Canadian Information Processing Society (CIPS)



Ian Hamilton, CTO Signiant, Emmy Award Winning International Top-Ranking Serial Entrepreneur for Technical Innovation

This week, Stephen Ibaraki has an exclusive interview with Ian Hamilton.

Ian HamiltonIan Hamilton ( has been an innovator and entrepreneur in Internetworking infrastructure and applications for more than 25 years. As a founding member of Signiant, he led the development of innovative software solutions to address the challenges of fast, secure content distribution over the public Internet and private intranets for many of the media and entertainment industry's largest companies. In 2015 Signiant was awarded a technology and engineering Emmy by the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences (NATAS) for pioneering work on "Secure Accelerated File Transfer over IP Networks Including the Internet."

Prior to Signiant, Ian was Chairman and Vice President of Product Development at ISOTRO Network Management. He was responsible for launching ISOTRO's software business unit and created the NetID product suite that led to the company's successful acquisition by Bay Networks. Ian held senior management positions at Bay Networks and subsequently Nortel Networks, from which Signiant emerged. Previously Ian was a Member of Scientific Staff at Bell Northern Research, performing applied research and development in the areas of Internetworking and security.

Ian is a well-respected subject matter expert who has been published in industry journals and spoken at industry events around the globe including most recently: Storage Visions 2015, on transporting big data; NAB 2014, on managing content in the cloud; SMPTE 2014, on moving media to the cloud; DG Digital Entertainment World 2014, on security and protection strategies for media; MESA Content Protection Summit in 2014 and 2013, on cloud security and emerging vulnerabilities; SMPTE National Convention 2013, Framework for Interoperable Media Services (FIMS); and Broadcast Asia 2012, on moving global content exchange to the cloud.

The latest blog on the interview can be found in the IT Manager's Blog where you can provide your comments in an interactive dialogue.


Q: Ian, your outstanding contributions in technical innovation and executive leadership have significant global impact. Thank you for sharing your considerable expertise, deep accumulated insights, and wisdom with our audience.

A:  "Thanks for having me."

Q: Ian, can you profile your education and research background from Dalhousie University to Bell Northern Research where you worked on internet protocols and security? How is your work still impacting today?

A:  "As you mentioned, I graduated from Dalhousie University with a degree in Computer Science. I've always been interested in networking and technologies that connect systems and people. Even going back to my thesis the topic was networking related (Performance and Efficiency Comparison of LAN Media Access Control Protocols Utilizing Mathematical Models and Simulation). Out of university I was recruited by Bell Northern Research (BNR) and moved to Ottawa, where I have lived for the past 28 years. At BNR I was doing work with Internet Protocol networks, primarily in the areas of routing and security. This was at a time when most people at our parent company Nortel believed that X.25 was the future of data transfer. Working at BNR was a great experience through which I developed a detailed understanding of internetworking technology and security mechanisms that are still applicable to what we're doing over 25 years later."

Q: You have a very successful career as a serial entrepreneur. Can you discuss your technical innovations and journey with each of your start-ups, including your founding of Signiant with three pivots?

A:  "I'll have to look up the definition of serial entrepreneur, but Signiant is only my second startup, so I might be one startup short of serial entrepreneur.

Regardless, after Nortel I was fortunate to build a company with two of the smartest people I've ever worked with (Rod Anderson and Tony Farrow). ISOTRO was started as a consulting company that helped organizations deploy and manage Internet Protocol networks. We recognized there wasn't a lot of leverage in the consulting business model, but that we could use the cash flow from the consulting business to bootstrap a software business. I saw an unaddressed opportunity for software that managed addressing and naming on IP networks and started our software business and created our NetID product. NetID included policy based management capabilities along with Domain Name Service (DNS) and Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) servers. We eventually transitioned ISOTRO to a completely product focused company and were acquired by Bay Networks in the late 90s. Bay Networks was of course acquired by Nortel, so I found myself full circle back at the company I started out with.

