Bigleaf recently conducted a survey to better understand the IT needs of small and medium businesses (SMBs) as everyone is moving to the cloud. It seems while almost every business wants uninterrupted access to their services and flawless connectivity for their employees, they still don’t fully understand the importance of ‘networking’ or connectivity itself. Joel Mulkey, Founder and CEO of Bigleaf Networks, discusses why companies should build a very concrete strategy for software-defined networking (SDN) because what good are your services if no one can reach them.
Here is an edited transcript of the discussion by Jack Wallen
Swapnil Bhartiya: Welcome to TFiR Newsroom. This is your host Swapnil Bhartiya. Bigleaf Networks recently commissioned a report via Techaisle to understand the adoption of SD-WAN technologies in small and medium businesses. To deep dive into the report, we have with us, once again, Joel Mulkey, Founder and CEO of Bigleaf Networks. Joel, it’s great to have you back on the show.
Joel Mulkey: Yeah, thanks for having me back.
Swapnil Bhartiya: Let’s get started with some basics. Tell us quickly, what is Bigleaf all about?
Joel Mulkey: Bigleaf Networks provides a reliable connectivity foundation for businesses that need to access cloud and SaaS technologies. What we’ve seen is that SMBs and mid-market companies used to have other infrastructure in their data closet. And now that those applications have moved out to the cloud, it’s really difficult for IT leaders to keep that same reliable performance and consistency they used to have. So Bigleaf brings them that level of performance.
Swapnil Bhartiya: Excellent. Thanks for expanding. Now let’s talk about the elephant in the room, which is this report. What was your objective with this report?
Joel Mulkey: We wanted to gather some neutral third-party data on what our SMB IT leaders and mid-market IT leaders are seeing as they’re dealing with this digital transformation and trying to make the move to cloud and SaaS. How’s that coming across? What are the things that they care about? We’ve definitely seen that anecdotally, and working with our customers, but wanted to get some additional perspective from the pros to make sure that we’re chasing the right things and that we’re tapping into the pain that these customers are experiencing?
Swapnil Bhartiya: Were you focusing purely on connectivity and networking? Or are you looking at compute and other areas as well?
Joel Mulkey: We’re, generally, looking at the IT needs and pain points for SMBs and the IT vendors that support them. We’ve focused a bit of our energies on networking since that’s the place we play. But really looking more broadly, first, what’s impacting the use of applications?
Swapnil Bhartiya: And in today’s world, no matter whether you’re on-prem or running something in a public cloud, or some alternative cloud, connectivity or networking is kind of like a neural net, you know, the backbone. So when you saw this report, where was networking in the digital transformation, or cloud strategy of SMBs? Where was it, up in the stack or down in the stack?
Joel Mulkey: Folks think about it as they acknowledge these IT leaders, acknowledge they are responsible for the performance of application delivery, yet they don’t really acknowledge that part of that is the internet connectivity. I think people tend to think about it like a utility, and don’t take responsibility for the power being on because it’s just always on. And they’ll think about their LAN, for example, their local network. But acknowledging responsibility, and a level of control over the internet connectivity, it just doesn’t come to mind. So that was an interesting insight we got that these IT leaders carry the weight, the burden of providing resilient, reliable connectivity, making sure apps always work. But they don’t have the awareness that they can do something about that, that there are solutions on the market that can make the internet behave like it’s supposed to, rather than the way that you just get it from your ISP. So there was this interesting tension between what they knew they needed (better control, better visibility) and what they thought they could get, which was, “Oh, I just have what the ISP gives me.”
Swapnil Bhartiya: If you look at that report and reflect on it, what are some of the key findings or some of the shocking things that you saw?
