The Territory Manager for Nigeria, Ghana and sub-Saharan Africa at Cisco Meraki, Nick Malherbe, in this interview with Emma Okonji, speaks on how the adoption of the right form of technology will enable organisations save operational costs. Excerpts:
What do you think are the biggest IT challenges in Africa and Nigeria?
I would say one of the major Information Technology (IT) challenges in Africa and Nigeria, especially for growing businesses is connectivity. Connectivity in terms of connecting a site to network in a cost effective way. This is because connectivity is very costly. Being able to use connectivity in a productive way that enhances the position of any business within the market while also allowing them to compete in their market space is anything but cost effective. For example, a company where great internet connection is being used for anything other than business critical applications, is not using its resources productively. However, if one is able to see what’s happening over the networks, they would be able to shape and monitor traffic and the use of the internet, thereby making use of company resources and connectivity expenses in a more productive way.
Can you share with us one of the trends you see in cloud IT solution, in relation to hybrid cloud?
All I can say is that the demands on connectivity, internet connectivity and bandwidth is a clear trend. So, I will again look at what Meraki focuses on, that is solving customer challenges. Our primary focus is on how we can solve customers’ challenges to enable them take part in global connectivity, and not necessarily too concerned at this point about hybrid cloud and how we solve the hybrid cloud situation. We are rather concerned about how we can get everybody connected to the internet.
Cisco Meraki recently announced its technology solution offerings that were specifically designed to help MSMEs in Nigeria. How will the solutions help to simplify technology and create jobs?
Many organisations today are dealing with the challenges of lack of funding for advanced digital solutions and lack of Information Technology (IT) specialists to manage those solutions, but Meraki provides a simplified path to powerful technology. Cisco for instance, sees digitisation as a big trend that is important for businesses, whether big or small to adopt, and the new Meraki offerings are designed to simplify IT solutions for small and medium businesses even in the absence of an IT specialist. The technology provides complete network visibility and control – no hardware controllers or overlay software required. Configurations and management are easily performed remotely or on-site, while trouble shooting can be done in a fraction of the time with advanced networking analytics, allowing businesses to focus on more projects that are impactful. Our solutions help organisations to rapidly roll out digital initiatives, delivering real business value, and we are committed to helping our customers overcome challenges and achieve their goals.
To what extent do your solutions help organisations save operational cost in business?
Our solutions are cost effective and in addition, it eliminates hardware and cloud controllers and customers no longer use command line to configure a network. So it reduces the time to value so you are able to increase the value of your deployments rather quickly, so you are deploying within hours instead of days, days instead of weeks, and weeks instead of months. What that means is less resources needed to deploy the variety of network, and in terms of managing it on the cloud and in the dashboard, the cost saving is multi-pronged. Therefore, you do not need to send engineers out immediately to sites, which may take some time to get to. This then has an impact on the number of customers they can see because they are not just occupied by one particular problem, so the need to hire more people in terms of just maintenance functions is reduced and they have more in terms of optimising networks. The cost saving is in terms of two thirds of management of a network.
Talking about Artificial Intelligence (AI) and Machine Learning (ML), most especially AI in terms of your solution, what level of AI do you have that drives these solutions and how easy is it for customers to actually use it?
AI is a bulk of data that requires the application of algorithm to give a productive and useful output. They are measurements needed to make decisions. The most basic AI that Meraki provides in terms of the dashboard, is taking large amounts of coding, making it visually pleasing and also very easy to manage. In terms of AI, on our MV Cameras for video processing, is another area we are making lots of investments in, as well making the CCTV world not just about surveillance, but also about sensors, about using the database that it collects for improvement of public spaces, improvement of private institutions and making the data available in digestive form to customers. In that form, it is more useful and productive. So when you talk about AI, it is a big subject especially for any business that is yet to take advantage of it. At Meraki, we are putting a lot of time into that because of the growth potential that it portends.
