An interview with Matthew McPherson, Chief Technology Officer, Wireless – Cisco, a multinational technology company that specializes in designing, manufacturing, and selling networking equipment, software, and services, to talk about digital transformation for businesses and hybrid environment
Techx: Can you walk us through some of the Hybrid environment challenges for network and access and how are you solving this?
McPherson: This is a great question and there’s a lot of relevance as of now in the network space. In fact, at the beginning of the COVID pandemic, people started working from home at unprecedented rates. They connected to the internet, then we would VPN them back into corporate. Next, since all of our productivity tools are out in the cloud, they would end up going right back out through the firewall, in order to get access to those services.
This hair pinning doesn’t always give the best experience, for instance when you’re using a collaboration tool like Webex.
The other challenge now is that people are coming back to the workplace. So, people are joining meetings both from home and the office and you get mixed environments for meetings. Plus, there is the security element: who’s getting in and how you’re authenticating. That’s where zero trust comes to play. In summary: there have been challenges but we are on top of it to secure and enhance user experience in the hybrid environments.
Techx: How are you innovating for Hybrid environments, what are the best solutions for enterprises for an effective hybrid experience?
McPherson: There are multiple different solutions. I was just mentioning zero trust. It’s important because a lot of times we don’t know much about people’s home office environment, such as their Wi-Fi. To create an enterprise-type environment. we can for example put a Meraki Access Point on location. With that, you will get the exact same services at home that you would have if you were connected to the office network.
For Cisco employees, no matter where you go in the world, our network can authenticate you at any office. When I’m at home, or if someone else from Cisco comes to my home, they’ll authenticate just like it’s a remote office. And you’ll have all the security capabilities that you would have if you were sitting right there in the office. So, all the security mechanisms that protect me and Cisco data when I’m at the office also apply when I’m at the home office.
In reality, we have to accomplish two objectives. One is your experience at home: it needs to be as good as when you’re in the office from a bandwidth latency point of view. The second is, it needs to be secure because we’re not just protecting you personally but we’re also protecting corporate data.
Techx: Well, you mentioned Meraki, tell us more about the Meraki platform. How is it accelerating transformation for businesses in the current scenario?
McPherson: Everything about Meraki is about ease of use and the fact that it’s managed through the cloud. We want to make it easy for the IT department and in the case of home users, we want to make it easy for them to set up the network and get going.
It sounds simple, but to make it easy for the user we needed to develop technology that is fairly revolutionary and gives us the ability to pull analytics from any point in the network. Now, one thing that’s unique about Cisco is that we also pull analytics from devices, such as an iPhone, an android devices, or Intel-based PCs. Not only does the network tell us how traffic is flowing, if it’s flowing well, where the bottlenecks are, we can actually know what the experience is from the device itself. And what that does is, it feeds a data lake and because of that data lake, we can now apply AI and machine learning to actually optimize the experience based on data.
Techx: Tell us about the security capabilities of the Cisco DNA centre and how DNAC & Meraki are enabling enterprises to do more?
McPherson: We have two management platforms today. We have the DNA centre, and then we have the Meraki dashboard. When you’re talking about a cloud-based implementation, then you use something like the Meraki dashboard. If you’re putting a solution on-prem, you would use the DNA centre to do the management locally. There are a lot of customers who want to keep management on-prem and within the campus, like government entities, trading houses, exchanges etc.
What we’re doing is we’re converging those architectures. In essence, the Catalyst line and the Meraki line are starting to converge capabilities. Traditionally, Catalyst devices were far more capable from a feature standpoint. Today, we’re seeing Meraki inherit some of those very important features. At the same time, the Catalyst line is benefiting from some of the cloud services that we built in the Meraki platform.
Moving on to security, as we go into this new realm of things like smart buildings with a lot of purpose-built IoT solutions, you really want to segment these off from the rest of the network. The reason is those smart lightbulbs, smart HVAC systems and other smart things that make buildings more efficient, don’t have sophisticated stacks in them and they can be easily compromised. Imagine a hacker were to get into your lightbulb, then start to spread sideways to all the IoT devices that have simple stacks, and then launch a denial-of-service attack. Not an ideal situation to be in.
With DNAC we can segment off the IoT from business-relevant traffic to avoid any disruptions to the business and monitor for adjacent communications that are atypical for the device. So, if a light bulb talks to a management system that’s managing when the lights turn on/off, that’s a normal communication. But when light bulbs start talking to other light bulbs, that’s atypical. Here we can recognize that the device is compromised and we’ll isolate it. Imagine a use case, say in a hospital where it isn’t a light bulb, but a heart monitor. You can’t just turn the device off. What you do is you isolate it into its own segment, so that it can’t infect anything else, and still allow it to operate. In short, we’re overlaying some of the security capabilities into the management capabilities enabling our customers to segment their network on purpose and address some of these next-generation threats.
Techx: What new technologies are you working on specifically post-pandemic and how have you innovated keeping in mind the new customer demands?
McPherson: There’s so much happening in the wireless technology domain right now. We tend to think of it as the way to connect people. But it’s really becoming the way to connect people and things.
One of the trends we follow is how many people and things are connecting to the network on a year-on-year basis.
This year, we’re crossing a boundary, where there’s more things talking to things than people talking to people. So, this is a big change. Things have different characteristics; they have different requirements. There’s a whole set of new technologies that are being developed that Cisco is leading, around what we call “deterministic wireless”. What we mean by deterministic wireless is, how do you provide a reliable connection that meets application latency requirements at scale? For instance, you have 10 times more devices at your home connecting to your network than just a few years ago. So high density is everywhere. And when high density happens, there’s more chance for collisions and you may not get the experience you want to get. Even Netflix starts spinning its wheels and we hate that. That becomes even worse in enterprise environments, with all the people and things that are connecting. So, we’re working on this next generation of deterministic wireless. We started it with Wi-Fi 6 with Apple and we came out with a technology called Fast Lane plus. With Wi-Fi 6e, we can address interference while giving you more spectrum so that you can find a clean spectrum.
Plus, we’re introducing next-generation technologies with Wi-Fi 7 like multilink operation. It means that now a device can connect to an access point using two different frequencies. So, if somebody were to cause interference, say a MiFi device came in or someone started using the spectrum and you got blocked, then even though one leg went down, you can still get traffic on the other leg. And for the leg that is experiencing the interference, it’ll find another frequency to maintain redundancy. These types of technologies make Wi-Fi fun! Wi-Fi became so popular so fast and according to some of the latest European reports, 92.3% of all internet traffic starts or ends on Wi-Fi. Today, Wi-Fi is almost synonymous with internet. When you get that kind of use, and that new densities that we have, you have got to move into some of these next-generation technologies.