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Speeding along the information superhighway

In a thousand years, we’ll likely look back on the period between 1985 and 2015 as one of the most dramatic technological shifts in human history.

From mainframe computers to PCs, telephones to smartphones, encyclopedias to the Internet, the world has changed in a big way, and right in the middle of that change has been Ian Hamilton (BSc’87).

Hamilton is now the chief technology officer and one of the founders of Signiant, a Massachusetts-based leading developer of file transfer software, but 30 years ago he was a Dal undergrad. What set him apart from most of his peers, however, was his growing interest in local area networks and this new thing called “the Internet.”

“There were these new Macintosh computers in the computer lab and they were all connected with a wire called AppleTalk, and I really wanted to know how they worked,” he remembers over the phone from his office in Ottawa. “So that was it, that was what started it for me.”

That interest launched Hamilton into a career at the forefront of the digital revolution. After writing an honours thesis on networking and graduating with a math degree, his first job was building an internal network to connect Bell-Northern Research (BNR) employees to each other and the Internet, one of the earliest companies to have such access.

From there he founded ISOTRO Network Management with two co-workers from BNR and went on to senior management positions at Bay Networks and Nortel. During this period he worked on numerous technical firsts including new ways to manage and dynamically configure hosts and routers on the Internet. Now commonplace, things like firewalls didn’t even exist then. “We built our own inside BNR to protect the internal network from the outside Internet,” he says. “Security is a big issue now but that concept of needing separation between your private network and the Internet wasn’t front and center back then.”

Next was Signiant, a company that spun out of Nortel in 2000. Since then, it has led the development of software for moving large data sets over networks securely and quickly for many of the media and entertainment industry’s largest companies, including Apple, NBC, Disney and ESPN. Signiant’s work has been so innovative that it won a 2014 Emmy Award for Technology and Engineering, handed out by none other than Alex Trebek.

As for Signiant’s next innovations and the evolution of internetworking, the future is in the cloud, says Hamilton. “The big change in the media industry is cloud-based systems, so our focus has gone from licensed software our customers lay on their networks to software infrastructure that’s run on cloud infrastructure that we operate.”

And as for his future? “There will be another company that I’ll help start.” He’s staying tight-lipped on any details, but based on his track record, it’s likely it—and he—will be at the vanguard of the next phase of the information age.