A Platform for Cloud Success

Reduced costs, increased scalability, and faster innovation are just some of the reasons why companies around the world are rapidly adopting a cloud-first strategy for their IT operations. However, with the rate of technological change today, businesses must be extremely strategic with their investments, and cloud-first is not a one-size-fits-all solution. How can tech leaders harness everything the cloud has to offer to produce optimal outcomes for their business?

In this five-part conversation, Forbes and Cisco Meraki examine the tremendous value of a cloud-first approach and discuss how and why cloud-managed platforms have the power to transform and modernize organizations faster than ever before.

Rich Karlgaard, Global Futurist and Editor-At-Large, Forbes, interviews Lawrence Huang, Senior Vice President and General Manager, Cisco Meraki and Wireless

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

How Cisco Networking is simplifying IT

Rich Karlgaard:

Cisco announced a Networking Cloud vision at Cisco Live, your big conference in Las Vegas. Can you tell me a little bit about it and how it differentiates itself from other solutions in the marketplace?

Lawrence Huang:

Yeah absolutely. The way I would articulate it, it is a response to what our customers want. The feedback that they’re looking for from Cisco is, how do you actually build things in such a way that your technology, applications, networks, and solutions work cohesively together as one? And really, a big part of what we’re delivering with Cisco Networking Cloud is a massive simplification and unification of the experience.

When you think about the rich portfolio that Cisco has, we have an opportunity to stitch together these different components in a way that we haven’t done in the past. That way, we can drive more consistent automation, we can drive more consistent analytics, and help our customers diagnose issues faster so that it doesn’t feel like you’re logging into many different solutions from one company.

Yes, cloud is the norm these days, but the power of what we have is the level of depth of our data—the number of customers, the number of networks, the quality of the data that we have to drive better insights, better analytics, and better intelligence.

The other piece to it is that we’re able to have partners build on top of our platform so they can extend the capabilities to solve bespoke use cases that may make sense for a given customer, but not broadly.

And then last but not least, it’s fair to acknowledge that Cisco, as a company with #1 market share in many of our markets, serves a breadth of customers, from on-premises to cloud to hybrid. If you think about what we announced, we said very clearly that our goal is to help our customers with the Cisco Networking Cloud—whether you’re fully on premises, you’re hybrid, or you’re fully cloud first—to be able to benefit from the simplification—this unification of our platform.

The power of a simplified platform experience

Skip to video at 2:23 min

Rich Karlgaard:

Not only is the IT infrastructure often for a hybrid company, we’ve got a mix of on-premises, a mix of cloud, and now the workplace itself is evolving into hybrid. COVID hit us like a lead anvil falling on us in the spring of 2020, and new companies have emerged. It just seems, you used the word “bespoke,” that almost every company and every industry is figuring out what the future of the workplace is going to look like.

Is it going to be back to work, is it going to be staying at home? Is it going to be a hybrid of some kind? How many days in the office? How many days not?

How on earth do you deal with customers coming and telling you these infinite varieties of workplace solutions that they’re working through right now?

Lawrence Huang:

First and foremost, hybrid work is something that every company, to your point, is figuring out. But I think it’s fair to acknowledge that what it was pre-COVID is not going to be the same going forward. Even with the changes in the macroeconomic conditions out there, where you do see some employers trying to pull back people to the office, they are voting with their feet.

The reality is that users of these office spaces, whether it is actually traditional office space or the office of one at home or something in between—what they’re demanding is a better experience bar none. So what IT infrastructure teams need to be able to deliver is a better experience at scale—at global scale.

Oftentimes what this means for them is that security is going to be front and center.

It’s going to be something where it’s not just a centralized architecture. It has to be something that they have to think very judiciously about, no matter where the end points, where the people, where the devices are that need to access the applications. A big part of what these owners of this infrastructure need to be able to do is do this in a way that makes sense—in a way that is simple for them to manage at scale.

