New Riverbed CEO Mountford On Turning The Page On A Cisco-Style Channel Strategy And The Huge Opportunity For Partners In Software And Services Revolution

Paul Mountford, a former Cisco channel chief, says SD-WAN will be a pivotal part of Riverbed's strategy as he leads the company's evolution from WAN optimization power to software platform provider focused squarely on the user experience.

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Paul Mountford is gunning to make Riverbed Technology an application and services-focused software-defined powerhouse, and he's not shy about pointing out what he sees as the weaknesses in archrival Cisco Systems.

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Mountford was named CEO of Riverbed Wednesday, after four years leading the San Francisco-based company's sales organization. Mountford also spent 16 years at Cisco, including a stint as channel chief. He's credited with making Cisco's channel what it is today by restoring partner profitability and improving partner satisfaction. The experience, Mountford said, played a critical role in shaping him as an executive.

Still, the time has come for Moutford to draw a clear line between what he sees as the transformative, modern way of running a software-focused channel powerhouse and simply putting a modern veneer on a legacy business, especially when it comes to hot technologies like SD-WAN.

"Cisco's SD-WAN is very much based on routers, and we've always been an app layer business," Mountford said. "We think customers really want the app expertise, not the router expertise. In the future, routers may be something that isn't even in the network."

Mountford sees SD-WAN as a pivotal part of the company's strategy, and that business fits into the company's ongoing evolution from WAN optimization power to software platform provider focused squarely on the user experience.

What follows is an edited excerpt of Mountford's conversation with CRN.

You spent 16 years at Cisco, and now you're competing head to head with them, especially in SD-WAN. How do you feel about that?

I had a great time there and learned a lot and developed tremendously as an executive. The thing with Cisco is it's so big that it can't move as quickly. We can move quickly, we're agile and we're very concentrated. Cisco's SD-WAN is very much based on routers, and we've always been an app layer business. We think customers really want the app expertise, not the router expertise. In the future, routers may be something that isn't even in the network.

What should partners know about how you'll approach the channel as CEO?

The big thing that's happening around the planet is the middle man is under lots of pressure to provide value. Pretty much all of our business is done through the channel. We've got a brand-new channel strategy called Rise, which is doing extraordinarily well. I wanted to change what I built with Cisco completely the other way around. I built the specializations the way they needed to be at Cisco at the time because there was no capability in the market. That's not the logic anymore. The logic is: Don’t get me held down by a massive spend in specialization because whatever you sell me as a partner, I'm going to use it in my own services to customers. Don't bog me down, give me an agile, fast way of building a business with you. We're looking for partners who want to embed our tech in their service offer rather than the classic resell. We still want the resell, but that's getting thinner and thinner relative to margin. Embedded services, cloud services, SaaS services is the way to go, and we've got some great technology for doing that.

How big a role will SD-WAN play in Riverbed's future?

I see SD-WAN as a pivotal part of what we're doing at the company, and we're in a unique position. There's a big SteelHead base out there, and it can be software-defined with a very simple software upgrade. We have an opportunity just by doing that to build a substantial market share in the industry. That software will be available very, very shortly. A number of customers have also upgraded to SteelConnect software-defined already. That way they're taking the current platform and they're ready for software-defined when it comes around. When we release the next version, that is really going to be able to automate the massive existing base we have; most of it is in the Fortune 2000.

More broadly, what's your overall strategy for Riverbed?

Since we've gone private, we've done an acquisition [Aternity] to get to a much more important platform play. The real issue today that we think is a yawning gap of an opportunity for our partners is the fact that the industry has changed. Everyone has gone digital, but we don't have digital infrastructure. It's old-fashioned and clunky. If you want to make a change, the thing that lags behind and slows all that down is the infrastructure. With software-defined infrastructure, cloud and edge tech, we do that very quickly. It's very agile. Our software from our SteelCentral portfolio is the digital experience. We rebranded as 'the digital performance company.' We called ourselves that because every single element of our portfolio is about driving digital performance for our customers.

How does that look from a customer's perspective?

If you've got SaaS players, and cloud companies, even if you're still on-prem, how do you understand the performance of your apps? How well do you know the investment you've made in your digital strategy is working for you? Is the experience really paying off, is it driving revenue for the company? In the past, we've measured that by 'Is the network up?' That means nothing if the end user thinks the experience isn't a good one. It's the human experience that matters. Our platform is integrated now, and it measures end-user experience across cloud, SaaS and on-prem.

How do you differentiate the Aternity solution from other network visibility solutions in the market?

It measures what everybody's using on their endpoints. Which OS, which apps they're using, and it's a very simple interface. You can see each stage of that app and what it does, the timing to open each piece. It tells you every little piece. It tells you whether you're below the experience level or above it. SteelCentral tells you where the challenge is and gets the performance back into your digital world. It's the fastest-growing part of the business right now. That and SD-WAN. It fills a gap where most people struggle. There are lots of software visibility plays out there, but they're not very comprehensive. Nobody has all the elements all in one platform, and that's a great play for us. If it's infrastructure that needs changing, then in comes SD-WAN and edge. It's a really nice play right in the sweet spot of the market.