BBC sets out tech future: Small suppliers, simple systems and standards

Auntie reveals the roadmap that will govern its IT decisions for years to come...
Written by Tim Ferguson, Contributor

Auntie reveals the roadmap that will govern its IT decisions for years to come...

The BBC has published the strategy it hopes will lay the foundations for the technology it will use and develop over the next few years.

According to the BBC's CTO, John Linwood, the strategy aims to address the changing needs of the corporation, as well as new audience behaviours driven by technology.

"One of the things I wanted people to understand with this strategy is it started with the business objectives. So this wasn't me or the technology organisation in the BBC saying 'ooh, we want new shiny toys'," he told silicon.com.

The strategy comes in response to the increasing uptake of technology within the corporation.

"The rapid pace of technology change in the market and steep upward curve on technology dependency means that the BBC needs to change gear in terms of its relationship with technology and how it fulfils some of the BBC's public purposes such as sustaining civil society and helping to deliver the benefits of emerging communications technologies and services.

"In response to the needs of the BBC divisions the technology strategy aims to enable the BBC to become a more agile, responsive and dynamic organisation," the strategy document said.

The strategy, published today, sets out a long term view for the BBC's technology future, covering four main areas: focusing on core technological building blocks, such as networking and storage; being connected and collaborative, including through the use of flexible and remote working; fostering innovative use of technology; and ensuring value for money.

BBC Manchester

The move of much of the BBC's operations to its new home in Manchester, pictured above, will be influenced by its newly published technology strategy
(Picture credit: Manky Maxblack via Flickr under the following Creative Commons licence)

Under its plan for the BBC's core building blocks, the strategy calls for the introduction of "frictionless technology" - tech that is easy to deploy and use.

"Technology used in the BBC should be fit for purpose and just work. Technology should make tasks simpler, faster or better. This includes focus on accessibility and flexible working to allow employees outside BBC buildings to interact with systems and services as if sitting in the office, but should be baked into all aspects of technology," the document said.

It also recommends a...

...move towards "open, modular and IP-based technologies" to achieve the aim of a "connected and collaborative" BBC.

"Achieving a connected BBC requires a continuing shift towards open, modular and IP-based technologies to create a BBC infrastructure and core services which are needed now and in the future.

"External partnerships are key to the BBC. The development of technology going forward must therefore be designed to be open and modular enough to allow benefits to be leveraged by key partners," it adds.

On the subject of fostering innovative use of technology, the strategy sets out another change in approach for the BBC: the broadcaster will increasingly look at working with smaller, innovative tech companies rather than just the larger players, as has been the case in the past.

Greater use of commodity technology where appropriate will also be brought in under the strategy's plan to achieve value for money.

"Historically, the BBC has liked to customise and have BBC-specific versions of everything. One of the things that I'm really pushing is to say that that doesn't make sense - it's not a good use of public money," Linwood said.

The reuse of technology is also a key part of the strategy on value for money with a greater focus on developing component-based and services-based architectures.

"We're looking at ways we can reduce the dependency on hardware, increase the dependency on software so that it allows the BBC to be adaptable and flexible and respond to market and audience and business changes much more quickly than historically," Linwood said.

The document also outlines a series of principles that will govern the BBC's technology decisions in the future, including making sure IT isn't tied to one platform, making sure the technology and business teams within the BBC are working together, and making greater use of agile development methodologies.

By using agile development - a practice Linwood is keen to adopt - the rest of the organisation outside the technology function can feed back into the development process as it takes place, thereby reducing the risk of technology projects failing due to requirements changing between its inception and completion.

"What [agile] allows us to do, is to include those changes and adaptations during the development process. So by the time you finish the development, the users not only are fully aware and familiar with the technology but also they've fed back in all of the adaptations as they've learned as they've used it throughout its development process," Linwood said.

The strategy also sets out a principle of...

..."be open and leverage the market", whereby the broadcaster will work "closely with partners, that the BBC will be in a better position to influence developments and allow partners to develop more appropriate solutions for the BBC".

As a result, the BBC will change how it works with its tech suppliers - in some cases influencing how these companies develop their product roadmaps.

Linwood said vendors often come to the BBC with products that don't quite fit with its thinking at that particular time. The public nature of the strategy will mean suppliers will have access to information that will help them adapt their product development to be more in line with the BBC's needs.

"The real advantage for us is we start getting suppliers who are educated about what we're trying to achieve so they can put forward the right products and services to us that fit with our strategy. And then of course the real benefit is, hopefully, they'll even modify their product direction to fit with the BBC strategy."

"The BBC's influence on suppliers is much bigger than its chequebook. The reason I say that is many, many broadcasters and media companies look to the BBC to define a strategy - and quite frankly what they say is 'if it's good enough for the BBC, then it must be good enough for them'. So what happens is the BBC then has a very broad influence on the marketplace," Linwood added.

Underneath the overarching principles that will underpin the BBC's technology decisions sit 40 to 50 detailed strategies for specific areas that are currently being worked on and will be published online in the next few months. These include areas such as interactive television, storage, datacentres, media distribution, rights management and in-studio equipment.

dragon's den tapeless tech

The BBC is experimenting with in-studio equipment, such as tapeless tech, in productions of programmes such as Dragon's Den, pictured above (Photo credit: BBC)

But the development of the strategy won't stop with these. According to Linwood, the pace of change in technology, business demands and audience needs means that the tech strategy will need to adapt and change to keep up.

"I'm a realist and believe that the world will keep changing… so we're not going to publish this technology strategy, put it on a shelf and say we're done and walk away from it - this is a living strategy that will continue to evolve over time," he said.

To find out more, see the full BBC Technology Strategy document.

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