Interview: Ian Harris, System Integrators Leader, EMEA – Ciena

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Ian Harris - Ciena. Photo provided.

Ian Harris has over 25 years of experience in telecommunications product development, product management and business development for large, complex, leading edge solutions with a director level experience of 10 years in the networking, virtualisation and cloud computing industry. The London-born IT guru, who also runs a blog dedicated to new technologies and photography, was recently in Dubai for a media roundtable seminar and gave a talk about cloud networking in the Middle East. Arabian Gazette’s Moign Khawaja caught up with him and asked questions about his background, industry experience, future technologies of the Middle East and interests and passion of life.

Please tell us a bit about your background.

I have enjoyed a 27 year career with Ciena and Nortel and held many technology related roles during this period. I owned the project that delivered the first managed SDH trial in Europe during the late 1980s and was involved with the technology through to its mass market deployment.

For 17 years I was involved in the development and market roll-out of Nortel’s Optical Network Management portfolio. I owned both R&D and business related organisations during this period achieving many significant development and business milestones.

For the last 8 years, I have been responsible for applying leading edge carrier technologies to Enterprise applications in the EMEA region and globally. In this role, I have developed a range of innovative Enterprise and Data Centre interconnectivity solutions leading to a specialism in Cloud solutions.

I work extensively with end customers, Advanced technology vendors, System integrators and Service Providers to devise and advise on solutions and the advance of cloud services. I work closely with leading Storage solution vendors to define WAN based Storage Virtualisation solutions that will underpin Private and Hybrid Cloud services going forward.

How old were you when you started taking interest in computer networks and equipment? What was it about them that fascinated you the most?

I built my first machine from scratch when I was 14 – a dedicated single board micro to control other equipment – and have been building machines ever since.

What was your first breakthrough in the field of communication engineering?

In my career I have been part of many breakthroughs, for example, I was responsible for the design and development of the first intelligent digital cross-connect and also involved in Europe’s first STH trial.

Ciena was founded in 1992 with a mission to change the economics of telecommunications networks. How do you think it has managed to achieve that objective so far?

Cutting-edge technology, compelling customer economics and superior service have enabled Ciena to achieve a competitive advantage in the telecommunications marketplace. Ciena remains thoroughly committed to solving the specific business challenges of its global customer base with a high-touch, consultative approach—allowing customers to fully leverage their networks as a strategic and adaptive business asset in today’s evolving and increasingly competitive landscape. Ciena now serves more than 1,000 customers in over 60 countries, including nearly three-quarters of the world’s largest service providers, global enterprises — with a particularly strong track record in mission-critical financial and healthcare networks — research and education institutions and other essential government agencies.

How do you think Ciena survived the 2001 dot com crash which also hurt the telecommunications industry. What factors helped it emerge as an industry leader after that?

In early 2001, the telecommunications industry began to experience a severe downturn, which affected nearly all of its participants, including equipment suppliers like Ciena. Industry analysts estimate that service provider spending on optical networking equipment fell from nearly $27 billion in 2001 to $9.4 billion in 2002 — an unprecedented, market-wide decline that specifically affected the demand for the products Ciena sold. Not surprisingly, as the industry suffered this radical and widespread contraction, Ciena’s revenues plunged— declining 80% to $361 million in 2002.

In light of the situation, Ciena viewed itself as having two options. With a strong balance sheet, the company could have buckled down and focused solely on cutting costs amidst the market uncertainty. Or, it could move beyond its single, point-product success as a vendor of optical networking equipment to become a strategic provider of advanced networking solutions. Unlike many of its competitors, Ciena took a contrarian approach and chose the latter direction.

Though not without its risks and challenges, for the next several years Ciena executed on a strategy of balancing continued investment in its business with careful financial management and cost control, based on the belief that it would be in a better position to capitalise on future growth opportunities. Critical to this strategy was an expansion of Ciena’s product portfolio and enhanced product functionality through internal development, acquisitions and partnerships, during a time when nearly all other companies in the space implemented dramatic cost cutting and product rationalisation initiatives.

Between 2001 and 2005, Ciena made six acquisitions, with an aggregate deal value of more than $2 billion, with the goal of anticipating the areas of long-term technology growth in the industry. This approach enabled Ciena to increase penetration of its historical customer base with additional products and to broaden its addressable market to include new customer segments and geographies.