Joel Mulkey: There were a couple of surprises for me. One of them was that it is seen as a source of innovation in businesses today. I knew that was the case in some businesses, more tech businesses like Bigleaf. But in a traditional SMB or mid-market company, I thought it was perceived as this cost center that sort of dragged the business down. And no, it was the top-ranking view of the IT department in these companies we surveyed. So that was really insightful and made me take a fresh look at how we can bring value to that story and equip the IT leaders by offering even more power to be a key part of the business. And then the other one was the way that folks had such high hopes for SD-WAN. And I think those hopes haven’t come to fruition. The survey looked at a bunch of questions about what do you think SD-WAN can do? Can it fix network performance and visibility? There are 10 things or so and the rankings were very, very high. Yet we know that most SMB and mid-market companies have not deployed SD-WAN, or if they have, it hasn’t gone how they wanted it to. And so that revealed this distinction between the expectations people have based on the marketing literature and whatnot, versus the reality of what the products do. Most SD-WAN solutions are built for large companies that have sophisticated networking teams, want to manually manage policies, and have a lot of tight control over what users can and can’t do. And these IT leaders in SMB companies just need something to make their stupid voice calls or Zoom calls work, right. And so we come in the middle of that. And it was encouraging to see that furthers our opportunity to say, “Hey, there’s an AI-based approach to solving these problems. You don’t have to have all this manual management that messes with your security and whatnot.” So it was an interesting insight to see that distinction between what people hope for and what reality is provided to them to date.
Swapnil Bhartiya: Can you also talk a bit about the adoption or awareness about software-defined networking that is there within SMBs. Are they fully aware of it? Or when they think of connectivity and networking, they still look at traditional legacy, networking, and connectivity?
Joel Mulkey: I think what an SMB, MSP, and even mid-market companies will think of when you talk about software-defined networking are the likes of a cloud-based management platform. You know, Meraki was famous in kicking that off of “Hey, I’ve got switches and firewalls, I want to go into a single dashboard and manage them all.” And that’s definitely an improvement from the old days of login to the Cisco COI. But I don’t think that does justice to what SD-WAN can do, and what the likes of large players of Amazon and Google and some of these big enterprise solutions have done to bring a level of intelligence to SD-WAN that can automate a lot of network management, and take a lot of the day-to-day hands-on stuff off the plate of the IT staff, allowing them to focus on the things that people are really good at—difficult judgment calls and getting into sophisticated problems. So that’s one place I’ve been excited about—Bigleaf’s AI, where we can apply that same top-tier cloud provider level AI of how to manage the network to these small SMB network environments, where you’ve got just day-to-day needs that require to be handled by software rather than people so that our customers can focus on those critical problems that are really impacting things. So I’m hoping that will proliferate across SMB networks. We have yet to see that broadly. There has been some of that in Wi-Fi. I think a lot of the Wi-Fi solutions out there have gotten a bit smarter over time. I think, frankly, the other side of it too, application providers have gotten better at dealing with network issues. You see things like Zoom and Teams and other applications, they’ve got a lot of skilled engineers figuring out how to make those apps work, overcoming connectivity. And that gets you part of the way there, that certainly helps. But at the end of the day, you still need this robust, resilient connectivity underneath to provide an effective transport path for your packets.
Swapnil Bhartiya: One more thing that is kind of unique is this pandemic. Last year, we were hit by it. We’re still going through that, which also means that even for small businesses, a lot of their workforce chose to work remotely; they were not in the corporate office where all the networks are in place. Most people are working remotely, using their own networks at home. How does that impact their networking strategy? Because now, they really don’t have to build the local network anymore, but they still have to rely heavily on connectivity.
