Article by Will Townsend.
With HPE Aruba’s signature event Atmosphere 2019 just around the corner, I had the opportunity to speak again with Keerti Melkote, President and Founder of Aruba. During our one on one, we discussed a number of topics ranging from Aruba’s birth, its meteoric growth, the HPE acquisition, and his signature vest! In our conversation, one thing became abundantly clear to me—his recognition of mobility as the future and his commitment to putting the customer first are key to Aruba’s success.
The early years
Everyone loves a good origin story, right? While Marvel has the market pretty well cornered with its superhero films, Aruba’s is pretty interesting (from my perspective as a self-proclaimed tech nerd). I hope to communicate the company’s superpower as well as Aruba’s chief marketer Janice Le often does on social media. Mr. Melkote held positions at technology powerhouses Cisco Systems and Intel , as well as at start-up Shasta Networks, prior to co-founding Aruba. In 2002, he saw rise of mobile phones, recognized the power of mobility, and identified an opportunity to disrupt the traditional wired local area network. “Why should anyone have to return to their desk to access, share data, and collaborate?” he often asked himself. At about the same time, Wi-Fi networks began to pop-up, but PC companies weren’t integrating the nascent technology into notebook computers and there were concerns around scalability and security. While the larger infrastructure providers were focused on refining fixed networking solutions, Mr. Melkote saw an opportunity. Furthermore, as an engineer himself, he recognized that most IT administrators struggled to manage the complexities of networking—often moving from one problem to the next with a “hair on fire” mentality. He believed he could also deliver simplicity. He picked the name Aruba, hoping to conjure up the image of a relaxing visit to the beach.
Success with mobility and customer first, last
The technology industry is a story of many successes and failures. I witnessed this firsthand, riding amazing waves of success while working for Dell DELL +0% in the early 1990s, and later Compaq. I also worked through the dot.com era and saw plenty of failure. One key barometer of success in the tech world is reaching the $1B revenue mark. Not only did Aruba achieve that (it is nearing $3B today) but it did so in the span of only nine years. From my perspective, Mr. Melkote not only identified the disruption that wireless networking would bring to bear, but timed it to align with watershed events such as Steve Jobs’ return to Apple AAPL +0%Computer and the launch of the iPhone and later iPad products. A mentor of mine once shared with me that opportunity is a combination of ability and timing, and Mr. Melkote happened to nail both. The third magic ingredient, in his case, was a relentless focus on the customer and key stakeholders such as developers and channel partners. I’ve witnessed Aruba’s strategy first hand at prior Atmosphere events; it especially shines in the final panel session, held every year, in which Aruba executives take any attendee question unscripted. I’ve seen the resulting feedback find its way back into product roadmaps, service offerings, and Aruba’s software management solutions such as NetInsight. Another customer-embracement proof point can be found in the company’s recent accolades and success with its ClearPass and IntroSpect offerings.
The reverse acquisition of HPE
It’s been nearly four years to the week that Hewlett Packard Enterprise acquired Aruba Networks. At the time, HPE recognized that it had gaps in its wireless networking portfolio and believed that Aruba could bring both a strong set of solutions and brand equity to the table. From Mr. Melkote’s perspective, a union would bring it scale and a new set of capabilities to compete against the likes of Cisco Systems and others. Combined, many analysts and pundits at the time believed HPE could attack a growing converged campus networking segment. An unknown bonus came with Aruba, though—its culture and entrepreneurial vision. At that time, Antonio Neri was a networking general manager involved in evaluating and eventually bringing the acquisition together. Today as President and CEO, Mr. Neri often credits Aruba with infusing its mobility and customer-centric DNA into its parent organization. Since its acquisition, Aruba has enjoyed a level of autonomy within HPE from an operations and product development perspective, and the division now leads HPE’s overall networking infrastructure practice. That’s an amazing accomplishment by any measure, given the way tech mega-mergers typically play out.
The vest and its superpower
Steve Jobs sported the black turtleneck, Jensen Huang of NVIDIA has his trademark leather jacket, and my hero Ron Burgundy keeps it classy in San Diego with his leisure suit! Mr. Melkote’s clothing article of choice is the vest jacket. When asked why, he laughed and said, “Because it’s easy to wear and take off.” I liken his vest to Aruba’s success—wireless networking has made things easier and more convenient for customers. His stated vision for the future, not surprisingly, is focused on further simplifying connectivity and improving the user experience. For the latter, Aruba continues to build upon its leadership in location-based services; these efforts started with its own acquisition of Meridian several years ago. As to how Aruba plans to stay ahead of the competition, Mr. Melkote points to HPE’s overall investment in edge (with an ambitious $4B over four-year pledge made by Mr. Neri in 2018), Aruba’s current investment in artificial intelligence, and the possibility of augmented/virtual reality in the future. With Aruba’s history of disruption with wireless networking, it will be interesting to see what the company has in store. While the name Aruba may conjure up images of a distant, somewhat disconnected island, HPE Aruba has done much to connect the world wirelessly.
Will Townsend is a Moor Insights & Strategy senior analyst covering networking infrastructure and carrier services