In addition to a diversified customer base and product portfolio, Ciena radically transformed many elements of its business operations, including transitioning to an outsourced manufacturing model, expanding sales efforts with channel partners and resellers, and restructuring its professional services business from a fixed to a variable cost model.

Ciena defined itself as “the network specialist” in 2004. How did the rebranding help the company transform itself and penetrate into emerging markets?

In October 2004, Ciena went to market with a newly-defined identity as “the network specialist.” Placing the company’s core value to the marketplace in its heritage and strength in solving specific issues in optical transport and switching, the new identity applied that expertise to current critical applications that address customers’ key business problems. The updated company positioning included a new logo, a refreshed website and, most notably, a revised approach to addressing customers’ challenges. By changing Ciena’s voice and appearance to the world, the repositioning conveyed the distinct evolution from the Ciena of the past, and set the stage for continued meaningful improvements to the company’s business model and go-to-market approach.

Today Ciena remains true to its specialist roots as a focused company, offering customers the deepest level of knowledge and commitment in delivering the innovation, quality and customer service expected of a global leader.

What are Ciena’s core products and specialities?

Ciena offers leading network infrastructure solutions, intelligent software and a comprehensive services practice. Our portfolio of software-centric optical and Ethernet platforms combines network element programmability, operating system commonality and management unification, and Carrier Ethernet-based transformation to enable our customers to change the way they compete. Our solutions form the foundation of many of the largest, most reliable and sophisticated service provider, enterprise, government, and research and education networks across the globe.

Ciena’s key offerings:

Packet-Optical Transport: Platforms that automatically adapt to a wide range of existing fibre plants, making 40G and 100G as easy to deploy as 10G.

Packet-Optical Switching: Multi-terabit-class reconfigurable switching systems utilising intelligent mesh networking to automate the provisioning and dynamic bandwidth control of high-capacity services.

Carrier Ethernet Solutions: Intelligent devices that create low-touch, high-velocity access, backhaul and aggregation networks.

Ciena One Software Suite: Unified software solutions for comprehensive service lifecycle control, proactive monitoring and multi-layer control plane across a wide range of network layers and service types.

Ciena Specialist Services: A comprehensive services practice that applies Ciena expertise to your specific challenges and opportunities to maximise your network infrastructure investment.

How different is Middle Eastern market compared to, let’s say Europe or Asia? How did Ciena manage to make inroads in the MENA region?

The ME market is developing at an impressive speed, creating interesting business opportunities. People here are focused on being at the forefront of technology trends and striving for the region to become a true centre of high-tech.

The demand in the market is also a strong driver, both from enterprises and consumers through the increase in use of connected devices such as iPads and smartphones, which has contributed to the increase of data usage.

What are the biggest challenges Ciena has faced and will be facing in the Middle East? How does it seek to address them?

The networking industry is facing a wide spectrum of issues – many of them unique to individual markets across the region. One of them is certainly keeping up with the constantly growing capacity demands of consumers and enterprises – fuelled by the growth of new services such as video-on-demand or cloud computing based applications. In a number of recent examples we are seeing that operators are leading the global industry by deploying high-capacity, next-generation networks, for example Mobily recently announced the 1st 100G Network deployment in Saudi Arabia.

Another challenge is that a number of operators’ portfolio of services offered to their customers remains limited. On the corporate side, enterprises and SMEs need to work with operators and help drive the change needed to satisfy their growing demands, rather than accepting the status quo. It is that active co-operation that will help the market evolve and truly satisfy the needs of its participants. On the consumer side, price can also be a barrier to market, especially for new services.

Examples of local projects:

• Ciena and Mobily announced the Middle East’s First 100G Network in Riyadh. The demand for bandwidth coming from Saudi businesses is growing steadily due to the rise in and applications like video, teleconferencing and cloud computing.

Ciena’s 100G coherent technology allows for a total throughput of 8.8 Terabits of data per second on Mobily’s network, carried over 88 optical channels on a single strand of optical fibre – meaning that Mobily is able to meet this rising demand for capacity, while future-proofing its network for the years to come.

