from scratch and secure enough funding to grow to a size where it is possible to compete with US and European counterparts. Also, companies nowadays are keen to ship off their IT services and maintenance to parts of the emerging markets because it’s the cheaper option, rather than sticking with a UK provider.

Despite this, in the UK market there are true experts who understand technology and have the skills to design and implement it. In the future it’s likely that we’ll see growth in the UK design market, rather than within IT services (where we have little hope of competing in terms of price) which are likely to be shipped to parts of India and China. Instead, Software Authors, In-house IT teams and systems integrators, are best placed to maximise their knowledge and add value to their business by capitalising on their skills.

What are Microgen’s plans for 2011 around its flagship Microgen Aptitude product?

2011 promises to be an exciting time for us. We were one of the first to exploit in-memory processing and will look to extend this through the use of distributed caching and more sophisticated memory handling.

This year, we’re looking forward to working with Teradata and using their “share nothing,” truly parallel architecture. Together, we can achieve very high levels of performance and scalability for our customers. Over the next year, facilities in this area will be significantly enhanced to better exploit parallel hardware architectures which is extremely popular in high performance transaction environments.

In order to improve collaborative working and business agility, we want to extend the facilities for modelling business processes and rules with high level graphical modelling tools. Building an application will always involve both business and IT users, but they should be able to work together rather than in silos which are only joined up by an analyst. The use of modelling tools that can be understood by both types of user is critical for this to work and this is what Microgen Aptitude supplies.

What piece of technology could you not be without?

I love gadgets like everyone else, but I can’t help feeling we’re some way off the one device that no one can live with out. I am very fond of my car however, as it does do everything. Living in Scotland, a Range Rover offers me everything from an off-road vehicle to a high performance car and even a way of transporting sheep from my daughter’s farm. If badly implemented, multiple functions in a single device can give you the worst of all worlds, e.g. the Swiss army knife, but in the Range Rover, it’s beautifully done—very similar to Microgen Aptitude now I come to think of it.

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Christian Harris is editor and publisher of BCW. Christian has over 20 years' publishing experience and in that time has contributed to most major IT magazines and Web sites in the UK. He launched BCW in 2009 as he felt there was a need for honest and personal commentary on a wide range of business computing issues. Christian has a BA (Hons) in Publishing from the London College of Communication.