Joel Mulkey: Yeah, I think the pandemic forced everyone to jump into this digital transformation bucket a lot quicker than they expected. That meant a lot of different things for different businesses. I know that plenty of MSPs out there were just scrambling to get laptops for everyone. And then others who are a little more prepared were out saying, “Okay, what’s the right video conferencing solution? How do we make sure we have enough consistent connectivity for our users?” There’s been an interesting line between the privacy of the home and the corporate IT environment. We’ve had to navigate where customers want to deploy our solution in their homes—we have a home office solution for that—and their IT departments then have a level of visibility into what they’re doing with the internet that makes some folks uncomfortable. So we’ve been navigating from a product perspective. What’s the right line there? What’s the right level of visibility for a corporate location versus for a home? How should we be building that out as we expand our functionality to give more in-depth visibility to IT leaders? So that private versus corporate line I think is a difficult thing to navigate as well as security. That’s a big aspect that our customers deal with, “Hey, I’ve got a corporate security program. Now everything’s all-remote work from anywhere and security in the home. How do we navigate that?” Bigleaf has chosen to take a partnership approach to that. To date, we know that our MSP partners, and the other partners that are implementing Bigleaf services, have chosen a security strategy today that we support. We provide a very transparent, neutral platform to carry their traffic, and then they’re deploying their security solution of choice. I know both of those technology choices have been an intense area focus for the IT leaders we work with on top of just, “Hey, I need basic connectivity, I need the packets to get back and forth,” which is what Bigleaf assures happens well.
Swapnil Bhartiya: Can you also talk about, either with the lack of or not having a very concrete strategy or plan for SD-WAN, what kind of impact businesses would directly have on their bottom line or business itself that should encourage or force them to look at connectivity and networking more seriously?
Joel Mulkey: I think there have been two strong story paths for SD-WAN. Originally, a lot of the players started out with the notion of we’re gonna come in and replace or augment your MPLS network. If you’re a big corporation, you’ve got 150 locations, you’re paying huge amounts of money for a big MPLS network. Great. Deploy SD-WAN to augment or replace that and you’ll save some money, you’ll have redundancy. That’s great. Bigleaf’s approach was never that it was looking at the other part of the market, who were deploying cloud and SaaS based-services over the internet, acknowledging those who need redundancy, and they need prioritization over that internet path. And so what we’re seeing is that story is becoming the dominant one that we built for early on and is now becoming more prevalent. Whether you’re using Zoom, or you’re using RingCentral or Microsoft Teams, or they’ll see these sorts of apps or point of sale (POS) or electronic healthcare records in the cloud, and need a way to assure that connectivity over your ISPs. You need multiple ISPs, typically you need some platform to prioritize and manage the traffic running over those. And so we’ve seen that the adoption of that part of the SD-WAN story is kind of where the industry is heading. Private networking is becoming less relevant over time. It’s not going to be immediate, because big companies have big networks that don’t go away in a year. But we’re seeing this work from anywhere, really pushing folks to an internet is a Zero Trust based approach to connectivity, where you have a solution to make sure those pipes are healthy and managed well and give you the visibility you need. And then on top of that are your application and security layers making sure you get the user experience that’s right for your company? So that’s kind of the evolution we’re seeing.
Swapnil Bhartiya: Can you talk about what kind of challenges it poses to not only monitor but also getting observability in the cloud-native world? If you just bring that concept here, that you do have a kind of transparency into those machines, that users are running their applications. It could be performance, it could be security, it could also be something broken? How do they achieve that?
Joel Mulkey: One of the results from the report that stood out is that visibility was one of the top challenges for these IT leaders. And I think what we’ve seen is that’s been amplified by the pandemic. IT leaders used to have the corporate location or locations where they were running their chosen monitoring platform of choice, solar winds, or something else. And now that users are at home, really, all you’ve got there is endpoint monitoring. You can know if their computer is healthy, but you don’t really know the environment that they’re in, and you probably don’t have visibility into what their applications are doing. And so we’ve seen more and more demand for visibility into that user experience. We can offer that today with our SD-WAN platform, showing the end to end from their home to the cloud view into what application traffic types are there. And what’s the performance of that connectivity? And we’re also exploring other ideas to get deeper into that stack and provide more visibility for those IT leaders. So we provide that, whether it’s at home or in the corporate environment. But I think just with the pandemic, the way things have morphed, there’s more demand for new ways of that monitoring and visibility coming to market, as we’re trying to give the same great user experience to those users who aren’t in the corporate land.
Swapnil Bhartiya: Joel, thank you so much for taking time out today and discuss this report, which actually gives us a great insight into networking and connectivity. Without the connectivity, all the applications, everything, goes down as well. So thanks for sharing those insights and also the challenges that are there and what kind of strategies SMBs should build.