• The SEA-ME-WE 4 cable system has recently been upgraded with 40G/100G technologies, significantly increasing its overall capacity, supporting the delivery of high-speed internet and broadband services along the approximately 20,000 km route connecting Europe to the Middle East and South East Asia.

• Etisalat Group (Etisalat) has deployed Ciena’s 4200 Advanced Services Platform for a major upgrade of its transport network in the United Arab Emirates. The new network provides Etisalat with a 40G national backbone, carrying packet/IP core traffic across more than 40 locations in the UAE.

What is your usual day like? What defines your role as Systems Integrator Leader at Ciena?

It is difficult to describe a ‘typical’ day – since my workload is so varied. I am responsible for all aspects of our business relationship with our strategic alliance partners in EMEA, supporting joint propositions with key partners and developing solutions that meet the requirements of our customers. I am also globally responsible for our technical value to market proposition for those alliance partners, in particular in the cloud space.

They key thing that defines my role is working together with partners to define solutions in the cloud space that combine the value of Ciena and its technology with the value offered by our customers – allowing us to create an end solution that meets the requirements of our customers and where the whole (our joint solution) has more value than the individual products.

You’ve an established career with over 25 years of experience in telecommunications and business development. Please tell us a bit about your notable achievements?

In the last three years I have established Ciena’s role in the emergent cloud computing space, bringing cloud solutions to large enterprises and service providers and working to make the cloud enterprise-grade.

You’re a cloud computing guru and passionate about future technologies. What cloud computing services do you personally use? Why do you think they’re better to use when compared to others?

I use many cloud services, including Dropbox, Gmail, Google docs, and Microsoft 365. I also collaborate extensively on applications like Twitter and Facebook. Cloud services offer the opportunity to collaborate with others (both for work and play), as well as security, ease of access, and availability. I get tremendous value of out the cloud without incurring the cost of ownership associated to traditional applications.

Why do you believe that “future is all about cloud computing”? Why is everything being moved to the cloud?

The move to the cloud is all about consumption – as the appetite of consumers and enterprises for data services continues to grow, the cloud offers a better way to manage flows of demand. The cloud model is about renting instead of buying connectivity.

All aspects of the cloud will be managed in an orchestrated and integrated fashion. Traditional technologies will be subsumed and abstracted into cloud services. In the network’s case, bandwidth services will be represented as higher level cloud services. Rather than acquiring a 10GE connectivity service, cloud solutions will deliver 100TB of managed capacity offering resilient, location independent storage. The same would be the case, for instance, with compute capacity. In order to deal with these new high level services, management solutions must bind together all of the cooperating and dependent technologies into a single, cohesive, end to end cloud management solution.

Please tell us a bit about the green initiatives Ciena is taking at the moment and has planned for the future.

There are many green aspects associated to data centres – for example reducing the power consumption and cooling requirements for the data centre equipment. Ciena’s equipment is designed to be as power efficient as possible, requiring less electricity to be powered and less electricity for associated data centre cooling equipment.

Ciena is also working with our data centre partners to introduce dynamic/elastic networks interconnecting geographically separated data centres, which will allow Cloud providers to move their data/compute between its data centres based on locations with the greener methods of powering (e.g. geothermal power) and cooling (using cool ambient temperature in northern countries) data centres.

What IT company inspires you the most and why?

Apple to a certain extent – even though they are not an IT company – I admire their ability to put customers first and recognise what customers want and meet their needs.

In the IT space, EMC and Intel would be my choices.

Intel keeps pushing the boundaries of processing capacity in everything we do and is therefore a great inspiration for the IT sector.

EMC has managed to achieve market predominance based initially on a simple offering and transformed it into a very rich portfolio, the ability to meet and predict market evolution and support a vast customer base. EMC is a company that is able to innovate and meet customers’ needs while staying true to its core values – and that is translated into longevity in a difficult market.

Who has been the biggest influence in your 25+ years experience?

Many people have influenced my career. My dad is a brilliant engineer and has been an inspiration since my early years – in particular his attention to detail and dedication to keep working on a project until achieving the best possible results – has been an inspiration for my work and my passion for technology.

Apart from work, how do you enjoy life?

I am very active – even though work consumes most of my time – I love diving and underwater photography as well as everything connected to technology.

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