CRN Exclusive: Aruba Networks Leader On Winning Against Cisco, Meg Whitman's Impact On Aruba And Faulty Clock Component Issue

Aruba CEO On The Record

Keerti Melkote, the leader and founder of Aruba Networks, sat down with CRN at Aruba Atmosphere 2017 in Nashville Tenn. to discuss gaining market share against networking rival Cisco, how Hewlett Packard Enterprise CEO Meg Whitman is winning deals for Aruba and where channel partners should be placing their bets.

"Competitively, wireless is growing gangbusters," said Melkote, while adding that partners need to enhance their software skills and "behave more like an ISV."

Aruba's leader also talks about the faulty clock component issue that has affected several vendor's product lines, the company's M&A strategy and gives CRN a taste of the technology roadmap ahead for 2017.

Cisco, Juniper, and HPE have a faulty clock component issue affecting some products. Are any Aruba products affected?

There was one product that was potentially affected. We have not heard of any issues with our customers yet. It is the lowest end appliance of the Aruba ClearPass 500. It's an SMB appliance. Basically, it's an Intel Atom part [that's causing the problem], and none of our products use that part except for that one appliance. So nothing in switching, in access points, in wireless. Partners don't need to worry.

You've said Aruba had taken more than four points of market share from Cisco recently. Why are customers picking Aruba over Cisco now?

Competitively, wireless is growing gangbusters. Wired has turned from a decline and turned back into a growth business. The Aruba brand switching is doing very well in the marketplace.

Why we're winning is because the market has shifted from connectivity to experiences … What has happened now is we don’t lead with connectivity, we lead with the user experience. So what does the mobile user experience in an office look like? What is the connectivity I need to fulfill that (collaboration) experience? I think that's what resonating, and technologically, in most of these large campus environments, we are significantly differentiated against Cisco.

Where is the big differentiation?

We've chosen to invest and differentiate in a big way. Acquisitions like Rasa [Networks] and Niara go a long way in allowing us to continue to differentiate with machine learning and artificial intelligence. So customers see the roadmap and say, 'Okay this is not only a point-in-time decision, but it's a partnership decision with a vendor that is not only going to be serving my needs today but can serve my needs tomorrow as well.' So the innovation is important, the experience is important and the analytics and insights we can provide are the important differentiators.

How often do you speak with your CEO Meg Whitman?

It's quite often actually. I speak to her or hear from her every other day. Meg is helping in a big way to accelerate our business. Especially for the large deals, she's very involved in ensuring that we have the right executive coverage to meet the CEO of a potential customer.

So will Meg actually fly out to a big potential Aruba deal?

Absolutely. She does that. Her help has been instrumental frankly in getting the growth we have gotten. So not only is she allowing us to run independently, but she's supporting us. We have reviews with her on the big accounts that we're pursuing. She's definitely there to help us close the deal.

HPE recently reported a sales decline in their Q1 earnings, although its networking business – Aruba – showed positive growth. How big of a benefit is Aruba for HPE right now?

Growth is a great motivator for people. Just the fact that we are wining in the market with the brand is helping raise visibility. HPE has a very large ecosystem of partners, bigger than Aruba's, and they see the opportunity of focusing on the edge. What's happening on the data center side is there's a shift to the cloud where people are buying SaaS services or going to Amazon or so on. There's sort of a rethink on the data center infrastructure position towards a hybrid IT model and we're positing for that.

Partners want to see what are the alternative areas of growth. There's pockets of growth within the data center. We did acquisitions, such as SimpliVty that focused on the hyper-converged space, so there's pockets of growth that we'll continue to look at.

With the backing of HPE, can we expect more acquisitions in 2017?

The edge represents a unique growth opportunity with mobility as a key enabler … We've already done one acquisition this year with Niara in the security space and we're definitely going to be acquisitive in general in the new growth areas of the market. Security is clearly one area … Niara is aimed at detection and reducing the time to detect. That is going to be a growth area for Aruba and our partners. We see mobility and security as two significant growth areas.

What positive trends do you see on the mobility front?

The interesting thing we have seen is the wired business from HPE is also growing and now it's part of Aruba. The reason it's growing is because I think this mobile-first message is resonating. There's going to be wired connections – the access points connecting to the wired network, there's IoT devices that connect into the wired network, etc. The users have become mobile. That is the point we're trying to make: the user experience is more mobile and the infrastructure needs to support that.