Since you are putting a lot of investment in AI, how do you see it being a turnaround for businesses. Do you see it as a new business investment?
We rely on our five senses and data base to make decisions. So if we have technology around us that is able to collect data, analyse it, and give us information in byte sized chunks, in order to enhance our decision making for better means, then I think it is productive for the world at large. So it’s not just specific to Nigeria. When you look at Meraki and the way it manages information and presents it to the user, you will find out that such information allows users to make productive decisions about how they run their business. Again, AI is a big subject, it takes many forms, but when we talk about what is out there, we can talk about things like Amazon or Alexa for instance, where their voice control or command device can be incorporated into Meraki. You can ask Alexa what is my wireless network status today? how many clients usually come back and she can answer you. It’s through AI that that we are able to incorporate that as well. So we fit very well within that space.
Let’s look at the ease of use of these solutions, in the area of customer usage. How simplified are these solutions for customer use?
If you plug it in, it starts working, that is the basis of it. In order for me to get anybody who is inexperienced in setting up a network, I can give them a two A4 pages of instructions on how a Meraki dashboard and a Meraki network can be set up. For example, any new individual to Meraki or Cisco goes for two weeks training and predominantly that is about how we present the product, but a very small part of that, which is in one day, is essentially how to set up a network, the individual can learn how to set up a network within one day, so it is beyond simple for customers’ use.
Let us look at malware, in terms of data. Does your solution protect data from malware and how do customers get to know that it’s preventive and at what rate?
So we benefit from Cisco’s best in class security products and one of them is anti-malware protection, which looks at any threat that enters the network. We deploy firmware as soon as we identify the signature to protect all of our networks across the world, so it’s not isolated to one network.
How do your solutions link with cloud technology?
Cloud is a big subject, we have proto clouds, we have public clouds and we look at incorporating Meraki into things like AWS, or Azure for instance, these products can be integrated with the cloud architectures, and we are able to use complimentary services like active directories, radio service and other pieces of technology. In addition to that, Meraki provides you the visibility to understand that if a particular application is under performing, you are able to trouble shoot that and know where the problem lies. We work very closely with cloud providers, we have virtual security devices, which set in AWS for instance, and so you can go buy a VMX instead of buying a physical, a virtual annex that secure network and will provide you with a firewall in Amazon services. That’s basically how we incorporate.
In Nigeria and Africa generally, the adoption of new technology is always an issue, especially with AI. So what is the adoption rate of your solution in the Nigerian market?
So what we have seen in terms of adoption in the last couple of years around Cisco technologies generally, has been at a rapid rate. Specific to Nigeria and indeed Africa, with the benefits we have as regards adoption is that we don’t have legacy problems, so we don’t have to grapple with legacy technologies. Most times we have green field deployment and as a result of that we sort of leapfrog these legacy issues and adopt new technology. For example, when you look at some of these devices and handsets, you will observe that once something new is released globally, you see it in Nigeria and being adopted in Nigeria. The mobile networks have also brought this rate of adoptions closer to us as a people, so the rate of adoption for Meraki is also rapid because now we have more access to the internet and the dashboards are being cloud-driven. Once you have an access to the internet, then you can manage and work with Meraki.
How will your wireless connectivity solution address Nigeria’s challenge in internet penetration?
The solution in itself is simple. As mentioned earlier, the software defined Wireless Area Network, the SD1 technology allows you to be able to use different connectivity options to access the internet and in the simplest way. Another good example is one where you have a small business that has a primary internet link and then another link that could be through a service provider or a mobile service provider to the internet. When the primary link goes down, the Meraki solution gives you an opportunity to seamlessly move to the other connection, and that connection could be something as simple as a 3G or 4G connection from your mobile service provider. Truth is, connectivity is always going to be a problem in recent times but as we improve our options and get the connectivity better, businesses will boom. We are seeing more and more with the SD1 technology the ability to switch in a seamless manner and continue doing what you are doing on the internet.