Networking seems to be an industry that thrives on anticipation. At various times, the anticipation bounces between topics (when SDN will hit production environments, when Cisco would spin in Insieme, and so on), but the entire space seems to bounce around from anticipated event to anticipated event. It would seem that the next one in the queue is Arista’s IPO.
On the surface, Arista’s public offering is primarily about raising funds and rewarding people who have worked hard to build a successful company over the past several years. But what else does it say about the networking industry at large?
Networking is not dead
When the Internet was created, networking was huge. The companies that provided the gear to make the Internet work were handsomely rewarded for figuring out how to push bits from here to there. Over the past 15 years, however, a lot of the luster has worn off. Infrastructure is less sexy than Web 2.0, social media, and crowdsourcing. Talent follows opportunity, and with most of the opportunity in other hotter spaces, vendors have had a more difficult time attracting the kind of talent necessary to evolve the space.
The effects of an aging workforce are dramatic. Without new blood, you don’t get access to new ideas. It is unsurprising that the industry has floundered a bit for the past 15 years, adding on incrementally but rarely breaking free from the inertial chains of yesteryear.
If Arista’s IPO is successful, it could provide a jolt to the collective industry. By showing that the space is lucrative, Arista could help bolster the case for many networking companies that there is excitement to be had outside the glow of social media and Web 2.0.
The end game is more than a mega acquisition
Some would argue that there has been a steady stream of cash flowing into networking since about 2010. With SDN, there has been a boom in new companies all making the world a better place through some kind of separation of software and hardware. The poster child for this boom is certainly Nicira ($1.2B turns heads), but there have been a a number of companies that have cashed in on this SDN wave.
A successful IPO would show the world that networking success is not limited to being bought out by one of the few larger players.
If we are being honest, we will admit that the hype that surrounds SDN, NFV, and network virtualization is driving up perceived values of these startup companies. But are revenues following? If they are not, then the only successful outcome for a lot of the startups in the space is acquisition. There are a large number of people banking on dumb money taking them out before they ever have to prove that their product ideas can translate to business returns.
If Arista demonstrates that the market will support a full-blown business, it shifts the focus back to building something sustainable. In other words, you can be successful through good, old-fashioned hard work, not just by riding the wave and slapping an “SDN Inside” tag on the outside.
The market is hungry for alternatives
That Arista is gaining ground says as much about Cisco as it does about Arista. The switch markets generally have been a fairly comfortable space for Cisco for the better part of two decades now. But most markets require more than a single dominant incumbent. Having at least one solid alternative puts pressure on everyone in the space. Innovation thrives on competition, and customers benefit from innovation.
The interesting footnote to this is how the definition of alternative might play out. Legacy networking has been yearning for real competition, and Arista seems to have stepped into that role. What happens if the market shifts now? Will there be another set of SDN solutions seeking an SDN alternative? If so, does that open the space to other companies?
Market success starts with narrow focus
While the emphasis around the IPO will be on the broader switching TAM, what Arista’s exit really does is reenforce the fact that successful enterprises start with a narrow focus. Arista was very successful in leading the charge towards merchant silicon in support of faster, cheaper solutions for financial services companies. By reducing the problem set to those things needed by a specific market, Arista was able to make meaningful headway against its unfocused incumbent, and then use the resulting capabilities to move into adjacent spaces.
Interestingly, if you look at the other major networking company to have success against Cisco’s incumbency, you would see that Juniper used a similar tact in grabbing share in the service provider space.
As investor eyes move from Arista to the plethora of other companies in the infrastructure space, what does this tell us? The SDN dialogue is largely about general networking. Most companies pursuing SDN publicly are building general networking solutions. Arista and Juniper tell us that focus is a key ingredient to sustainable success. It is probably less important who exists within the hype and more important which companies are focused on specific problems within specific segments.
Workflow is the new black
Arista sells hardware, but a good part of their success is actually baked into the software. What Arista realized fairly early on is that automating networking workflows reduced the barriers to entry and created compelling reasons to buy. If SDN is an organic industry reaction to the difficulty in managing networks, it would seem Arista might have provided a blueprint for others in the space.
Going forward, the question is whether those workflows are bounded by the networking devices (things like autoload, for instance), or if IT is moving to a point where workflows across infrastructure need to be coordinated. For example, would Big Data workflows that include both networking and storage be a good target for workflow automation?
Reapplying the Arista workflow emphasis at a broader level will likely yield strong results. The questions shift from managing information inside the box to handling information across infrastructure boundaries. Predicting success could be about locating companies with their eyes focused a bit outside the box.
The eventual outcome for Arista’s exit is unknown. But it very well could be that what we learn is most relevant to the next crop of companies.