CTO of the Year 2021: Being network-native is a powerful digital springboard

CXO Interviews

Philippe Ensarguet, Group CTO at Orange Business Services, was the judges’ unanimous choice for the Trailblazer CTO of the Year Award 2021. He talks to Annie Turner.

Philippe Ensarguet hasn’t been in the role of Group CTO at Orange Business Services for that long (just under two years when we spoke in mid-August), but from the start he had very clear plans about what he wanted to achieve – and progress has been impressive.

He is a pleasure to interview, because he is cheerful, enthusiastic and articulate. He had just returned from his summer holidays and started by talking about the joy of reconnecting with family he had been unable to see for more than a year because of the pandemic, and engaging in sports, which he loves – cycling close to his home, surfing on the south coast of France and hiking in the Pyrenees.

Applying good pressure

He carries that energy and competitiveness into his work: he says that “good pressure” from market analysis and customers is pushing technology to become ever more important as, “When you’re in worldwide competition, most businesses and companies need to reinvent and differentiate themselves because their products already are really similar, even in terms of pricing. So technology has become a credible way to make the difference.”

This line of thinking led the CEO of Orange Business Services, Helmut Reisinger, to create an executive role in charge of vision, strategy and its transformation, with technology at the core of that strategy as the key enabler.

He appointed Ensarguet, previously CTO for the digital and data division of Orange Business Services, rather than a telco veteran with a ‘network’ skill set. Ensarguet describes himself as being software-, automation-, cloud- and infrastructure-driven. He says, “It’s my very backbone.”

He is very proud that these technologies are at the core of the global Orange transformation programme, Engage 2025, which was set and promoted by Stéphane Richard, Chairman and CEO of the Orange Group.

Expected contribution

Ensarguet says, “There is an expected contribution from Orange Business Services to the global plan, and it also clearly pushes technology as a game changer, as a driver and a booster, which had never happened before.”

Business to business is one of the three main areas for growth in Engage 2025 (along with making Orange a reference digital operator in Africa and the Middle East, and expanding Orange’s financial services across its entire footprint).

Unlike many other operators that are not making much progress in their efforts to get “beyond connectivity” for most of their revenues, according to Ensarguet, “Today 41% of our revenue and activities come from digital, IT and integration services, and by 2025 it will rise to 55%.”

This is in line with the global plan and, he adds, “This shows how much the network-native digital services journey plays a role.”

Ensarguet continues, “For a long time in my field the most important technology has been cloud native, because today it is the way to implement 5G, the edge, AI – most of the workload. By transferring the company onto cloud-native systems you carry all the transformation, which is absolutely not only technical: it’s about the culture, it’s about the mindset, it’s about the skill set, which makes it very, very challenging.

“We stand as the global network-native digital services company. The global network refers to our experience with global trusted technical infrastructure. But in the current market, business pace and the business expectation, if you do not cover digital services, you’re out of the game. It shows that we design, integrate and manage end-to-end digital solutions – it’s a continuum.

“It’s extremely important that I’m trying to aggregate [those services] for syndicates around business services… We think natively end to end, from the network to the cloud, to the data and to smart mobility services. It’s my job to be transversal, and what I observe month after month is that business units are more and more keen to work together, because they understand perfectly that if we want to compete out there at the worldwide level, our best differentiator is our end-to-end value proposal. This is fundamental.”

Three pillars of digitalisation

Ensarguet calls cloud native “a critical business booster” and set up the Orange Business Services Cloud Native programme in early 2020, based on three transformative dimensions: business, technology and operations, and culture and transformation. He was able to report concrete results the same year.

Firstly, the new corporate software factory produced software-based services in self-care mode for more than 3,000 people with bootstrapping (a statistical procedure that resamples a single dataset to create many simulated samples) in less than 10 minutes.

This translated into supporting delivery of several hundred projects with a 95% efficiency factor and cost savings that are the equivalent of up to 2,500 developer days per year in maintenance.

Ensarguet notes that, “The reality of the market is that more than 99% of all software around the world uses open-source components” and much of his time and that of his team is spent engaging with the open source community. Orange also became a member of the Cloud Native Computing Foundation (CNCF), reinforcing its contribution to this community, including within the telco working group created in November 2020.

This working group is focused on cloud-native network functions (CNFs) and CNF conformance in vendors’ equipment to further the use of cloud native technologies in telecoms infrastructure.

Secondly, in under two years, the ITNExt Gen initiative facilitated the migration of more than 40% of the company’s IT portfolio towards a Kubernetes-based environment that has more than 165 nodes over 6,000 pods. This increased the software cycle deployment frequency from three major releases per year to 200 per month.

Adopting hyperscale practices supported the end-to-end growth of Orange Cloud Services on hyperscale platforms within one particular Orange Business Services’ practice and accelerated the use of advanced cloud services, providing additional revenue in 2020.

Ensarguet also worked with colleagues to put a human resources study in place to anticipate what skills would be required in the future; the results were correlated with the company’s Social Barometer to identify and define in which domains to train, invest, certify and recruit experts and talent.

