Wi-Fi networks are essential, but difficult and expensive to deploy and manage. Therefore, many companies are handing off the tasks to others.
Note-taking app developer Evernote outsourced its wireless network to startup Meter, and home improvement retailer Home Depot to Aruba, a Hewlett Packard Enterprise company. Both tech buyers determined that the loss of network control was worth eliminating IT work that wasn't core to their businesses.
"I can essentially get the same services from a vendor for less without the headache, and I can reallocate my people to work on other projects," said Gabe Raffaelli, IT director at Evernote.
Home Depot and Evernote found that a subscription-based consumption model for hardware, software, maintenance and network management was cheaper than doing it themselves. Also, Aruba and Meter were faster at modifying the networks to meet changing business operations.
According to Brandon Butler, analyst at IDC, most enterprises are not ready to follow Evernote's and Home Depot's lead, but 27% of those surveyed by IDC are considering some form of a network as a service (NaaS) model.
"We're not quite at the point where we have mainstream adoption of NaaS ... but we expect this to be a significant part of the networking market in the years to come," Butler said.
Outsourcing its in-house Wi-Fi to Meter made sense for Evernote's 500-employee SaaS business. Meter begins by partnering with internet service providers for connectivity, and installing its switching and routing hardware in the customer's offices. Then, it layers on services like software-defined WAN (SD-WAN), VPN and device encryption.
Starting at $0.15 per square foot of coverage, per month, Meter costs the same as buying and maintaining a Wi-Fi network for a new office over five years, Raffaelli said. But Meter frees him from getting into the weeds of RAID architectures or power redundancy.
When a new printer needs to be configured or Wi-Fi coverage degrades, Raffaelli sends Meter a Slack message. The company can complete remote-friendly tasks like printer configuration within hours.
For tasks that require on-site work, such as a wireless survey to adjust Wi-Fi coverage, Meter handles the entire process, including hiring a third party to conduct the study.
"What was nice about that is, I didn't have to deal with scheduling that [survey] person, communicating with them and getting the report back," Raffaelli said.
About five years ago, Home Depot started outsourcing portions of its switching and wireless hardware to Aruba. Today, Aruba manages location-aware access points and the guest Wi-Fi network at Home Depot's 2,100 stores. It's also responsible for the Zebra Technologies hand-held devices employees use to track inventory.
When demand for curbside pickup exploded at the start of the pandemic, Home Depot leaned on Aruba to quickly extend the company's indoor Wi-Fi, said Daniel Grider, vice president of technology at Home Depot. Aruba deployed new access points and adjusted the strength of outdoor antennas.
Outdoor connectivity had been on Grider's roadmap for some time, but letting someone else handle that task helped him spin it up quickly without dropping the ball on other pandemic-related changes to the network.
One of those changes included deploying an SD-WAN. The project was successful "because the engineers had the time to focus on doing that and doing it right," Grider said.
IT vendors have leased hardware for some time, but managing network operations' entire lifecycle too is a recent offering, Butler said. Customers benefit by having someone focused exclusively on network optimization so that IT teams can turn to other priorities.
Aruba plans to grow its network management business significantly, according to Ulf Vinneras, vice president of service product management. Within four years, the company expects nearly half of IT infrastructure purchases to be as-a-service.
Other networking vendors also offer their flavor of an as-a-service offering. Last year, Cisco introduced Cisco Plus for customers that want to order computing, storage and networking for a specific scenario, and pay for it by the month based on usage.
Madelaine Millar is a news writer covering network technology at TechTarget. She has previously written about science and technology for MIT's Lincoln Laboratory and the Khoury College of Computer Sciences, as well as covering community news for Boston Globe Media.