UKFAST Report Back

UKFAST: Report of meeting on 18 April 2019 at Chapel Golf Club, Chapel-en-le-frith
with JONATHAN BOWERS, Managing Director of UKFast Enterprise


“Don’t forget: there’s nothing in the cloud but water vapour,” was the sage advice of one club member, as I fretted over whether I’d understand our latest speaker.

I needn’t have worried. Manchester-based UKFast are expert providers of cloud computing, but their approach is blessedly jargon-free: Jonathan Bowers, MD of the Enterprise division, did not use PowerPoint, smart phone or any snazzy gizmos, only a notebook and a relaxed style. That was the first surprise.

Twenty years ago, Manchester musician Lawrence Jones moved on from playing piano in a hotel to providing bands and groups to hotels and entertainment venues throughout the city. When he needed a website, he was offered a box and told to go and do it himself. The lightbulb moment came as he saw the need: not so much creating and running his own website, but helping other businesses do so. The  operation that started in a single room with £5,000 was recently valued at £405 million, has 5,000 business customers and now employs 350 people.

Lawrence and his wife Gail still head up the largest independent hosting provider in the UK. It provides secure services to some of the UK’s leading brands and to the public sector, with its own data servers including a £22million development in Manchester. If you’ve ever been stuck in traffic near Manchester airport, you’ve seen their snazzy modern building (above). What goes on inside is cutting edge.
But it’s a people business, Jonathan insisted. He’s been there since 2004, with the slogan on his wall: Be the Best. Each year the company develops goals in consultation with the staff, and works with each employee towards life goals: this firm wants you to have a job for life. It helps that the building is like a Silicon Valley site, with a gym, massage, nail parlour, personal trainers… employees can bring their dogs, bring the kids.. and counsellors: “important as we have a lot of young people on campus.”

How can this growth happen with such a skills shortage in this industry? It means going into Trafford schools and talking to pupils. Together they developed a highly successful 14-18 years IT Diploma – then took on some of the keenest teachers, who now teach in-house, with shared training for customers’ apprentices also. Everyone is learning all the time. “We prefer apprentices to graduates,” Jonathan said (not the first time we’ve heard that in Business Club). Apprentices want to learn while they earn, but too many graduates think they’re done with learning, and couldn’t be more wrong. Keep training, keep being challenged, keep moving up is the message: promotion within the firm is on offer right up to senior management.

Reliability is an issue in this industry. As Apple have found, relying on others for your primary sources can be a weak spot. So controlling their own systems is vital. UKFast have moved away from relying on BT; they have several power feeds in case one goes down, they’ve looked at generating their own electricity in north Wales; all their own software and telephone systems are built in-house. When I suggested a chip factory in Northern Ireland, say, instead of relying on China, Jonathan did not demur. That could be the next surprise.

The weakest link in any system, he said, is the innocent human being in the office who clicks on the wrong email. They’ve recently invested another £4million into tackling DDoS  – “distributed denial of service” – when a website is flooded with contacts such that it crashes for days or weeks. Ransomware is a similar scourge on modern organisations, as the NHS learned to its horror in April 2017, when it fell victim to the “WannaCry” virus which affected computers in 150 countries round the world. Ransomware encrypts computer files rendering them unusable, to be released on payment of a ransom. If ransoms are paid, Jonathan warned, you’ll just get repeated attacks – that’s not the answer. UKFast can do data recovery when things go wrong; more intelligent platforms can distinguish between good and bad traffic. They even have an associated group of “ethical hackers” who will probe the strength of your system.

Last year it was announced that the firm would go for a share listing, but in the end (“uncertain times” said Jonathan) that was pulled, and instead funds were raised from a private investor. I reckon they might do better out of the clutches of shareholders – like Timpson’s or Peel, who can take their own decisions without looking over their shoulders. However the process generated considerable thought about the sources of future growth, with the aim of getting up to £1bn valuation in 3 to 5 years and then trying again. The public sector is an obvious opportunity: if ever anyone needed fast secure IT it’s the NHS, while the MoD and Cabinet Office are already clients. The “public cloud” will grow too. And international growth: new platforms are being opened in Washington, Amsterdam and Seattle, with Singapore next. That feels like taking coals to Newcastle.

In all, a remarkable glimpse into a fast-changing business, one that our area can be very proud of.