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From Little Acorns Do Great Oaks Grow: dns

As a Professor I am privileged to work with some amazing people and companies. I love seeing an SME winning business over companies which are much larger. For the large company it is just another contract, for a small business it is the great opportunity they have always dreamed off, or the contract that will keep the bank off their back. I have thus watched companies like Vacta grow from challenging roots on the back of real innovation and with the guts to take on large companies. Vacta have since merged with ECS, and the company has never looked back, and we have continued to provide them with amazing graduates.

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So this image pop-up on my LinkedIn message box today and lots of great memories flashed by. dns were a company who grew from their expertise from around identity and authentication.

They won business against companies that were 100s of times larger than them, because they were true experts in their area. This was before other companies jumped on the cybersecurity bandwagon. For dns they knew there was a growing business in solving identity solutions.

dns grew fast on the back of successful work, and was eventually taken over by SecureWorks, who were then taken over by Dell. I am proud to have observed the company grow, and we benefited greatly from the growth of the company and from their expertise … Don Smith, Richard Lewis, Stuart Fraser, Graeme Cox, and many others.

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They had a strange name and also had one of the strangest logos ever, but where a fantastic company, who led the way for many others. For nearly a decade, we’ve worked with (Dell) SecureWorks in Edinburgh, and we’ve seen them grow and evolve.

I used to love visiting their offices as it was on Princess Street — yes you read that right — and each time they would add more people, with many coming from our courses. As many were our graduates, I was always greeted with a “Hi, Bill”. It was a company that felt like a family:

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With people like Don Smith, who is one of the most knowledgeable people I have ever met, the Edinburgh setup was always going thrive and even found itself a new base in one of the nicest areas of Edinburgh:

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and the great thing about the company, is that they have struck to their drive to be experts in Cybersecurity:

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I remember Don Smith telling me that he had met with his new sales manager, and how the sales manager had pitched PKI (Public Key Infrastructure) as a core area of development, and that Don then spent the next hour or so telling him how bad PKI was. Classic!

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A key part of their early grow was inspired by Graeme Cox (left image). I was lucky enough to meet him at our Merchiston Campus, and he drew out their solution for the Glow project in Scotland. This produced a common identity login infrastructure for all the schools in Scotland, and was truly innovative for its time. This type of approach is common now, but not then.

Graeme knew the problem, and produced the solution. While the Glow network was meant to share content across schools, it failed in almost every respect, apart from its amazing dns-designed identity and authentication infrastructure. If the contract had been given to a large company, they would have done the same old things and probably failed to actually deliver much, but dns got it, and produced something that was unmatched at the time. This work became the foundation of their whole business. But people like Graham shared his knowledge, while too many others try to protect it.

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Don Smith (left) is now a Technology Director at SecureWorks (and at his happiest when probing bits and bytes), Richard Lewis helped us within our spin-outs (including the mighty Symphonic), and Stuart Fraser is leading on building blockchain based solutions for information sharing (Wallet.Services). The legacy of the company lives on, and continues to feed the local economy (and its place on an international stage). For me Edinburgh has provided me with everything I could ever ask for from a city, and I feel comforted that those who guided dns are still around to help support innovation.

Never have I seen such spirit from a company as it has evolved, and how it has matched its services to the market, but still stay dedicated to its core beliefs. A good part of this is due to the drive of one person — Don Smith, who has been there from the start and who has had as much drive and passion for his business than he had when he first started out. Like it or not, it’s people and not processes that often make the difference. The development of dns into SecureWorks has been a perfect example of how a company can grow within its existing base, but still keep driving forward.

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Conclusions

For me, people make security work, and not companies.

Cybersecurity is in the heads of those involved in the industry, and a few great individuals can do more than those that are thousands strong and have endless budgets.

I tip my hat to those with vision and who build a better future. dns showed me that people with amazing technical knowledge could actually create an amazing business. The more they learnt, the better they became. Smart people, collaboration and knowledge exchange are thus the keys to success in this modern economy.

The legacy of dns is here with lots of great jobs, successful spin-out companies, economic development, and so much more. Companies are attracted to Edinburgh because of the legacy left by dns, as it is a great place to attract and keep graduates. If we thus don’t provide an environment for graduates to live and work, our economies will fail to match the future. dns showed that to be based at the centre of a city, is the best place in the world to be, and that Edinburgh is one of the greatest cities in the world to build a tech company.

Personally, if I were the Lord Provost of Edinburgh, I’d award people like Don Smith the freedom of the city, as he helped create a booming industry for the city, and has helped bring great jobs to the city.

Please go help an SME to become a mighty oak.

Written by

Professor of Cryptography. Serial innovator. Believer in fairness, justice & freedom. EU Citizen. Auld Reekie native. Old World Breaker. New World Creator.

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