Mist Takes Flight

Every 17 years, the Cicadas come out from hibernation, a polyvalent symbol reminding us of the powerful forces of nature taking flight in a spirit of renewal. In 2002, Mist founders and leaders Bob Friday, Brett Galloway, Jeff Aaron, Matt Barletta and Tom Wilburn (to name a few) and I were creating Airespace, the then leading centralized WLAN company built around a “controller” architecture. The product theory was that networks needed a device (a box) to centralize Wi-Fi operations to achieve scale and security versus managing access points one at a time (autonomously). With a great team and a technology stack second-to-none, we took this project from PowerPoint to the number 3 market share player in the enterprise in just a few short years before being acquired by Cisco. It was one of the most rewarding professional experiences of my career: not simply because of its successful outcome, but because of the impact we had on the industry and the friendships we developed along the way.

Airespace was turbocharged by the “Centrino moment”: Intel placed a Wi-Fi chip on each motherboard, every laptop, creating the demand for an explosion of WLAN access points for general use in the enterprise. Prior to this, WLANs were an emerging technology that was important in hospitals, retail, and logistics facilities but deemed too insecure or too hard to manage at scale in businesses. (Getting Wi-Fi on a laptop was no easy task back in the day. Remember these?)

After the acquisition, most industry observers thought the WLAN industry was “done,” as the large incumbents settled into a slow, grind-it-out battle for market share while the new, centralized architecture took over the industry. Moreover, most people believed WLANs were secondary technology to support wired networks. I cannot count the number of times I was told my wireless network existed to “sell Power-over-Ethernet ports for wiring closet switches,” which was then a much larger market. I argued that Wi-Fi would become the new access network, albeit it fell on deaf ears and closed minds (blame the messenger!). Combined with the power of Google, ubiquitous broadband access powered by Wi-Fi — remember, there was no 3G cellular, yet — WLAN pioneers would change how people work, live, learn and play for years to come.

“There are no second acts in American lives” — F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Last Tycoon

We put our head down and like the Cicadas, went into architectural hibernation as we did our day jobs. Inevitably, this thinking was wrong. Wi-Fi was a Black Swan, and prefaced other changes in the technology world:

- 2006: Amazon introduces the modern cloud, and everyone had access to the most advanced computing resources with a few clicks

- 2007: Apple and Google Android begin the smartphone era

- 2007 VMware introduces server virtualization mainstreams how an application can scale

- 2007 GPU programming became broadly supported with NVIDIA CUDA, paving way for mass-market adoption of Artificial Intelligence (AI)

- 2012: LinkedIn open sources Apache Kafka and a range of technologies that change how applications would be deployed in the cloud. Microservices are born.

- 2013: Docker released.

The changes in the tech world did not go unnoticed by the Airespace crowd. In 2014, Brett and Bob recruited a business founder, Sujai Hajela, to a new venture called Mist. Sujai was our worthy competitor at Symbol in the First WLAN world war and then we recruited him to run our business at Cisco in 2010 (which he grew from $1B to $3B). He was the best choice for heading up the first true new wireless startup in over a decade.

Brett, Bob, and Sujai started a new company that would not only address the explosive need to support enterprise mobility at enormous scale, it would be built on top of the same innovations that were driving the market growth itself: AI, cloud, mobile computing, IoT, microservices for 100s billions of device and applications, not a few billion. People forgot about Wi-Fi just as it went from a $2B to a $10B industry. And Mist had one other key advantage of being a cloud-centric technology: Mist became the first AI-driven network, real machine learning and not PR flack sprinkling Tensor Flow foo-foo dust on a few boxes. Artificial intelligence would run the network, and they designed it into the core from Day 1.

Another Rami Wins an Oscar (Best Acquisition of 2019)

It’s hard to explain what it’s like working in wireless. To me, it’s a little like flying. As manned flight pioneer Wilbur Wright once said: “more than anything else the sensation of perfect peace mingled with an excitement that strains every nerve to the utmost.”

Like the Kitty Hawk, Mist took off and flew high. It grew rapidly, and in a few short years took down some of the largest and most significant wireless networks across retail, healthcare, higher education, enterprise, and government. One former Airespace customer, who now uses Mist, told me: “Mist is to Airespace and the WLAN controller space what the F-35 Lightning 5th generation fighter jet is to the F-4 Phantom. In its day, the F-4 was an air supremacy fighter. Today, it is mostly retired.”

The Mist journey is inspiring. I could not be prouder of Sujai and the entire team and thank them for having me on the journey. They join Rami Rahim’s great, deeply committed leadership team at Juniper who value the same things as Mist — innovation, automation, and simplicity in network operations. And I predict that the companies will fit hand-in-glove, creating a sonic boom that will be felt across the entire enterprise networking industry.




Partner at DCVC (Data Collective)

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Partner at DCVC (Data Collective)

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