Aruba CTO: Wi-fi network delivers next frontier of data gathering

We catch-up with Aruba CTO, Partha Narasimhan, at Aruba Atmosphere EMEA 2016

“The network is like oxygen,” says Partha Narasimhan during his keynote on the second day of Aruba Atmosphere EMEA this May. Nobody notices it unless there is something wrong. There is no denying the truth in this. In most offices the puffing, fuming and swearing that ensues when employees can’t access the wi-fi – for whatever reason – is loud and very clear.

Now, as mobile devices come without Ethernet ports, and eat through ever larger volumes of data this silent conduit is becoming increasingly important. Narasimhan explains he and his team have looked at multiple concepts around the future office – from a variety of different designers – and there is “one commonality – there are no ports. It is all wireless.”

Needless to say Aruba’s speciality is wireless networks. Launched in 2002, it was acquired last year in a $3 billion HPE buy out. This allowed it to increase market share in the space and better compete against Cisco. Narasimhan has been with the company since the outset, leads on the technology front, and if you Google him is listed for filing a lot of patents. When I ask, he explains this is integral to the company’s R&D development process.

New technology isn’t the issue though. Like most deployments of the latest tech the challenges are human. In fact, there is a lot of very sophisticated joined-up solutions ready-to-go, but business environments are not prepared, he says, during our short one-to-one interview.

In the past the company used to deal exclusively with the “networking guys”, he says, but now the kind of data the network can supply is useful to many aspects of the business.

“A lot of data is useful,” he stresses.

This is the crux of the network. From a user perspective it is indeed like oxygen, a dull necessity that leaves you mad with frustration when it doesn’t work. Yet it is also delivers reams of highly profiled data that can both help deliver a better service to the business and provide additional analytical insight when matched up against other complementary datasets. Naturally, it is a big job to get it up and running, though.

Insights from the network come down to context, explains Narasimhan.  As the network has evolved increasing points of context have added to the picture. This began with the user information needed to access the network. It branched into a division between “employees” and “guests”. And as a plethora of new mobile devices and sensors have emerged, it has grown to incorporate location, and to facilitate the needs of a variety of business apps.

“A guest user might need to synch up with the TV in the meeting room to show their presentation,” says Narasimhan, but should not gain access to all the locked-down corporate drives. This means you’d need to “add an exception driven by context”.

“Trusted and non-trusted used to be separated by DMZ but that is not sustainable,” he adds.  


Obviously developments throw up inherent security challenges but also offer up very rich, highly profiled intelligence. Traditionally, for example, “a lot of trouble shooting was initiated by the user,” Narasimhan says. But once you gain decent visibility into the network, its uses and its users, IT can begin to pre-empt issues and deliver a personalised service.

In a lot of ways the story is the same as other areas of corporate IT and innovative security vendor Darktrace offers a nice parallel. Here, Darktrace monitors employee activity behind the firewall and via machine learning profiles standard behaviour in order to alert IT staff of suspicious activity.

In the case of the wi-fi network Narasimhan wants to profile enterprise behaviour from the top in down order to deliver a better service. This means based on past experience, machine learning, and ongoing automation, the system can learn your preferences with increasingly limited human input.

This could mean personalised access to all the files, folders and necessary security protected areas of the building via your device. It also might mean that the system would auto-adjust the temperature to fit your needs in designated areas, auto-connect you to big screen in any meeting room and give you a one-day access to the building opposite because you have a conference over there.

“If we don’t give the right digital experience the digital workplace won’t be possible,” warns Narasimhan.

The other side of this picture, from a business perspective, is that data delivered by the network could help provide more sophisticated business context. In the retail space, where stores are increasingly being modelled like a showrooms, network data based on areas of interest and footfall, could for example, be plotted against sales figures to deliver strategic insights. 

Over the next few years we’re going to “start to take user experience very seriously,” says Narasimhan. Apple is very focused on solving the user experience from a customer side, he says, “we’re learning from that”.

“The user experience will be recreated but in line with the needs of the enterprise,” he concludes.  


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