What we’re asking here is what Cisco Networking Cloud is centered around: How do we unify the experience? How do we do things like provide single sign-on across our different platforms so that when you bring these different technology components to support hybrid work, you can do so in a way that makes sense where you’re not logging into different systems; that you can understand the policies end-to-end and see where there may be security risks more readily than if it was just bespoke solutions tied together.

Cloud-activated resilience is a business differentiator

Skip to video at 4:58 min

Rich Karlgaard:

Coming back to this idea of resilience, in April we had a Forbes CIO conference called the CIO’s Architects of Resilience, and the idea is that the world is moving beyond the pandemic—it is a different world. We’re not returning to the pre-pandemic world. We’re returning to a world where you need more than one supply chain. You need multiple options for your supply chains. There are more geopolitical risks, there are more monetary and inflation risks, and so the idea of resilience is that you’ve got to be able to create plans to deal with all of those contingencies without making yourself stiff and bureaucratic.

How do you think about resilience, what do your customers ask you about resilience, and what do you think contributes to resilience that works for Cisco Meraki customers?

Lawrence Huang:

Yeah, with your examples, especially over the past few years with the headwinds in supply chain or the changing dynamics with business conditions, resilience is a topic that is front and center with many of our customers. The best ones [customers] can treat resilience as a business differentiator if they’re able to do this well.

Oftentimes, when I think about conversations I have with our customers, they think of resilience as “how do I be more nimble and agile?” Whether it’s supply chain diversification or how do I shift my cloud workflows in a way that I’m leveraging more than one cloud provider?

But from an infrastructure perspective, there’s this concept of simplicity that we talk about a lot here at Cisco Meraki. Simplicity with our platform can be a core way to enable resiliency.

What we’re seeing here is, across the board, the way the infrastructures are being built and managed—it’s very different than it was in years past. Oftentimes what we see is that you have to be able to support employees no matter where they’re working. Whether it’s in the traditional office environment, whether it’s in the home, or somewhere in between.

It’s about simplicity of the experience. Imagine infrastructure at scale where you can actually deploy security policies end-to-end, and where you have visibility end-to-end—that is something that provides a foundation where you can then start adapting to changes in your business condition. This idea of a platform means that as your business needs respond, you can build on top of the platform to solve unique use cases for your business to provide greater resiliency.

From a people and team perspective, I believe that its also important to invest in the culture and the people. This is for many people a little more touchy feely, but i think its an important leg of the stool for how you build a resilient organization.

AI/ML and predictive automation: business development accelerants

Skip to video at 7:51 min

Rich Karlgaard:

Let’s talk about this new onrush of AI. AI’s concept has been around 50 or 60 years, and there have been false dawns of AI, but this dawn looks real for sure. Internet analyst Mary Meeker told me at a conference a couple of months ago she’s never seen anything come on as fast and scale as rapidly as ChatGPT and other forms of generative AI. And really, when you step back and you look at every significant technology advantage that has come along since silicon chips, [AI] has been really an accelerant. It’s an accelerant of the underlying metabolism of how fast business can be conducted.

When you think about all of these accelerants that are now in the marketplace, from cloud infrastructure to generative AI to mobility and connectivity everywhere, companies really need to have their act together and be organized around the speed of change. If they are not, they’re going to find that their lunch is eaten by their competitors or some company they’ve never heard of.

What are you seeing in terms of the sense of urgency that the latest accelerant, generative AI, is bringing to the marketplace? And what are some use cases where you’re seeing that companies are proving out early that there are some real advantages, whether its predictive analytics or machine learning and automation, or whatever that happens to be?

Lawrence Huang:

I think the more crass way to say it is, the gold rush is on. Everyone is trying to figure out what this next wave of AI means for them and their business and their customers. I think it’s fair to say that from a product development standpoint, there’s the internal, “Hey, can we use these tools to increase the productivity of our developers so we can actually get more capabilities out to our customers faster and more efficiently?”

From a customer standpoint, going back to your point about, “What are some of the use cases that we can use this technology for?” I think that a lot of it from our world is going to be centered around, “Can we make this idea of predictive analytics more powerful than it is today?”

