Industry Insiders: Sanjit Biswas, Meraki CEO

Wi-Fi Planet’s contributors have unique opportunities to speak with some of the Wi-Fi industry’s leading thinkers. From time to time, we publish excerpts from our interviews with some of these Wi-Fi wizards in our Industry Insiders series. Here, we speak with industry innovator, Sanjit Biswas, about emerging markets, the importance of usability, and the power of cloud-based management.

Sanjit Biswas is the CEO and co-founder of Meraki, the California-based Wi-Fi networking startup which has experienced explosive growth since its founding in 2006. “Our mission is to bring down the cost of access, to change the economics of access, and to bring access to people who haven’t had it before,” Biswas said at the time—and while the company itself has grown enormously, those basic principles remain.

We spoke with Biswas earlier this month, not long after his company announced its expansion into the enterprise market. What follows are highlights from that conversation.

On ease of use:

“We try to keep the customer experience really simple—and I think we’re going to see more of that, where things like automatic RF planning, continuous system optimization, these sort of features, become more important as the complexity of these systems grows. It needs to be managed, because you have only a finite number of IT professionals heading this stuff up…the really smart systems that are out there will end up having really simple interfaces, just so people can set it up and not worry about it.”

On emerging markets:

“If we look at where the growth is in networking and in IT, in the U.S. and in Western Europe, it’s a maturing market. It’s mainstream—people have adopted it for several years. If we look at markets like Latin America and Africa, they’re leapfrogging, essentially, entire generations of growth: they’re going from having no infrastructure in a university in Africa to having full 11n wireless coverage throughout all their buildings. And so that’s a very exciting phenomenon for us to be part of… what you have is an incredible appetite and demand for this sort of infrastructure, but very few people who can set it up. And so our focus on simplicity and lower cost, I think, has really made an impact there.”

On kaizen:

“We’re running a cloud-hosted service that helps control and manage all your networks—and the neat thing about that is we can put out new tools for our customers every month, so we’re always improving things like RF planning, network management, alerting, the overall dashboard interface, all of that stuff…[ founder] Jeff Bezos has this kaizen philosophy, continuous improvement, and we follow the same kind of approach with our product: we’re always trying to make it better. So there are very few major milestones, but there are a lot of minor ones—every month, we’ve got new things that we’re pushing out there.”Sanjit Biswas

“The Wi-Fi industry to a large extent is a very hardware-dominated industry, where you’re installing physical access points and controllers, the system stays stagnant, and the only time you upgrade is when you buy entirely new hardware. But we were looking at this from a product experience perspective. When you step back and think about it, how should IT infrastructure work? It should work the same way that Gmail does, right? It just gets better and better, and you don’t have to worry about it. So we’re bringing that philosophy to a very hardware-centric industry.”

On the cloud-based approach:

“From a customer’s perspective, you save a lot of money by going with the cloud-based approach—at a fundamental level, it’s right-sized for your deployment. If you think about it in the context of Wi-Fi, where you’d otherwise be installing a hardware controller, you might buy something that is capable of serving 3,000 access points when you only have 1,000, so you’re paying for ports that you’re not using. With a cloud-based approach, you’re essentially paying for only the ports you use.”

“The operational costs of a cloud-based approach also end up being a lot lower, because you’ve essentially outsourced it… with Meraki, because we have over 10,000 of these customers around the world, we’re able to operate the infrastructure at much more efficient scale than if it was a single customer trying to figure it out for themselves.”

“The other aspect of it is ease of use. With the cloud-based approach, stuff has to self-configure, self-heal, maintain itself—and that’s a philosophy that we haven’t really seen in networking hardware to date, but it definitely saves you a lot of headaches, and so we’re seeing much smaller IT staffs do a lot more with our product. We’ve got one guy, for example, in Canada: he manages 250 some-odd sites—just a single IT professional—and that’s an incredible kind of leverage that you weren’t able to get before.”

On the Wi-Fi market:

“We’re seeing new markets emerge, like in warehousing, for example. We’ve seen a recent slew of customers install us in manufacturing contexts, where you wouldn’t have thought of deploying Wi-Fi maybe five years ago, but now with the advent of the new wave of devices like the Symbol handheld scanners that they’re using for warehousing and inventory control… they’re installing Wi-Fi networks in what used to be a completely un-networked location.”

“We have a network that a customer set up in Harvard Square—they’ll serve a couple of thousand users in a week—and a huge fraction of those users are on iPhones or other mobile devices… so what we’re seeing is that the addressable market for Wi-Fi has grown quite a bit, almost unlike any other phenomenon. If you look at something like storage, storage has been growing at a very steady rate for the last 30, 40 years, but Wi-Fi just exploded out of nowhere in ten years—so it’s been a pretty exciting industry to be a part of.”

For more on Meraki, read:

Jeff Goldman is a California-based technology journalist and frequent contributor to Wi-Fi Planet.

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