An Interview with John Apostolopoulos, Ph.D.
Vice President & Chief Technology Officer Intent-Based Networking Group & Innovation Labs
John Apostolopoulos is CTO/VP of Cisco’s largest business – Intent-Based Networking Group, which covers campus, branch, WAN, data center, wired/wireless, and cloud networking. He is also the founder of Cisco’s Innovation Labs, with the mission to drive technology innovation aligned with Cisco’s strategic directions – these embrace several of today’s most exciting technology topics, including Intent-based Networking (IBN), Internet of Things (IoT), wireless (ranging from WiFi to emerging 5G), application-aware networking, multimedia networking, indoor-location-based services, connected car – as well as the application of machine learning and AI across those areas – and deep learning for visual analytics.
John’s list of awards is even longer than his surname. These include IEEE Fellow, IEEE SPS Distinguished Lecturer; being named “one of the world’s top 100 young (under 35) innovators in science and technology” (TR100) by MIT Technology Review; a Certificate of Honor for contributing to the US Digital TV Standard (Engineering Emmy Award 1997). His work on secure transcoding was adopted in the JPSEC standard and he has published over 100 papers – receiving 5 best paper awards – and he holds some 90 granted US patents.
His digital TV history is significant because it reflects a profound interest in human communication, starting with exciting internships at Jet Propulsion Laboratory on deep-space optical communication and at AT&T Bell Labs on very-low-bit-rate video communication. Before Cisco, John was a Distinguished Technologist and then Lab Director for the Mobile & Immersive Experience Lab at HP Labs. The mission was to create compelling networked media experiences to potentially revolutionize how people communicate, collaborate, socialize and entertain. His personal projects included mobile and immersive communication systems, innovative mobile device capabilities & experiences, networked media, multimedia client/cloud computing, robust & secure video communication, and mobile streaming media content delivery networks for all-IP (4G) wireless networks.
Faced with such an intriguing range of interests and experience, it was difficult to know where to begin. So we decided to narrow down the enquiry to his role at Cisco and the current global situation.
January 2020, just a few months ago, was a different world. Following the Davos conference, headline news included Chuck Robbins, Cisco’s Chairman and CEO, expressing optimism about trade deals’ role in “reducing uncertainty”. Then came the unexpected and unprecedented surprise of coronavirus. That prompted the first question.
NetReporter: Do you see the impact of Covid19 more as a resurgence of uncertainty, or as defining a new set of certainties?
JA: The world is full of surprises – both good and bad. It is important to design our systems, organizations, governments, and society to be able to adapt to new normals and be resilient in the face of challenges. Technology plays an incredibly important role in an organizations ability to stay resilient, particularly when it comes to increasing agility. For example, Cisco’s ability to scale Webex and cloud services to support people working from home in much greater numbers than before the COVID-19 global pandemic was vital for our customers in keeping their businesses operational. However, increased reliance on technology solutions does introduce new challenges. Cybersecurity can make the world more fragile, and requires consistent innovation to keep people, organizations and their data secure.
NetReporter: In face of business and social uncertainty, OpEx spending becomes more attractive than CapEx investment. Did you experience a big uptake in Cisco Meraki in Q2?
JA: Yes, various forms of subscription-based services are in high demand. And of course, cloud-delivered services have also made access and deployment easier with the massive move to work from home. Cisco Meraki has certainly resonated with customers, and a large portion of Cisco’s portfolio has also moved to a subscription-based model that offers the advantages of software-delivered solutions.
NetReporter: One short term certainty is the boom in online communications – witness the success of your Webex offering. Could this justify another shift in Cisco priorities, or is it too soon to say?
JA: There is certainly an increase in remote working, remote education, remote healthcare and other remote services. Cisco Webex has been and continues to be a high priority area for Cisco. In addition, many enterprises are trying to dramatically scale the number of remote workers who are productive, secure, and hopefully enjoying their work. This is immensely challenging. A part of the challenge in keeping employees productive is many enterprises IT departments have limited visibility of their employees’ situations at home. When an employee submits a work ticket, the IT person may not be able to fully diagnose issues because they don’t have visibility into network quality and bandwidth. This makes it more difficult for IT to help their employees with better collaboration experience or improve SaaS interactivity and user experience.
