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How Aruba is tapping opportunities in networking

Aruba is planning to expand its product portfolio, make deeper inroads into datacentres and drive adoption of network as a service, among other efforts to tap opportunities in the networking market

The market for networking infrastructure and software has seen tremendous change in recent years with the convergence of network and security functions, the rise in cloud adoption and growing deployments of 5G networks across the globe.

This has led networking suppliers to broaden their portfolios beyond hardware to software and services offerings, whether it be software-defined wide area networks (SD-WAN) or network as a service (NaaS) that offers a consumption-based model for networking capabilities.

Aruba, which was acquired by Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) in 2015 for $2.7bn, is no exception. Amid the pandemic, HPE acquired SD-WAN technology supplier Silver Peak, with Aruba making a deeper push into datacentre networking, among other areas.

Computer Weekly recently spoke to Phil Mottram, Aruba’s executive vice-president and general manager, and Steve Wood, its vice-president in Asia-Pacific and Japan (APJ), on the company’s overall strategy and growth in the region.

Could you tell us more about Aruba’s overall strategy to address the needs of the networking market?

Mottram: Our strategy is focused on a triangle. At the bottom of the triangle, we have our products and services, and the two sides of the triangle would be NaaS and Aruba Central, our cloud-based AI (artificial intelligence) platform.

Today, we’re famous for the wireless access points that link into switches which we operate in datacentres as well. The glue that brings all of that together is our SD-WAN offering, which came from Silver Peak, and we have other software and security services.

What we’re looking to do is to increase the number of products and services we offer for two reasons. One would obviously be to grow the business by entering new markets, and the other side of it is that we see customers wanting to move away from other suppliers to Aruba. In those instances, they want us to have a broad product portfolio.

And so, we’re making quite a lot of investments in the datacentre space to build additional features and functionality. We kicked those off last year, and you’ll see our portfolio grow in that space.

The other areas that we’re looking at very actively are private 5G and SASE (secure access service edge). There was a lot of interest in private 5G in the past two years as operators started to roll out 5G networks.

On the NaaS side, we did some huge contracts early on, probably two to three years ago, and those have worked out well for us and our customers. But customers have been quite different in their requirements, so we’ve spent more time during the last year or so to productise and standardise our NaaS offerings
Phil Mottram, Aruba

People are now getting their heads around the use cases for private 5G. We have a big retail customer in the US, Home Depot, which is deploying private 5G in warehouses and the exterior of stores because the coverage you get with private 5G is sometimes greater than what you can get with Wi-Fi. We also see private 5G being used to provide connectivity for warehouse robots because the speed at which the robots are moving is too fast for Wi-Fi.

Then there’s SASE as well, which has network and security elements. On the network side, you have SD-WAN and firewalls, and on the security side you have things like ZTNA (zero-trust network access), SWG (secure web gateway) and CASB (cloud access security broker).

With the convergence of networking and security, customer requirements around SD-WAN are no longer driven solely by network teams – they are also being driven by security teams. Today, what we do with SASE is we partner with the security players in the market. That’s the right thing to do because when you dig into the details of what they have, they all seem to be particularly strong in one area, but it’s rare to find any that can cover all areas.

And right now, about 15% of the market, based on what I hear, want to buy an integrated solution, whereas 85% of the market are quite happy to mix and match because there isn’t really one player that can do everything.

On the NaaS side, we did some huge contracts early on, probably two to three years ago, and those have worked out well for us and our customers. But customers have been quite different in their requirements, so we’ve spent more time during the past year or so to productise and standardise our NaaS offerings. And what we’ve been doing recently is launching – through our sales force and channel partners – standardised NaaS offers to get broader adoption in the market.

As for Aruba Central, which is part of the HPE GreenLake family, we are investing substantial amounts of money in the platform to make sure it’s the leading platform in the market. It allows customers to provision and manage network services and it will have more AI capabilities as well. Right now, Aruba Central can identify about 70 different problems that a customer might have in a network and recommend ways to address them.

Could you talk about the synergies with HPE?

Wood: Being part of HPE is a huge benefit to Aruba. The customer base of HPE is very ready to look at networking solutions from Aruba, and our synergies with the business units inside HPE is fantastic. Our customers enjoy the fact that they can get world leading innovative technology from Aruba from a company such as HPE. The solutions that Phil talked about, when combined with compute and storage, makes HPE GreenLake a very powerful solution that has led to new customer acquisitions.

Mottram: With HPE GreenLake, HPE and Aruba customers can log on to the platform and buy, provision and manage any one of the company’s products and services and consume them as a service. Aruba customers will obviously see the network portfolio, but they also see the other offerings from HPE, like storage, compute and AI type solutions. So, what you will see over time are repeat customers on the Aruba Central platform, which is being used by about 130,000 customers to manage over two million connected devices.

