South Wales: Cyber Security in the Once Ignored Valleys

Can the South Wales valleys become a hub for cyber security?

Grim, persistent rain clouded the windscreen as the car trundled along the scarred, deserted road between Llanwrda and Lampeter. It was the late 90s, my friend’s mum was driving, when suddenly out of the blustering mizzle we spotted a couple of hitchhikers. As the car ground to a stop, two dejected individuals clambered hastily into the vehicle. 

“Where have you come from?” we asked, surprised to see anyone on this isolated road in rural Ceredigion. “Rhymney,” said the spokesperson sadly, his shoulders slumped in dejection. “And what are you doing here?” we continued, still somewhat baffled. The body language dropped a notch further: “Fancied a change…” he said, “bored of the valleys.”  

Not so long ago the Welsh valleys, stretching above the Bristol Channel, fanning out towards the Brecon Beacons in the north, and circling the southern coastline, were still a fairly forgotten area. Like a lot of the UK, the evidence of the long-gone industrial age was everywhere, and economic disadvantage stood in its wake. Now, in recent years, the surprising face of cyber security expertise might have arrived to fill the gap.  

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“Only a handful [of universities] do forensics for real,” says Professor Andrew Blyth, Director of the cutting edge Information Security Group at the University of South Wales (formerly Glamorgan). “Here we live it and breath it.”

This all might sound like an empty pitch to the uninitiated, but Professor Blyth is an extremely passionate and talented gentleman, who is deeply excited about his subject. As he shows us round the new, not yet complete, forensics labs he is positively bubbling over with enthusiasm.

“We do work for the police all the time,” he explains. “We were the first people to do forensics on the iPhone and the Xbox. [And] when we wrote the forensics degree… it was effectively written by industry.”

This is a press trip to showcase everything that South Wales has to offer in the cyber security arena. South Wales University is excellent, the government is investing heavily and now big multinational companies are really starting to arrive. This in turn, is having an impact on the extensive local SME community.

As Neil Sandford, Business Development Manager of the ICT sector for the Welsh government explains, this has really only been taking place over the last two to three years. Yet the evidence is everywhere and the government's Technology Strategy Board is highlighting Cardiff and Newport as part of the Severn Valley Cyber Launchpad, an initiative aimed at encouraging startups.

There are a lot of SMEs in Wales says Rhobert Lewis, Dean of the faculty at South Wales University, and “some of them hard to reach”. The idea of all these various programmes is to alter that.

In fact, the Centre of Excellence in Mobile Applications and Services’ (CEMAS) brand new laboratory fills the whole basement wing of one university block and is pretty impressive. It includes a forensic lab, a computer forensics lab – which boasts optical microscopes for examining the future of data recovery - and even a rack of servers which Blyth almost skips round: “this is my playground!”

Most critically though, through serious specialism and some hard-won industry links, this department is able to do work which is simply not being covered elsewhere. This provides real-life job opportunities for students, and not surprisingly means the course is gradually expanding year-on-year.

This example offered by the university is precisely the promise which South Wales itself wants to offer the world and what the government is working to make happen. And things are looking very promising indeed. On 22nd October, Alert Logic, a security analysis company based in Houston, Texas, opened its European headquarters in Cardiff. The choice was between there and Slovenia.

The office resembles a typically funky-tech affair complete with fake grass chairs, fun-looking break out rooms and a wooden sign pointing (the wrong way) to the Welsh valleys. Yet beyond all this vogue, South Wales was selected due to its competitive price, good transport links, proximity to London and above all, the availability of excellent technology skills.

“We’ve done a lot of hiring over the last few years,” explains Marty McGuffin, Senior Vice President of Operations at Alert Logic, and there are some “really talented people here.”

This new employment trend is in evidence across the board. A mere few days before Alert Logic’s Cardiff launch, Canadian firm, CGI UK, announced that it would be expanding its Bridgend base after receiving a £3.2 million Welsh government grant to support 620 IT jobs.

In September, General Dynamics, which has its big facility located between Newport and Merthyr Tydfil, was awarded £3.5 million by the Ministry of Defence to deliver newly upgraded digitally enabled tanks (SCOUT SVs) to the British Army. These will be rolled out between 2017 and 2024 and are being tested at the Welsh base.

Prime Minister, David Cameron, said in a statement: “These new vehicles are testament to the world class engineering skills in South Wales and across the UK.”

Interestingly, the outfit, which is ranged across several great sprawling shed-like buildings, includes the EDGE innovation unit, created to develop local SME talent. This opened five years ago, has seen 250 companies go through the system and “several [have] made their way to market,” Ian Menzies, Senior Capability Director at General Dynamics tells us. This has included Itsus Consulting, a small cyber security company started by an ex-Airbus employee.

Now, speeding back to Cardiff through the rolling Welsh hills, it is clear that this area has a lot of potential. The government is putting its money where its mouth is and the University of South Wales alone is running a wide range of practical schemes to help real people get involved.

Network 75 for example, offers the chance for undergraduate students to spend three days a week employed with a company over a five year period. It costs the host £7,000 a year and in the theory at least, these companies should get highly trained individuals at the end of it all. “The issue,” explains the Dean, Rhobert Lewis, “is getting companies to see the vision.”

Getting other people to see beyond specific hurdles has, and always will be, a problem. Yet this highly strategic, specialised approach to tech – with a focus on cyber security, underpinned by an outstanding university – does look to be an extremely sound tactic for regeneration in South Wales. It will be fascinating to see how this pans out over the next few years and whether this renaissance in the valleys will stretch even deeper into Wales… to help all those really isolated, neglected parts of rural Carmarthenshire and Ceredigion. 


Kathryn Cave is Editor at IDG Connect