Becoming infinite with Extreme
As Extreme Networks develops partnerships across telecoms, it is focused on its ‘infinite distribution’ strategy. Nabil Bukhari, Extreme’s CTO and chief product officer, talks to Saf Malik about how it was ahead of the curve coming out of the pandemic, the Cloud and the future of SD-WAN
Last year, US networking company Extreme Networks pivoted its strategy slightly as a result of the disruption caused by the Covid-19 pandemic. The company noticed that the workplace was becoming significantly more mobile and dynamic, and the uptick in remote work as a result of the pandemic “increased complexity significantly”.
As Extreme’s chief technology officer and chief product officer, Nabil Bukhari leads the vision, strategy, execution and delivery of Extreme’s ever-growing product and technology offering as the company looks to accelerate innovation in the entire networking sector.
Bukhari says 10 years of digital transformation occurred in just 18 months during the pandemic, as firms were forced to cater to users’ remote working needs. And that is where Extreme’s concept of the “infinite enterprise” comes in.
This key strategy for Extreme is an evolution of where it has been investing in the past few years. It is the idea that as organisations no longer just reside in a building, their networks must go wherever people choose to operate. This means connectivity must happen everywhere and for everyone in an infinitely distributed environment.
While this concept “may have sounded like science fiction 18 months ago, it is our reality in the post-pandemic world”, according to Zeus Kerravala, founder and principal analyst of ZK Research.
Bukhari says that during the last five to six years, Extreme has transformed into something bigger and broader, becoming one of the first companies to notice that networking was evolving on the technology side.
“We saw that networking was going to change very drastically, so we ended up changing the company as well,” he says.
Adaptation is certainly the name of the game for companies that operate in ever-changing environments. Extreme realised this and expanded and consolidated its positions within various telecoms segments.
Bukhari, a 20-year veteran in technology, joined Extreme in 2017 when it acquired Brocade Communications Systems, a data centre, switching, routing and analytics business.
The acquisition pushed Extreme into the data centre space and allowed the company to broaden its portfolio. Since then, Extreme has expanded its partnerships at a rapid rate, and currently counts over 130 technology partners.
One segment that Extreme aimed to venture into was the Cloud space. In Bukhari’s view, Extreme was one of the first companies to see that networking was going to be managed and orchestrated from the Cloud. “That was a massive bet for us,” he says.
This was why, in August of 2019, Extreme acquired Aerohive Networks, a cloud-managed networking company, in a US$272 million deal.
At the time, Ed Meyercord, president and CEO of Extreme, said: “Extreme continues to invest in software and AI to expand the automation capabilities across our portfolio of edge-to-cloud networking solutions. The ability to improve user experiences, lower operating expenses, and deliver Cloud-managed networks is key to our strategy.”
Extreme’s aim was to offer its customers and partners more choices for Cloud and on-premises wired and wireless technology, including wireless LAN (WLAN) solutions.
“At the time, Aerohive was a smaller company, but they were certainly ahead in terms of their Cloud technology,” Bukhari says.
After the Aerohive acquisition, it was important for Extreme to offer universal platforms for enterprise class switching and wireless infrastructure, Bukhari says. It achieved this in 2020, when it unveiled its Universal Platforms service.
Universal Platforms combines the power of Cloud management with next-generation switches and access points that support multiple deployment use cases through a simple change of software or feature set.
Extreme was the first networking company to offer such a service, which enables simplified ordering, licensing and warranty processes, while reducing complexity and offering flexible operations.
Bukhari adds that it was essential for Extreme to stress that all its operations happened from one Cloud.
“We went very public with that. And the result was that on the hardware side, we had the most amount of growth that we’ve had in our 25-year history,” says Bukhari. “And on the cloud networking side we went from a 4% market share to a 13% share in three years, which made us the second-largest cloud provider.”
The stadium experience
Historically, stadiums have lacked strong connectivity. Yet visitors to large sporting events expect to make calls, send data and stream videos, regardless of how many other fans are doing the same thing at the same time. For example, at Super Bowl LVI in 2022, which was held at the SoFi Stadium in Califonia, 34TB of wireless data was transmitted during key parts of the game and there were more than 57,000 simultaneous connections.
In November 2014, Extreme became the official Wifi solutions provider for the NFL. It is now continuing to expand its footprint in and around sports, as can be seen through its recent partnerships with Liverpool FC and Manchester United FC.
Bukhari notes this change is happening on both sides of the Atlantic, extending across “American football to hockey and NASCAR and everything in the middle”.
“After the pandemic, when the spectators came back, they wanted the experience in the stadium to be similar to the one they have sitting in their living room,” he says. “So that generated the next generation of the stadium experience.”
This all ties into Extreme’s infinite distribution concept. Bukhari says that consumers now demand connectivity wherever they go, and businesses have had to adapt as more of their people work in different environments. In other words, the workplace must come to the user.
“And this must be done at scale, within your cost,” Bukhari insists.
But it also must be done with the consumer in mind, who, in this case, are everyone as end users range from students, clinicians to factory workers.
Bukhari notes that Extreme realised that things were not going to return to “normality” coming out of the pandemic, and that enterprises would have to adapt to a new normal.
“We had several conversations with our customers and helped them to define what an infinite enterprise was. Almost like a recipe book,” Bukhari says.
The CTO notes that becoming an infinite enterprise is not a type of product, but rather a form of insurance for companies, and that businesses must think about their network and cloud as a collective, rather than separate segments of a network that are isolated from each another.
This is a continuation of Extreme’s universal strategy. But why is it such an important part of it?
“That’s simple. It reduces complexity,” Bukhari says. “The biggest problem around distribution and on becoming an infinite enterprise is that there are too many different technologies, making it too complex.”
Bukhari says that the first network to be built on Extreme’s universal platforms was finished last year.
Despite some murmurs in the industry that software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) technology would not be sustainable for companies utilising it in the coming years, it is set to surge.
The uncertainty came from a survey conducted by the International Data Group in 2019 that found that the cost of implementing SD-WAN and its time-consuming nature meant smaller businesses did not see it as a viable long-term investment.
However, today, as the Covid-19 pandemic eases, the global SD-WAN market is projected to reach US$5.22 billion by 2028 from US$995 million in 2021, growing at a compound annual growth rate of 26.2% during the next six years.
Extreme entered the SD-WAN game five years into its lifecycle. Now it offers SD-WAN packages that are tailored to a business’s needs.
“We are entering the second phase of SD-WAN,” he says.
The first phase, Bukhari says, was about replacing edge routers and reducing the cost of multi-protocol label switching (MPLS) equipment.
In that sense, SD-WAN was hailed as the answer to network management, reducing costs and tightening security. But critics of the technology said it would cause long-term bandwidth and reliability problems, leading to its stock falling in the eyes of many.
This is not the case for Bukhari and Extreme.
“Moving forward, we see SD-WAN as an integral part of providing the experience all the way to the edge,” says Bukhari.
The second phase, he says, is an extension of the campus. “And that’s how we’re treating it,” he says. “WAN will always be there, and I believe it will be more important as more traffic goes over WAN.”
With that said, Bukhari has a bold prediction for the future: “I believe point-solution companies will pretty much go away.”
A point-solution company offers tools, products or services that only deliver a singular value proposition for an organisation – they fulfil a specific purpose, with limited or no expansive features.
“The companies that will stick to the first generation of SD-WAN will become irrelevant, very quickly,” Bukhari believes. “Those which move on to the second generation and think about it as one of the links in the broader enterprise network. They will continue to use it as a component of an overall strategy.”