You have a lot of technology partnerships on the security front. What areas are you focusing on most?

We don't do everything and so we have open APIs which integrate with the likes of Palo Alto [Networks], you saw some integrations with most of the firewalls vendors like CheckPoint, Fortinet and others as well.

We also integrated with Juniper [Networks] for example. The integration partnership is on one side, but the partner value to me is to take those integrations and bring it to life and that requires software skills. That's why I'm appealing to [partners] to think more about software as a way to differentiate.

Just how important is it for Aruba partners to increase their software skillset?

Creating the best [customer] experience requires some amount of software skills. In the networking industry we are very comfortable with Command Line Interfaces (CLIs), so you get a device and interact with it using a keyboard and you basically type in your commands and its responds. That worked okay when you were doing the initial setup, but in these environments -- which are dynamic and change all the time -- programmability is extremely important.

So what would your advice be for partners?

My advice to partners and partner engineers is to skill-up on the ability to create software -- behave more like an ISV that can deliver some software value add and security. Those are two significant new areas.

Security started with Aruba ClearPass and we've seen partners who are pure networking VARs transform their business into security and really have done fantastically well from a profitability standpoint … There's consulting security dollars, and deployment and integration dollars as well.

During your keynote presentation at Atmosphere you talked about AI and machine learning. If I'm a channel partner, what should I be doing to prepare? Should I hire data scientists?

Data scientists would be great, but I don’t think we need to go that far right away. If I look at the current partner skillset, on the engineering side they have people who understand how to deploy networks and how to work with networking devices – configure them, program them, etc. and set up good stable networks, which is a great skill to have. But I see that as a foundational skill and that itself is not going to differentiate them. What's going to differentiate them is whether their engineers are able to create that experience for their customers and to create that experience they need to be able to stitch together multiple capabilities -- security, mobility, location service and create that experience.

Aruba Atmosphere 2017 had a record 550 partners. Why are HPE partners starting to take a closer look at Aruba?

There's a couple of reasons. It's the fact that we have a unified partner program now, so the broader HPE partner community is definitely interested. They're interested in us because we're winning and they see an opportunity to take the products to market. The program is well structured. We want to make sure we have certified partners who are incented at the right levels. The focus is on 'How do we get our partners more profitable, more engaged and more differentiated.'

Are you worried about channel commoditization with more HPE partners coming on board?

Usually when so many partners come in, there some level of nervousness saying, 'Hey are we going to get commoditized? What's our differentiator from our next partners?' This is why my recommendation is differentiating on software. Just like we're differentiating ourselves on software, partners should differentiate themselves on software with the capabilities they bring. Fulfilling product alone is not going to be differentiating.

Can you give CRN any hints of what's coming down the technology pipeline?

To us the big product launches are Niara. Yes, we acquired the company, but it's a new product launch for our organization. We will formalize that and launch it in the next couple of months in terms of a program and everything else that comes with it.

Other than Niara technology, what other big product launches can partners expect in 2017?

The ongoing rejuvenation of Aruba Central. That's become a very nice cloud service that we're offering and we're adding on top of that with applications like Rasa [Networks technology] for network analytics that we'll launch as well. Again, more in the software realm.

We'll be filing the gaps in the portfolio from a hardware perspective, so they'll be new switch rolls outs coming, new access points coming out at the same time that fills the gaps. We feel pretty good on the hardware side. The real excitement is on the software side.

Are you doing anything special on both the hardware and software side to make products more IoT-enabled?

Absolutely. Everything we're doing we're trying to make it IoT-enabled. It started with security, giving the visibility into the IoT devices in the network with the ClearPass product line like ClearPass Universal Profiler. Then we have Niara to provide behavior analytics. We're optimizing for ruggedized outdoor environments with the outdoor access points, outdoor switches, etc. IoT is definitely a huge focus for the entire organization.

What are the biggest IoT areas that Aruba will be investing in?

Smart buildings and asset tracking – those will areas that we're going to invest in. Industrial IoT is another area we’re going to focus on.

What is your final message for partners heading home after Aruba Atmosphere?

The market is showing that we have the momentum. The message to the partners is, let's go have some fun together. It's a good time to be in the market with us.