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Riverbed plots to take the network from IT blocker to IT enabler

The move towards automation and next-gen networking will help the network deliver more value to the enterprise than ever before, argues Riverbed’s new CEO, Paul Mountford

Automating the network will help transform it from a roadblock to enterprise digitisation to a means to support and measure its success, helping enterprises achieve their IT goals. So says Riverbed’s new CEO, Paul Mountford, who, after stepping up to the role in April 2018, is embarking on a mission to do exactly that.

After 16 years at Cisco and a couple of years in the world of startups, Mountford joined Riverbed in August 2014 as chief sales officer, and was named CEO earlier this year following the retirement of firebrand company founder Jerry Kennelly.

“The thing that fascinated me about Riverbed at the time was they’d pretty much grown massively on the back of one product, but they had these great assets they’d also bought that they hadn’t really made much of,” he says.

Mountford was offered his first role at Riverbed on the basis that it was likely to go private within a few months – it did – and that would give him an opportunity to help retool the company to take advantage of the fast-changing world of networks.

As analysts noted at the time, Riverbed had largely become synonymous with wide area network (WAN) optimisation, arguably to the detriment of its ability to execute in other areas, something Mountford does not dispute.

“The principal contributor to the company has always been WAN optimisation, but since I’ve been here, we’ve grown the other sides of the business, and now it’s a lot less of a contributor than it was,” he says. “It was 90% of the company’s business, but now digital experience management is what’s growing the fastest.”

So what exactly is digital experience? It certainly feels like one of those ill-defined concept buzzwords beloved of marketers who are not entirely sure what they are marketing.

But according to Mountford, Riverbed’s network performance heritage leaves it in a good position to capitalise on it.

“To be honest with you, it’s what we’ve been doing for years,” he says. “Everything we do is around network performance, or around the performance of applications on the network, I should say.

“Everything we do is around network performance, or around the performance of applications on the network”

Paul Mountford, Riverbed

“Our experience and knowledge is in applications with the network being the delivery point, and so we think we have a good basis for the company, given all the assets we have, to really be able to drive that.”

Today, says Mountford, initial conversations with customers always involve asking how far they have got with digitisation, and how they are managing and measuring the process. Most of the time people know this is an important aspect of their digital transformation, but can’t really answer the question.

“There’s a huge gap around being able to measure the digital experience they’re going through,” he says. “If you went to the board and said ‘hey, I want to spend all this money but I can’t measure it, but is it OK if I do it?’, you’d be thrown out of the window, right? It’s a crazy concept, and yet it happens in IT transitions.

“Now we’re not saying we can provide all the digital elements – that’s what everybody else does. The issue is, how do you measure it?

“Anybody with a smart tool can measure application performance on the code of their newly delivered applications, but if they can’t see how it performs over the network, all they’re doing is showing a thing in a silo that they’ve measured.”

Read more about network automation

What Mountford hopes to achieve is a solution that will do exactly that, but, perhaps more importantly, will do it by first measuring the human impact, that is to say how the frontline application experience is perceived by end-users, whether they are employees or customers on fixed or wireless connections.

The theory goes that any problems that crop up can then be isolated relative to where in the IT stack they occur – at the application, network or server level, and once that information is available to the CIO, says Mountford, IT teams can start to solve problems much more quickly, without arguments between the network team and the DevOps team, for example.

That is why it is now becoming so important to break Riverbed’s various business units out of their silos to interlock around joint opportunities.

“For example, a customer today that wants to buy our Wi-Fi solution, if they attach Aternity [Riverbed’s recently acquired desktop monitoring suite] to that, we can show end-user experience at the endpoint,” says Mountford. “That’s already showing itself to be a hot opportunity and we’ve got a number of customers who have bought it.”

Mountford has already begun to recruit more data scientists to start work on crunching the vast amount of network and user data that will be required to make the project a sellable reality. There is a particular focus on building indices for specific enterprise verticals – the idea being that customers can compare their own digital experience and performance with those of their peers.

From concept to product

The next phase will be tying the digital experience measurement play to next-generation networking to provide an orchestration capability that can, in some (or all) cases, automate the infrastructure to respond to the problem that exists.

Large enterprise customers have been historically slow to move to next-generation networking and many are still at the pilot and proof-of-concept stage. Mountford’s strategy hinges on the idea that once they do get there, clearly they will want more than just WAN optimisation in software form.

Obviously, he says, the supplier can do WAN optimisation as an element of a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) deployment just fine, but by knitting together everything else it is doing, he hopes the overall offering will become much more compelling.

“We’ve got a very simple central orchestration capability,” he says. “People can design a global network in a day and optimise branches in seconds.

“We think we have a leading play there with our visibility technology on top of that. The combination of those two things makes it extremely powerful, and if you can also do edge computing, the whole thing comes together.”

Mountford believes that, if done properly, this will do much to change how networking is perceived and valued in enterprise IT departments.

Removing the roadblock

Happily for Riverbed, although experience management and measurement are largely untapped markets, they seem to have a tendency to emerge as one of the most important goals for enterprise digitisation.

It flows from that that the effectiveness of management and measurement tools largely depends on the availability and suitability of the enterprise network.

“The thing that stops most people deploying is the pace at which the network can be deployed,” says Mountford. “They’ve got everything ready, but they can’t move ahead because it’s going to take three months to design the network, and then they’ve got to roll that out first.

“Infrastructure tends to be the thing that slows IT projects down – which is where next-generation networks come in.”

Read more on Software-defined networking (SDN)

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