These programmes enabled Orange Business Services to define its technology strategy with a core foundation of software-driven practices (infrastructure as code, in particular); automation and API-backed services to design, build and deploy infrastructures; and cloud and cloud-native services to implement different business layers, such as connectivity, security, data, AI, digital services and more.

Working with customers

Hence today Orange Business Services considers that networking, storage, cloud, digital operations and AI should rely on the same converging platform for automated API consumption, implemented through infrastructure as code. It is also increasingly moving to a cloud-native ecosystem based on the Kubernetes cluster implementation.

Ensarguet says, “When you are managing a cloud-native infrastructure, it’s about the business workload, but also the way you do the operations and monitoring. How to deliver quality of service to the customers can also be factored in. It has a global impact.”

He adds, “I really love [how] we are meeting our customers peer to peer. When I started, there were few one-to-one CTO customer meetings, but now I think I have a one-to-one CTO session with customers every week. It's incredibly important, because it’s an open discussion when we are able to openly share our transformation, our views, and it’s almost like sparring partners and there is always great learning.”

He continues, “We are engaging with our customers through a co-innovation process. We’ve been hearing about 5G for a long time, but for various reasons 5G SA [standalone] won’t be before 2023, in France in particular, so it’s two years away from us. At the same time, it may be really disruptive for certain kinds of business, so you cannot wait until 2023 to push the button to start projects.”

Orange Business Services announced this co-creation approach with business customers large and small when the group announced its 5G strategy at an Orange Business Summit in Paris in April 2019. Enterprises Orange is working with include the French railway, SNCF, Schneider Electric and manufacturer LACROIX Group.

Ensarguet says the co-innovation process is use-case focused and business-case focused, and “At the same time we assess and try out technology. It is perfectly suited for 5G and we already engage with some customers on it.”

Hyperscaling

Orange Business Services serves its customers through partnerships with the hyperscalers – AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud – as well as its own cloud. Ensarguet explains, “Regarding operations, the services we manage for customers are moving more and more into this space. The [cloud] hybridisation of companies is a greater reality week by week and the concept of hybrid is highly evolving.

“In the past, it was about having private data in-house and a computing giant for the public cloud, but today, because the IP security and detection have made incredible progress, we observe that public cloud solutions are more and more valid offerings.”

He continues, “In this hybrid complex ecosystem we are clearly convinced that there are three key pillars needed to be successful: first, the network; the second one is about the user management; and the third is about security, authorisation and control access. Once you have those three key components set at the company level, basically you’re able to implement infrastructure in different ecosystems and to manage the service appropriately with technology or technology partners.

"We have more and more customers who want managed services across several solutions, from on-prem to multiple public clouds at the same time.”

Ensarguet has seen big changes in the last couple of years, noting, “Two years ago the topic of cloud native wasn’t as mature as it is today, and that goes for the edge and AI as well.

"The speed at which the technology is evolving amazes me. It’s why my team and I spend so much time being highly connected with the open-source ecosystem. It’s because today, in most technological areas we are covering or are interested in, no one will take the risk to drive the standard alone due to the pace of the market.”

Ensarguet acknowledges that one of the most difficult parts of this constant vigilance is choosing which technologies should be key to Orange Business Services, adding, “Once we have some conviction that a technical topic should be a strong differentiator for the company, we define a process whereby we tell the story, explain the impact of opportunities to our fellow executives and what we think will happen.”

This includes the likely impact on existing skill sets and how Orange is organised. He also says management is very receptive and attentive to ideas.

He continues, “This is how we engage in what we call the tech transformation programme, which serves as a drive belt between our leaders in the lighthouse and the operational teams in the trenches – bridging the gap between strategy and operations. The purpose of the tech programme is to incubate new topics that are transformational for our business and will impact our day-to-day activities.

"We set up a process and governance where we explore three parts – the business, the technology and the transformation, including the women and the men behind the transformation with whom we need to engage.”

The long-term goal

So what is Ensarguet’s long-term vision for Orange Business Services and the wider telecoms industry? He says, “For the B2B part of the telco, the foundational components we need are almost here – the automation piece, the cloud-native piece and AI of course.

"We also already have a lot of open source – that common cornerstone – that we use on an everyday basis to set solutions for our customers.”

He says the Pikeo project, announced at the end of June, demonstrates Orange’s goals and thinking regarding the evolution of infrastructure. Orange describes it as Europe’s first 5G stand alone (SA), fully end-to-end cloud network, which will act as a blueprint, relying on zero-touch network operations.

Ensarguet explains, “It is really exciting. It’s a fully automated, CNF-based telco infrastructure. It’s a [proof of concept] for the future of telco. For me today, the cost of scaling, speed, the ability to change, or to adapt, the reduced latency close to the customer – all these are drivers for cloud-native implementation with highly automated design and software-based infrastructure.”

He concludes, “A lot of people inside the cloud technology and cloud-native technology spend loads of time and energy on removing the virtualisation part to be able to do direct deployment on bare metal… and we all know that the telco industry requires very fast and high-power computing solutions.

"We have some options to deploy and do implementation directly onto the hardware, and I think that’s a game changer and in particular for the telco industry.”