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Commercial math attracts NBN Co’s attention

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Australian software company Biarri has won a contract to supply software and co-development work to NBN Co, the government-owned company building the country’s National Broadband Network (NBN).

The contract itself was announced in more-or-less boilerplate fashion, but Biarri’s description of itself as a “commercial mathematics” company piqued The Register’s curiosity. We spoke to Biarri’s co-founder and director, Joe Forbes.

He said the basis of Biarri’s work is in “operations research” – the application of maths to business problems to, as Wikipedia puts it, “arrive at optimal or near-optimal solutions to complex decision-making problems”.

Fobes put it more simply: “The applied maths is generally wrapped in lots of IT,” he said – meaning that the solutions most business-people are familiar with are embedded in software products that address single problems.

“Operations research gets used a lot in transport and logistics – scheduling, rostering, routing for trains, aircraft, ports and mining.

“Our aim in Biarri is to try and ‘democratize’ the mathematics – make it easy for the enterprise to use an digest. They don’t understand the underlying mathematics, and it’s hard to get at.”

In a project like the NBN, the famous “traveling salesman” problem (see Wikipedia) provides a good example of how maths can be applied to problem-solving: what’s the most efficient way to connect a given set of points? The problem is described as “NP-hard”, with no ‘generic’ formula that will solve all possible versions of the problem.

“It’s hard to formulate algorithms that solve a ‘general class’ of problem,” Forbes said. “The shortest path problem is one of those examples – we’re trying to provide as close as possible to an optimal solution in a robust way."

Without the background mathematics expertise, Forbes said, the combinatorial explosion can "kill you quickly".

He noted that the basic NBN architecture makes it a little easier to find solutions. “One of the best parts of the architecture is that it’s a ‘low degree’ design,” he said. Wherever possible, each node in the network only has to connect to two other nodes.

However, the NBN also poses an unusual challenge: it’s a brownfields rollout that has to cover a whole nation. Most network design challenges build on previous networks, Forbes explained, which means the network designer usually only has to deal with the most efficient way to connect a given number of new nodes to the system, rather than starting with a completely clean sheet.

“That was the fundamental issue we’ve been asked to solve: given a particular fibre demand and a reference architecture that embodies the design constraints [such as the number of premises served by each access node, the estimatechted trenching cost and so on], what is the most efficient layout?”

This kind of work demands a close relationship between Biarri and its customers, Fobes said, which is why the contract also covers ongoing R&D for its solutions. “We’ll stay close to the domain experts. NBN Co has great people who have spent years around fibre networks; our job is to get the mathematics working.”

NBN Co’s CTO Gary McLaren believes Biarri’s solutions could help “save substantial costs in both design and construction”. The initial purchase contract is worth $A6.5 million. ®

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