How’s Aruba doing in the APJ region?

Wood: I’ve been leading the business across the region for seven years now and it’s quite diverse with different cultures and economies. And throughout the pandemic, we saw the impact on the way business was conducted, particularly for customers whose staff had to work from home. Our networks have helped them to adapt and remain in business.

And what we saw off the back of that is the digital transformation that Aruba can drive to help customers across the region come out with innovative business practices. It was insightful to see the challenges brought about by the pandemic and how customers responded to remain agile and secure with everyone working at home. We’ve really enjoyed that part of the business growth.

Which areas are you seeing the fastest growth in APJ from a product portfolio perspective?

Wood: First of all, each of the economies is recovering at a different pace. Those that were affected most deeply by the pandemic have sort of slingshot back out and have been growing quickly. The area that we’ve seen most adoption has been the connection of remote workers through a SD-WAN type environment, connecting branches together.

We see each customer as a micro branch in their own right, and so, what we’ve been able to provide with our SD-WAN solution is the security, scalability and speed that you would expect for a branch office, along with the managed services around that. Those are the areas that have been fuelling our success in the region.

Has the replacement of MPLS (multiprotocol label switching) lines been a contributing factor to the success you’re seeing with SD-WAN?

Wood: Absolutely. The replacement of MPLS is underway. The software-defined aspects of SD-WAN makes it highly flexible in the orchestration of those types of networks. And because customers want to take out the running cost of the network and don’t want to manage the infrastructure or spend time training themselves on this very fast moving part of the technology world, they are also asking us to manage it as a NaaS.

What are the potential barriers to greater adoption of NaaS? I still hear of people who like to own physical equipment.

Mottram: It varies according to the financial metrics or setup of customers. Some customers find capital expenditure (capex) very easy to obtain, like those in capital intensive industries like oil and gas. For other customers, like those in retail, it’s super difficult to get capex. So those in capital intensive sectors are less interested in NaaS compared to those in retail.

Today, we partner with the likes of Zscaler and Netskope, and what we typically do is to act as an adviser. So, if a customer is interested in certain security capabilities like ZTNA, then we would recommend Silver Peak and a particular security company that’s strong in ZTNA
Phil Mottram, Aruba

The other thing I found interesting about NaaS when it was first floated to me was that I thought customers would be interested in NaaS primarily because of the economics. So, if they can buy something for $100 upfront and they can keep it for 10 years, how much would we charge per year? If the answer was more than $10, they would just buy it upfront.

I thought that would be the main thinking, but when we got it to customers, that was not the driving factor. For the most part, when customers make decisions around NaaS, they were considering things that we’ve dealt with, like the service we provide and what aspects of the network we can manage for them. So, while the commercial aspects are interesting, because obviously every customer wants a good deal, what we find in most conversations is that they’re more interested when they understand what we can do together with their team. That seems to be driving the real conversation and it’s not just about the economics.

Are your conversations around SD-WAN evolving into SASE?

Mottram: A lot of the conversations we have with customers around SD-WAN have some security aspects. SASE is a Gartner specific framework and not all customers are wedded to that. The conversations will also depend on what a customer actually wants.

Today, we partner with the likes of Zscaler and Netskope, and what we typically do is to act as an adviser. So, if a customer is interested in certain security capabilities like ZTNA, then we would recommend Silver Peak and a particular security company that’s strong in ZTNA. We’ve integrated our platform with that of security players to simplify things for customers. That said, we do have customers that keep networking and security separate even as broader convergence is happening.

What are your thoughts around the role of carriers in helping customers along that SASE journey? The thinking is that some customers might just rely on carriers to do the integrations for them especially if they are considering a multivendor SASE offering.

Mottram: I think it’s a good opportunity for carriers. You and Steve talked about MPLS which customers needed because the internet or IP networks weren’t pervasive, and the reliability wasn’t brilliant. Customers needed a platform to link all their offices and that created a great opportunity for carriers to build those MPLS networks.

But today, the investments that people have made in other networks like fibre networks and the internet have created so much network capacity that they don’t necessarily need MPLS anymore.

Off the back of MPLS, most carriers would have been managing the WAN router and moving further inside buildings by providing IP telephony and Wi-Fi. It will be interesting to see what happens with the carriers, and whether they’re able to still hold that position, or whether they will go back to being more of an underlying network provider.

Some carriers are still very interested in having a full portfolio where they do a broad range of management. Other carriers may make more network and infrastructure investments and move away from these auxiliary services. So, the short answer to your question is it’s going to depend on how much opportunity there is for carriers to provide these sorts of services.

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