Our first day visiting Huawei's Shenzhen HQ is over, and I'm just off out for the evening's entertainment. I'll come back to what's been gleaned about strategy and the joint venture with Symantec later: there are interview recordings to go through and notes to flesh out, and that'll need research.
One event just can't wait, though – our visit to the place where... well, I'm still not sure. As part of our tour of Huawei's 30,000 person campus, we're decanted from our large black limosines into a huge monumentalist building with a vast, marble-floored atrium, empty of people, surrounding a steel-shafted lift. The shaft pierces an enormous curved metal lattice that hangs from the ceiling: the effect isn't just reminiscent of a classic Bond villain's lair, it's a direct quote. By the time the lift ascends with us in it, we're stroking invisible white Persian cats and putting on terrible accents.
We fall silent, however, when we're escorted into the War Room – and yes, that's what it's called inside the company. A huge polished wood board table surrounded by leather armchairs sits in the middle: we search for the button that'll make a model of Fort Knox emerge, but are distracted by the enormous window that takes up an entire wall. Beyond, that, in its own cavern, is Mission Control.
I'm not kidding. Row after row of white-coated staff sit far below us in wide semi-circular tiers of desks studded with monitors, phones and printers. The top half of the far end of the cavern is taken up by the Big Board, a huge video display sixteen flat panels across by three deep. Each panel was, I guess, 40 or 42 inches. Huawei has built a working model of the Apollo control centre at its heyday.
But while NASA concerned itself with delivering three men to the Moon and returning them safely to Earth, it isn't quite so clear what Huawei is up to. Fortunately, the major features of the displays are replicated in smaller single-screen pedestals within the War Room. It soon transpires that the details on the big screen are of the company's own network – it's got a fairly extensive system linking its Chinese sites together, which runs its own activities and services it offers to its customers, together with a respectable international presence. There's even an ERP dashboard, showing what looked like three weeks' graphing of orders and transactions.
By way of a flourish, one of the PRs pressed a hidden button and the window overlooking the control centre whited out. “This is when we need to have a confidential conference,” she said. She pressed the button again, and the window cleared.
It was, in the truest sense of the word, fantastic.
I can confirm that its network was running smoothly. I can also confirm that the level of monitoring required to run even a substantial network is the sort of thing that most companies would be happy to condense onto a single desk, routinely monitored by a single individual. Automated management systems are pretty spiffy these days, and that's the sort of thing that Huawei should really be comfortable with – given that it spends its time selling networks.
So what were the fifty five white coats doing down there? The PRs explained: this is mostly customer tech support, the backstop for problems that get escalated up from local support installations around the world. Now, there's no reason whatsoever why a multi-billion dollar networking company shouldn't have an amply-staffed call centre to provide high quality support. But one that looks like Blofeld would wander in at any moment to chuck someone into the piranha tank? I've seen genuine mission control installations: even the one that Inmarsat uses to keep its fleet of geostationary relays in place is less showy than this, by orders of magnitude.
We came to three possible conclusions. First, that whoever's in charge of tech support at Huawei believes in SMERSH-style management, and that there really is a piranha tank: the whole set-up is there to keep the henchmen in line. Second, that Huawei is merely a front for a genuine Bond villain, and that the moment we left the building the IP ping times on the big screen would be replaced by the orbital trajectory for the secret nuclear laser satellite. Third, that the whole business is built to impress passing hacks and leave them gasping.
Really, I can't say which is the more likely. We descended in silence back to reality – or at least, one version of it. And more on that, later.