Former VCE CEO Talks 'Breaking Glass' As New Leader Of Viptela And Why The Partner Community Is Like Oxygen

Viptela's New CEO

Praveen Akkiraju says it's time for him to be "breaking glass" and "disrupting" the networking industry as the new CEO of software-defined WAN startup Viptela, after three years of growing VCE into a $2.1 billion business and nearly two decades at Cisco.

"2017 is the year of software-defined WAN," said Akkiraju in an interview with CRN. "This is a huge new opportunity for partners to jump on board to be able to tap into one of the fastest-growing market segments in enterprise IT."

Akkiraju talks to CRN about why he left VCE last year, the channel philosophy he learned at Cisco, as well as Viptela's cloud and channel strategy. "For us, the partner community is like oxygen. We need their guidance," he said.

Why leave VCE and your Cisco history behind to join a startup?

In the first wave of this cloud era, you saw compute being disrupted, storage being disrupted – I got a very good sense of what was happening in both of those markets in my time at VCE – spending time at VMware and EMC. VCE gave me the opportunity to really explore the transition that was happening in cloud infrastructure. The network infrastructure, sort of my old stomping ground at Cisco, was pretty much static. It was the first wave of software-defined networking. … But it really didn't truly deliver what I call 'network at the speed of applications.'

In the next five years, the truly top problem to solve is helping customers migrate to the cloud – applications, users, connectivity -- and I see Viptela and this particular wave of [SD-WAN] technology playing a very critical role in that.

I'm assuming you had a lot of options as to where to go next. Why did you choose Viptela?

I saw in Viptela an opportunity to lead that second wave of disruption in in the software-defined networking space. I saw that the technology that Viptela has – in terms of separating the controllers, hosting 90 percent of our customers' controllers in AWS, being able to apply policy, security as a fabric that can now deliver a whole range of capability to connect users at the edge of the network into applications in the cloud.

We're a startup in the valley here. So this is a time for you to be breaking glass, disrupting – and there's no better place to do it than in a company like Viptela, where they have great technology, tremendous market traction, and SD-WAN is an excellent opportunity. How many markets out there are growing this fast? I want to be part of this transformation.

How pumped should channel partners be about SD-WAN in 2017?

2017 is the year of software-defined WAN. This is one of the fastest-growing market segments. We've had enough credibility, traction in the marketplace, enough large customer wins – this is the year I expect Viptela will dramatically grow our footprint, and SD-WAN will see dramatic adoption in the customer base. This is a huge new opportunity for partners to jump on board to be able to tap into one of the fastest-growing market segments in enterprise IT.

What's your cloud strategy for Viptela?

We have a cloud-delivered platform that is the foundation of our company. You're going to see us enable our customers to do this migration to the cloud, which I think is the [biggest] opportunity of this decade for pretty much all companies. You will see us partnering to come together with solutions to tell that story of, 'How do you migrate to the cloud with Viptela as the network fabric?' That is an opportunity for partners to elevate their value proposition to their customers – from selling piece-parts to be able to actually solve this problem of bringing this connectivity to the cloud.

I'm going to be driving pretty hard to deliver a set of capabilities and enable our partners to leverage these capabilities to drive cloud migration.

What type of channel incentives do you plan to launch at Viptela?

At Viptela, it is really more about value creation -- helping identify areas where we can jointly create value. Value for me could mean a dramatically different cost model for the network infrastructure or how do partners deliver additional services on top of our platforms. One of the things that we’re going to do is we're going to partner very closely with some of our larger counterparts in different areas like security and network services. We want to be able to enable partners to bring together a collection of these solutions – pre-tested solutions, so it's not just a Viptela sale. It's Viptela plus a couple of other components, which increases the size of the deal for the partner and delivers more value.

So what type of new technology partnerships do you plan to form?

It's more to augment the capability that we offer. We really are the fabric on top of which multiple different services get delivered. … We're able to set up this fabric as an open platform so we can actually bring in some technology partners who might offer a different set of capabilities, and I can think of security as one of them, and integrate their offering on top of our fabric. Now we have a best-in-class offering that we can jointly go to market with, which will be a higher value-add for customers.

The crux comes back down to helping partners go up the value chain by creating a solution and a delivery model that leverages the latest and greatest technology and can be deployed rapidly.

Are there specific company names you can give us on who you plan to partner with in 2017?

We're not yet in the position to talk about names, but you can definitely expect the next quarter or two – the next six months -- we should be announcing some pretty cool joint solutions with some of our technology partners.

What’s your channel philosophy?

From a personal perspective, I strongly believe in a partner-led model. Particularly as a startup, for us, the partner community is like oxygen. We need their guidance. We need their feedback so we can actually go build out and go out and chase this massive opportunity we have.

What are you bringing from Cisco into Viptela's channel?

Cisco is a very channel-led go-to-market model. As I left Cisco in 2012, I ran the WAN enterprise networking business – including the ISR business. The ISR business was more than 75 percent channel-led.

I spent a lot of time with our channel partners and system integrators in my time at Cisco to establish how we can jointly deliver value to our customers. Channel partners have a very critical role to play in enabling this migration to the cloud. They have a much more broader lens. … A channel partner, for us, brings the broader perspective of the customer's endpoint -- not just in terms of what are they trying to accomplish from upgrading the infrastructure or consumption model -- but also in terms of 'Where are the pain points?'

What is a big channel lesson you learned at VCE?

A big lesson I learned at VCE is we need to really focus on helping partners with evolving their business models and profitability if we are to be successful. That will sort of be my guiding principle.

My time at VCE gave me a great perspective of the cloud. So I'm really looking to bring together my experience in the networking space and in the cloud space to drive a transformational strategy for the company.

What can partners expect from Viptela with you at the helm in 2017?

I'm really excited to work with the Viptela channel partners because they will provide us the context from the customer deployment, and we want to work with [partners] to help them evolve their business model to this migration to the cloud. We have a great platform that we can partner with them on because we're cloud-hosted and, in some cases, we're going to be enabling our partners to host our controllers and offer services.