A good friend of mine from my early days at BNR (Robert Browne) was working to spin a company out of Nortel based on technology that had been developed for managed file transfer in support of distributed software development. We created a business plan for operating a managed file transfer service over the public Internet, started the company with seed VC financing in September 2000, and Signiant was born. Unfortunately our Software as a Service (SaaS) business model was a decade ahead of its time and 2000 wasn't a great year for startups, so due to limited capital, we began working with Storage OEMs bringing products to market based on our core technology. We signed OEM deals with EMC, Adaptec (now Overland) and Pillar Data Systems (a Larry Ellison funded storage startup).

We used the cash from these OEM deals to fund product development and direct go to market activities and in 2005 started working with NBC Universal and Disney on moving file-based Media. Our initial focus was on managing data movement, but through this work we recognized a big opportunity for improving the performance of Internet protocols like the File Transfer Protocol (FTP) and the Transmission Control Protocol (TCP). This work fit squarely in the wheelhouse of our engineering team given their Internet Protocol background and we created the Signiant Acceleration Protocol, which replaced the Flow Control, Congestion Control and Reliability mechanisms of TCP and eliminated a lot of the overhead of FTP when dealing with large numbers of small files. With our central management and acceleration capabilities, we quickly became the de-facto standard for large media enterprises, but our products weren't ideal for efficiently addressing the Small and Medium Business (SMB) Market. This ultimately led to the creation of Media Shuttle SaaS product.

We recognized that to address a broader market we needed products that were super simple to deploy and use and saw companies like Dropbox and WeTransfer starting to enter the periphery of the media file transfer market. These products weren't fit for purpose for professional media because they didn't handle large files or offer appropriate security, but the user experience with these products was great. We created our Media Shuttle product with its patented hybrid SaaS architecture, to simplify deployment and provide ease of use for professional media transfer on par with consumer file transfer services. We've seen tremendous global uptake of this product for person-to-person file transfer across both the SMB and Enterprise Markets.

In this process we also developed our "Direct to Cloud Object Storage" transfer technology, including our patented transfer server load-balancing and scaling mechanism. Our Flight product allows customers to accelerate uploads to and download from cloud object storage through a payload based subscription offering. There is no software for them to manage and we currently support both AWS S3 and Microsoft Azure cloud storage with one subscription and we'll be introducing Google Cloud Storage shortly."

Q: You received an Emmy Award for Technology and Engineering at the international CES for your software inventions. Who was there, what was the whole Emmy experience?

A:  "The Emmy experience was incredible. It was a huge honor to accept the award on behalf of Signiant and to be recognized for the technology we developed and the impact it has had on television. Alex Trebek hosted and Kazuo Hirai (President and CEO of Sony) received a lifetime achievement award. Many of our customers and partners attended, and it was a great to have the opportunity to thank our customers for their support and use of our products, because they make what we do matter."

Q: Can you talk more about your pioneering work with secure accelerated file movement over IP including internet where you can move huge files 200 times faster than FTP? How does the technology work?

A:  "I touched on this earlier, but the transmission control protocol (TCP) is a key part of the Internet Protocol (IP) stack that makes transmission of a stream of data over the Internet reliable. The challenge is that TCP is challenged when used on high bandwidth wide area networks and doesn't perform to the potential of the network. Content Distribution Networks address this problem in part by caching content closer to the user (network distance wise), but this only works when identical content is being delivered to every user. When the content is unique and traveling point-to-point over the Internet, a different approach is required and this is where Signiant comes in. We replace the TCP and FTP protocols, and in particular the flow control, congestion control and reliability mechanisms of TCP with new mechanisms that work better over high bandwidth high latency networks.

I can't give away too many details because they're trade secrets, but by using more measured parameters than TCP and some history we can better isolate sources of packet loss and react more effectively making better use of the available bandwidth while still playing nicely with other traffic on the network. Playing nicely with other traffic on the network is key. It's easy to go fast by just blasting the network using an unsophisticated fixed rate transmission mechanism, but this has a disastrous effect on other traffic on the network."

Q: You are in many parts of the world. What are the pros and cons of each region including Asia?

A:  "Our business has traditionally been strongest in Europe and North America, but our SaaS products are further enabling global expansion. The low touch model for both deployment and use allows our SaaS products to be deployed and used in areas like Asia, Latin America, and even Africa. There's a lot of potential in these emerging markets, and we're looking forward to continued strong growth by leveraging our SaaS products."

Q: As an expert in cloud, please provide your top 5 predictions for the next five years.

