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Juniper’s AI-Powered SD-WAN And How It’s ‘Putting Its Money Where Its Mouth Is’ With Mist

Jeff Aaron, VP enterprise marketing for Juniper, talked about why enterprises need AI for troubleshooting complicated networks thanks to the onslaught of new home workers and how competing SD-WAN vendors are ‘cutting and pasting’ in functionality that Juniper already has.

Juniper Networks, a networking giant that has historically counted service providers as its biggest customer segment, has been making an enterprise push over the course of the last year. But then, the COVID-19 pandemic hit, which affected IT spending and changed networking needs dramatically and for the long-term.

Juniper on Thursday released its Q2 2020 financials and while revenue declined 1 percent year-over-year, which the vendor largely attributed to supply restraints related to the COVID-19 pandemic, Juniper‘s software orders grew 7 percent compared to the same quarter last year. The Sunnyvale, Calif.-based firm attributed that growth to a combination of strong security and subscriptions to Mist Systems technology. Juniper acquired Mist Systems in August 2019 and the addition of the startup’s AI technology couldn’t have come at a better time as enterprises grapple with an barrage of home workers and changing campus networking needs, Jeff Aaron, vice president of enterprise marketing for Juniper Networks, told CRN.

Juniper this week also introduced its new WAN Assurance Service and a virtual network assistant (VNA) conversational interface powered by Marvis, Mist‘s VNA technology. The enhancements make up the fourth generation of Juniper’s AI-Driven Enterprise strategy, which revolves around automating and optimizing IT management across wired, wireless and the WAN, and enhancing end user satisfaction. Aaron talked about Juniper’s enterprise push and its latest offerings, Juniper’s approach to SD-WAN compared to the competition, and how the networking giant’s AI strategy will be key in helping enterprises address post-COVID-19 networking challenges.

Here are excerpts from the conversation.

How critical has the Mist acquisition been in helping enterprises adjust to new networking and IT requirements that came about due to COVID-19?  

Last quarter, there was a reorganization at Juniper where we created what we called an AI-Driven Enterprise business unit with marketing, sales, products and engineering, led by Sujai Hajela, who was the CEO of Mist Systems. Under that business unit is now wired and wireless access, and WAN. You can see that the Mist part of the equation has become very core to Juniper's enterprise strategy. Campus, branch, and edge has now moved under the Mist umbrella. Juniper is basically putting its money where its mouth is and aligning all the product portfolios under that team to take that vision forward.

Nothing changes with the partner program. We‘ve been tightly aligning Mist partners with the Juniper partners and making it very easy for both to become partners of each vendor -- it’s basically a click that says; “would you like to add Mist to your portfolio?” The channel program for Mist has grown by a triple-digit percentage since combining the partner programs and we’ve been really excited about that.

Has the COVID-19 pandemic changed Juniper's networking strategy?  

We‘ve been [talking about] our vision since the Mist acquisition last year. We’ve always had planned to go from wireless, to wired, to security, WAN, to data center -- that’s not new. But what is new is that we are seeing new COVID-19-led use cases. One is what we are calling the AI-Driven Enterprise at Home. The ability to say that we have low-cost [access points], for example, that are being announced soon, that can be shipped to your home. We can combine that with a firewall that we’ve offered for a while, and then you’ll get all this management so it’s easier to manage your employees at home.

The other area we‘re seeing a strong uptick in is when people do go back to work, we have specific contact tracing [technology] we are selling and it’s doing really well. We just won a major university on the East coast that spent over $5 million to rip out their existing wireless to get the contact tracing. When people come back on campus, we have proximity tracing. If someone identifies themselves as someone who is COVID-positive or symptomatic, we can use our BLE technology to show everyone they came in contact with without having to use an app -- just based on BLE signals or a BLE badge. We can look on the floorplan to see where they spent their time to see where they should send a cleaning crew -- that’s called journey-mapping. We can also do real-time congestion alerting. If there are too many people in a conference room, we can alert IT and facilities to send someone to do social distancing so you don’t have to hire a boatload of security guards. We’re getting really strong traction because our BLE solution is the only one in the industry that is integrated with our Wi-Fi that doesn’t require battery-powered beacons.

How important is the addition of location services and the contact tracing feature to Juniper's enterprise portfolio?  

Last week, we announced a partnership with ServiceNow. We can detect all the things I mentioned [with contact tracing], and we have an API with ServiceNow where they can flow that information into their system for case management. Once a case is entered, they can pull in all our user data for managers, HR, or facilities staff -- even the employees themselves. That‘s two industry leaders coming together with two different contact tracing solutions based on what customers are asking for, we’ve automated integration.

As much as I hate to say it, despite campus spending being down and showing negative growth, in general, we are seeing strong demand for what we are doing. Mist had double-digit growth last quarter and part of that was due to contact tracing. The whole beauty of location services -- and contact tracing is one of them -- is that it takes an ecosystem. You need mapping software, apps, and a whole bunch of different things. It‘s up to our partners to put those together. From Day One, location services have always been very interesting to partners.

How does Juniper's SD-WAN approach differentiate in the crowded market that is seeing a lot of consolidation? 

SD-WAN is still a very static and reactive model. You have to create a static policy on what you want to do and how applications should react, and to be honest, SD-WAN is not new, but the market is still only one-third penetrated. The reason is that it‘s very complicated to deploy and it’s still very much focused on network and application policies. What we want to deliver is the AI-driven WAN that is true self-diving and adapts in real-time. It’s focused on user experiences. Just because the link is up and passing traffic, doesn’t mean you’re having a good experience. That was always our philosophy in wireless -- Up is not the same as good. We’ve now taken that same philosophy on the wireless and added it to the WAN.

We are focused on the user experience, combining WAN automation with wire, wireless, and security, and it‘s all built on a modern cloud -- most SD-WAN solutions are 10-15 years old and are not -- and ours has true AI support with [Mist’s virtual network assistant technology] Marvis. Every trouble ticket is passed through our AI engine, so it learns and keeps getting better. No one in the industry is doing that for WAN. Aruba is cutting and pasting these things on their slides now that they bought Silver Peak, but it’s going to be years to come close to this and their AI doesn’t have near the capabilities that ours has to do this.

How is Juniper's enterprise push progressing during the recent economic downturn that has impacted IT spending?

The key takeaway is the market itself for enterprise, campus, and branch has declined -- it has seen negative growth -- whereas our enterprise revenue increased along with campus and branch [revenue] last quarter. We also had a record quarter for Mist in terms of logos. In the midst of a pandemic, we are seeing record numbers, which benefits us as well as our partners. It‘s really due to the fact that now more than ever, people need cloud and AI because they can’t get on-site. Now, there’s more branch office sites and it’s tougher to troubleshoot when people are at home. It’s all really driving more and more towards the Mist model, and for that we’ve been extremely fortunate.

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