NetReporter: There has been a major shift from Cisco as a hardware vendor towards software plus hardware, and more recently to cloud subscription services. Which of these business models do you expect to be the fittest to survive the present crisis, and its aftermath?
JA: Cisco has been moving to subscription services for many years. Subscription services (which can cover SW and HW) have been one of the preferred business models by customers before this crisis, during, and I believe will continue after this crisis. Current events may accelerate this shift. However, a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach presents its own challenges. Cisco is committed to offering solutions that meet our customer’s needs – the right solutions for our customers’ environments, delivered the way they want to consume them.
NetReporter: In the current situation, Cisco has been a leader in promoting corporate citizenship as well as encouraging other initiatives across Silicon Valley and across the business world. Apart from the obvious good that this is doing in the short term, might this also have a long term benefit in reducing public suspicion and resentment about “big business”, and laying a foundation for greater trust in the future?
JA: It is really important for companies – and for individuals – to do what they can to help society. It is our responsibility to think about the communities we operate in around the world and our role to help them thrive. Running a good business goes well beyond generating profits, caring for customers or delivering solutions. At Cisco, we’re focused on not just talking about building an inclusive future for our communities, but investing resources and encouraging others to do the same. The COVID-19 global pandemic was, and continues to be, a scary time. But it also presented an opportunity for Cisco to take meaningful action. During the early days of the crisis Cisco gathered and donated to healthcare organizations large numbers of desktop video conferencing systems to help quickly ramp up telemedicine capabilities. We delivered over 25,000 masks and face shields to front-line workers. Cisco served meals and delivered food kits in Bangalore. We are committed to leading the way and inspiring change to address the challenges of inequity.
NetReporter: Meraki motion heat maps are an example of how surveillance cameras can extract valuable data without threatening privacy. Public fears about surveillance, artificial intelligence, biometric testing, big pharma etc were a very hot issue in 2019, but these are increasingly being recognised for their value in helping save us from the worst of this pandemic. Assuming that the crisis will pass, might it lead us to a “new normal” where people are too willing to forget privacy and allow a future government too much power to control?
JA: At Cisco, we believe privacy is a human right. We need to continue focusing on privacy and other aspects of improving society after the current crisis. I also believe that we can design technology to help keep society safe without compromising individual privacy. In addition to Meraki motion heat maps, DNA Spaces, our location-based analytics platform, can use Wi-Fi location data to monitor people density in buildings to help organizations meet social-distancing guidelines, while not sharing any personally identifiable information. Another example is OpenRoaming. Getting connected to a Wi-Fi network at a new venue (e.g., restaurant, hotel, etc) has historically been a cumbersome experience and often with inadequate security. The OpenRoaming standardization effort has the goal of enabling people to automatically and securely connect to a Wi-Fi network, and this can in some cases be done while preserving privacy (individual identity is not shared). Problems such as preserving privacy, removing bias, overcoming the digital divide are really challenging, but these are the types of challenges that we should bring together our collective intelligence to solve.
NetReporter: Business continuity is becoming an important watchword as the pandemic unfolds. What is Cisco doing to position itself as a provider of continuity?
JA: Cisco has been focused on helping our customers and broader society through this crisis since its beginning days. Whether helping with the unexpected and unprecedented move to work from home, including massive scaling in secure remote access and Webex collaboration, or helping healthcare, essential businesses, education, and other services as they navigate new challenges. Cisco has stayed committed to providing help were possible throughout the world. There is a large amount of information at https://www.cisco.com/c/m/en_us/covid19.html, and I encourage everyone to take a look.
NetReporter: Thank you John for your co-operation and responses.
As well as the information in the link John provided above, there will be an opportunity to hear him speak on a panel discussion What’s Hot in Networking & Analyst Views on 18th June – chaired by GlobalData’s Jeremiah Caron and initially streamed to select media companies, then to be available as podcasts etc on the NetEvents website. What’s Hot In Networking also follows hot on the tails of CiscoLive! so expect some insightful and balanced discussion of the most important topics and sessions from experts throughout the industry!
On the subject of the last question – business continuity – there will also be a round table discussion CIO Round Table Business Continuity & Collaboration on 23rd June to be broadcast from 30th June on the NetEvents website.
Article By Guy Matthews, Editor, NetReporter