And one of the things I’ll say is that I don’t think AI, in and of itself, is the end-all-be-all. Sometimes the right answer, quite frankly, is a better user workflow. But other times, using technologies like AI and machine learning, it’s actually the right set of tools because what’s normal in one environment may not be normal in another environment. Having humans and people trying to figure it out is not the best way to do it. That’s where you apply technologies like AI and machine learning techniques to help.

What I’m excited about is seeing the new opportunities around areas like sustainability and areas like being able to create new businesses out of these technologies. It’s early days, but the other piece to it is that privacy is going to be a big part of how customers think about how they use these tools. That’s one thing that, as a company like Cisco, we think very deeply about when we introduce these capabilities. Privacy is front and center, and not putting our customers at risk.

Be a transformative CIO: infuse innovation

Skip to video at 11:15 min

Rich Karlgaard:

One of the reasons Cisco is a trusted brand is that among C-suite executives, particularly CIOs and CTOs, people see Cisco as rock solid and trustworthy and a good partner to have, not only for their own companies but for their own careers.

In thinking about the future of the CIO, one of the things that we have at Forbes is this idea of the “CIO+.” The “CIO+” runs an impeccable, button-down, no-errors (or very small-level of errors), in terms of the IT infrastructure.

But they also do three other things:

  1. They understand the finances and operations of a company and they can go toe-to-toe with the CFO and speak the language of finance.
  2. They understand the revenue levers—what drives revenue, what drives profitability, what drives margin-expansion, and all of those things—so that they’re a partner there.
  3. And then they are a futurist. When they look at technologies like cloud infrastructure or generative AI, they are looking at it the way a venture capitalist would and organizing a portfolio of future projects.

From your perspective, as somebody who has worked with top-level IT people and served their interests and needs, do you have any comments on the changing nature of the CIO? How does the CIO or CTO get to that level where they’re a 90th-percentile CIO in terms of their ability to really drive transformational change at their company?

Lawrence Huang:

If you look at what’s happening across the industry, if you are not that transformative CIO and a team supporting the business, then quite frankly you’re a cost-center. You’re something that is necessary, but not strategic. The best CIOs realize that the way you actually drive real value is to turn your function into something that is strategic for the business.

Oftentimes, even with the example that we talked about with hybrid work, we know for a fact that across the board we are seeing shrinkage in office real estate. Across the companies that we work for, everyone is having a conversation about employees wanting a better experience when they come into the office. They need a reason to gather.

As a CIO and a team supporting that, how do I start working across different teams, whether it’s the real estate team or the facilities team, to create that better experience for them? What do we need to do differently to make these technologies that span across multiple teams and tie them together in a meaningful way so we can actually bring people together?

I think about the 3-30-300 rule, which is: The utilities of a given space and the square footage is roughly $3, and for real estate itself it’s $30, and for employees it’s $300. So there is this massive leverage that you get out of having productive employees. Everyone knows this, so how do you actually invest in a way to make them more productive?

The last piece to it is the innovation in terms of being able to respond to the business. When I hear the stories from our customers, when they’re looking at, “Hey I have stores,” as an example, “that through the pandemic were booming, and then after the pandemic were not … how do I make sure that I can actually build on the infrastructure that I invested in and layer on additional capabilities?” Whether it’s things like cameras and sensors to help, for example, my leadership team understands the productivity of my store employees better. How do I make sure that I deploy technologies in a way that can drive and support sustainability initiatives?

These are areas that really [top] 1% CIOs are helping their businesses transform to meet the needs that they have, whether it’s business headwinds that they need to go address or whether it’s net new initiatives to target sustainability net zero.

I’m really excited about what these top CIOs are doing within their organizations.

Rich Karlgaard:

Thank you for a very illuminating conversation!

Lawrence Huang:

Thanks a lot Rich, I appreciate the time.

Ready to be a transformational leader? Visit the Meraki platform page and explore how a cloud-first strategy can boost your business.

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