Anniversary blog series (2/6)

 Anniversary blog series (2/6)

Q&A with Julian Fielden, OCF Chairman


To kick off our 20th anniversary Q&A series, chairman, Julian Fielden takes us back to the origins of OCF of which he founded, sharing his insight into how OCF has evolved over the past 20 years whilst retaining its core ideals and culture.


When did you join OCF and what was your role when you first started at the company?

When we set up OCF Limited 20 years ago, the vision was to be the best HPC company in the UK and a great place for people to work. We’ve always had a flexible business strategy and rather than making the waves in HPC, we’ve wanted to surf them. I was managing director from 2002 until the management buy-out in November 2019.

What is your role now?

I’m now the chairman of OCF and my main responsibility is to ensure that the business strategy being followed is sustainable, profitable and achievable.

What achievements of OCF are you most proud of?

I’m really proud of setting up the company and growing it to what it is today. We focused the business on HPC and secured an important partnership with IBM back in 2005. That relationship continued from strength to strength when IBM was bought out by Lenovo and our business continued to grow year on year, even throughout the recession in 2008.

I’m proud of organising the MBO which allowed existing key personnel to have the opportunity to build upon what we have created at OCF, as the UK’s most successful HPC, AI and big data integrator.

We’ve also managed to keep a core group of people in our employee base who’ve been with us for a very long time. I’m proud of the culture that we’ve developed and how we pull together to try and get things right the first time, But, if they don’t then don’t have a blame culture, instead learn from it and move on.

What did the HPC environment look like 20 years ago and how has it progressed over the years?

When we first started working with universities, their funding models for HPC infrastructure were completely inefficient. Individual professors were awarded grants with no real strategic view of HPC systems within universities. If the professor moved to a different university, they could take the HPC kit with them. The HPC environments were often unsupported, only used 20-30 percent and no-one shared resources. Now, HPC systems have become far more of a strategic asset to universities. Not only are they needed to deliver the research, but they attract talented people who want to use the best infrastructure available. The equipment now tends to have a shorter primary life and to be at the forefront of research you need to have the best research tools.

Data management has totally transformed from 20 years ago.  Storage was initially attached to the box, but now with storage area networks and the internet, data is infinitely sharable and helps promote collaborative working. Architectures are very different now than they were 20 years ago. We used to work with big, cumbersome pieces of equipment, and when they broke they were irreplaceable. Now, if one part of a cluster breaks, that part can easily be replaced. 20 years ago, the internet wasn’t pervasive but now we can offer our customers the benefit of HPC in the cloud, whereby you don’t even need to own on-premise infrastructure.

How has the company and/or customer needs changed in your view over the past 20 years?

Initially, most of our customers, particularly universities, would buy a box and then try to do all the management of the infrastructure themselves. Now with these HPC systems becoming strategically vital to the future of the organisation that purchased them, support, reliability and resilience is so much more important. 

The counterweight to that is that the HPC skills aren’t readily available in the marketplace. It is hard to recruit the right people to run these systems, so that has opened up an opportunity for OCF to provide remotely the necessary support and management capability to customers. During the pandemic, the OCF technical team worked closely with our customers to ensure remote access and we managed to support several x86 based cluster installations remotely. 

What’s in store for this year and any big predictions?

Hopefully more of the same is in store for this year. That is, to continue to look after our customers, bring some new ones on board, keep hold of the people we have in the business and increase the skills set that we have already. We’d like to support and provide a good service for our customers when they want to utilise the cloud in the most efficient way for them. But, managed services will be something that will be a major play for us over the coming months.