A:  "Well, the three most important things in real estate are location, location and location, so I'm going to say my top five cloud predictions are adoption, adoption, adoption, adoption and adoption. I think the benefits of cloud realized from simplification and economies of scale are really creating waves in the core IT community - not just with early adopters. The growth in attendance of shows like Amazon re:Invent is truly astounding. As people become more educated on how to address performance, reliability and security concerns associated with multi-tenant environments, we'll see an even more dramatic acceleration in the pace of movement to cloud. Within 10 years, private datacenters will only be used by the people that are still running COBOL."

Q: You are an authority in media, please provide your top 5 predictions.

A:  "It's my belief that no one ever gets past their top three priorities, so I'm going to cheat on this question and only give three (that could be pulled apart into five). First, the quest for a higher quality viewing experience will continue to drive file sizes and bandwidth requirements. Although static resolution is the focus of many TV set manufacturers - UHD and 4K are easy to market - I think factors like wider colour gamut, higher dynamic range and higher frame rates are equally important. Second, Internet-based over the top streaming will continue to challenge broadcast television and put pressure on traditional advertising-based business models. Consumer preference for paying for content versus watching commercials along with highly fragmented audiences will lead to much more focused targeting and intelligent embedded delivery of advertising. The main challenge left for over the top delivery is live events, so I think we'll continue to see great progress made on that front. Third, and this combines cloud and media, I think that ubiquitous internet connectivity will squeeze the market for purchasing and downloading media and media will increasingly be consumed through subscription-based online services."

Q: With your background in internet and security, what are your top 5 predictions?

A:  "Five predictions again. First, Edge bandwidth will continue to increase and core Internet and peering bandwidth won't keep pace. This will place challenges on point-to-point Internet-based applications that companies like Signiant will continue to address. Second, the edge of the Internet will increasingly be dominated by wireless. I can't remember the last time I've plugged my laptop, tablet or phone into anything other than a power supply. Third, people will become increasingly aware of security vulnerabilities in wireless technology and other existing solutions, and hopefully the industry will take action to address these issues. Fourth, information security will continue to evolve as an agile practice that reacts and adapts at the same pace as cyber criminals. Fifth, and this is really cloud, but in the simplest sense cloud is just a metaphor for the Internet. Smaller Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) providers will really struggle as the IaaS titans continue to benefit from simplification driven by standardization of interfaces, economies of scale and operational maturity."

Q: How can executives act on your predictions?

A:  "The era of huge capital purchases of hardware and software is coming to an end. Executives need to be on top of the benefits of IaaS, PaaS and SaaS and understand what portions of their business make sense to move first. The transition to cloud is inevitable and it's going to be swift and conclusive."

Q: As a successful senior technology executive, what are your best leadership lessons that can be used by executives?

A:  "One of the biggest lessons I've learned over the past 10 years comes from Signiant's transition to agile software development, and that is that it's not all about the technology. Although the benefits of technology in our daily lives are undeniable, technology can sometimes get in the way of meaningful communication. Small empowered collocated teams taking advantage of continuous communication and continuous improvement can accomplish amazing things. Principles like breaking large goals into smaller activities that can be completed in their entirety in short sprints (minimizing work in progress), and continuously looking at what's working and what's not (so that when you fail, you fail quickly and adapt), are broadly applicable to business. I'd encourage executives at all levels, whether you're in the software or the suitcase business, to look at agile software development principles and how they might be applied in their business."

Q: Do you feel computing should be a recognized profession on par with accounting, medicine and law with demonstrated professional development, adherence to a code of ethics, personal responsibility, public accountability, quality assurance and recognized credentials? [See and the Global Industry Council,]

A:  "This is a tough question, especially because it includes a reference to lawyers. I will set aside the broader IT industry for a moment and focus on the software industry, and hopefully I won't offend any lawyers. I see lawyers as a community of individuals making things so complex and obtuse that only lawyers can understand them, whereas software professionals try to harness complex technology to produce something so simple that anyone can understand it. I also like to think that there is as much art as there is science in creating an elegant - beautiful through its simplicity - software solution to a complex problem, but at the same time I believe that the core duty of a software developer is to behave as a professional."

Q: From your extensive speaking, travels, and work, please share up to three stories (amusing, surprising, unexpected, amazing).

A:  "I've become increasingly fascinated by behavioral science as I grow older. Understanding why people behave the way they do and in particular how this can lead to paradoxical outcomes fascinate me both from the perspective of understanding myself and understanding others.

Information security is very interesting from a human behavior point of view. A friend who works for a utility company once told me "no one thinks about electricity until it isn't there," and I think the same is true for security. People almost instinctively work around mechanisms put in place to protect them whenever these mechanisms present any impediment to their ability to get things done, until something goes wrong. There is a secure design principle known as "psychological acceptability", which at its most basic level states that a system needs to be easy to use in a secure state as it is in an insecure state, because of this exact behavioral phenomenon.

I've witnessed numerous ethical hacking demos where people's behavior immediately changes based on the demo, whether it's a phishing attack used to take over a computer's camera or a demonstration of what can be learned by passively listening to information broadcast by WiFi devices. People's behavior changes in the short term and then they lose focus and go back to their old habits. One of the funniest bumper stickers I've seen said "My other computer is your computer," and this is ultimately the sort of problem that this behavior results in. I think it behooves each and every technology professional to think about how they can make information security better and easier for the average person, especially in the context of ubiquitous Internet connectivity.

As a result of my travel I routinely find myself in locations with many casinos and observing the behavior of gamblers is something I've come to enjoy. I myself have become an avid Blackjack player and enjoy reading books by Arnold Snyder, Stanford Wong and others. I don't expect to win in the long term, but I love playing and observing other people's behavior while playing. When you play perfectly, Blackjack is the closest you can get to even odds playing against a casino. Odds aside, this is where another one of my favorite phrases applies: "I'd rather be lucky than smart". I've seen people win big by doing totally the wrong thing (based on odds) at the right time. I once convinced a group of Norwegian colleagues (who thought gambling was idiotic), to play Blackjack with me. Half the group doubled their initial buy in and half of them lost it. When I asked them how they enjoyed playing, not surprisingly, the half that won loved it and the half that lost still thought it was idiotic.

Geographic behavioral differences are also fascinating. Singapore is an amazing city that is more similar to many western cities than Asian cities in a lot of respects, but there are some very stark differences especially when it comes to their view on crime and punishment. I went for dinner at a collegue's home in Singapore once and when I left his condominium later that evening there was a sea of police and crime tape outside the building. My immediate assumption was that there was some sort of violent crime, but I later learned that a bicycle had gone missing."

Q: You choose the topic area. What do you see as the three top challenges facing us today and how do you propose they be solved?

A:  "I'll go back to information security. I think the top three challenges are education, simplicity and policing. On the topic of education, I'm actually talking about education of software professionals and not end users. Every software professional needs to be familiar with secure design principles and specific security concerns related to their area of focus (e.g. OWASP for web application developers). This is part of what I meant by "behaving as a professional" earlier in our discussion. This is the primary way we can get simpler more secure solutions in the hands of users. Although progress is being made with policing cyber criminals, the global reach of the Internet definitely presents a challenge. There are lots of places for criminals to hide and execute their guerrilla tactics from. However, as long as the majority of resources rest with law abiding people, rather than the cyber criminals, I'm confident we'll continue to make progress on this front."

Q: If you were conducting this interview, what 3 questions would you ask, and then what would be your answers?

A:  "I like that we're focused on the number three now. Sticking with the more philosophical theme of the last few questions, how about:
  1. What's the most important lesson you've learned in your career?
  2. What's the most important lesson you've learned at Signiant?
  3. What's the most important lesson you've learned in the last year?
With regards to lessons in my career, great technology is important, but never overlook the value of an efficient way to acquire customers and get your product in the hands of people that benefit from it.

With regards to lessons at Signiant, agile software development is awesome. Technology is powerful, but human interaction is equally powerful. Don't let technology get in the way of communication and collaboration.

With regards to the last Year, adoption of IaaS, PaaS and SaaS has accelerated faster than I ever though possible. IT professionals need to get educated on cloud technologies or be left in the dust."

Q: Ian, with your demanding schedule, we are indeed fortunate to have you come in to do this interview. Thank you for sharing your substantial wisdom with our audience.

A:  "You are very welcome. Thanks for the opportunity."