Steve Mullaney Back in the Fray: The Futuriom Q&A

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By: R. Scott Raynovich

Aviatrix is a startup tackling the challenge of multi-cloud networking -- and it's got a serious CEO. The company's profile got raised a notch in July of 2018 when Steve Mullaney took the helm as the new CEO. Mullaney is a veteran executive in the networking industry who is best known for shepherding software-defined networking (SDN) pioneer Nicira through explosive growth before it was acquired by VMware for $1.25B in 2012. 

Nicira has legendary status as the leader of the first wave of the SDN movement to build more open and cloud-based networking. In fact, Nicira’s product NSX has remained very influential at VMware where it has enjoyed strong growth and now anchors VMware’s cloud networking strategy. But that's not all Mullaney has done. Prior to Nicira, Mullaney served as vice president, marketing, and interim CEO for Palo Alto Networks, where he set the strategy that launched one of the most powerful networking security companies. He's also held executive positions at Cisco, Blue Coat, Force10 Networks (acquired by Dell), and Cisco. He started his career in the heyday of the Massachusetts networking boom as a design engineer at GTE Government Systems and built his roots at the legendary networking startups Bay Networks and SynOptics. 

When Mullaney decided to make the move to Aviatrix, he was a startup CEO in high demand who had been in quasi-retirement for several years, resisting taking on another CEO job. So the return to the startup trenches was noticed. When Mullaney joined Aviatrix, several folks told me it was a game changer. People said an interview was a requirement. Investors and employees alike were clearly energized by the hire.

I met Mullaney in person last May on a sunny day (of course it was) at the Aviatrix headquarters in Palo Alto. It's crazy that I’d never met him, considering I have been covering the software-defined networking market since its emergence in the 2012 timeframe. His leadership presences was immediately evident. Mullaney greeted me with a big smile and immediately launched into a screed about the cloud technology revolution. His enthusiasm was infectious. In a matter of 30-40 minutes, he rattled off decades of industry history and analysis of why the timing was right to plunge back into the next phase of multi-cloud networking.

Here is the results of an interview that started in person an then was finished with some back-and-forth via mail. I hope you enjoy it.

Futuriom: Steve, you’re back at a startup! It’s been a while. What motivated you to join Aviatrix?

Mullaney:  After Nicira and a few years at VMware, I thought I was done, from an operational role perspective. But, I’ve been staying busy as a board member for five or six enterprise infrastructure startups, most with solutions targeting enterprises moving to the cloud. Aviatrix was one of them. About 9 months ago I saw a significant shift in the customer logos these companies were landing -- not the typical early adopter customers that startups attract, but mainstream enterprise customers [the first part of this interview took place in June, so Mullaney is referring to events in 2018]. Of course, we all have been talking about cloud for over ten years and then five years ago when I was at VMware, everyone thought enterprise infrastructure companies were dead… everything was going to the cloud. But the -- nothing happened -- enterprises didn’t move to the cloud. They started playing around with the cloud, DevOps teams started to prove it was technically possible, they began to demonstrate that there are significant operational agility benefits a cloud architecture can offer, but there was no massive enterprise IT move to the public cloud. Then, about nine months ago the massive enterprise move began. I can’t tell you exactly why, but it felt as abrupt as happening on a random Tuesday morning when mainstream enterprises somehow got together and decided it was time and the herd began to move en masse. This was the cause for the logo changes I was seeing. It was finally happening, and this shift meant I was seeing the beginning of the next major transformation in computing. I lived through the mainframe to client server and Internet shift, that was big.That transformation built infrastructure companies like Cisco, VMware, Dell, EMC and of course the Internet giants. But this new computing model transformation is going to be 10 times as big and happen 1,000 times faster. Think about the time it used to take to build a data center in the client server era: months, years. You need the building, the power, the cooling, the racks, the wiring, the network hardware, the physical servers, the storage… [it takes] years! Today, you can spin up the equivalent of an entire data center in the cloud in minutes.

So, with that as the background, I knew what Aviatrix had, I knew that enterprises needed a new networking and security architecture. Just as Cisco provided the network and security architecture for enterprises in the mid 1990’s, Aviatrix will do the same for enterprises in the cloud era. I simply could not sit back and watch it happen, I had to be in it. And, like our customers, I’m all in.

Futuriom: How many employees does Aviatrix have and what major changes have occurred since you’ve been there?

Mullaney:  We are about 80 now, I expect to be at 100 by the end of the year and 200 by end of next year. We are hiring like crazy. There have been a lot of changes, both at Aviatrix and in the marketplace. We’ve gone from our customers being the DevOps team to the corporate IT leaders and that changes everything in terms of marketing, sales, solution architecture and customer support. And, our engineering team is expanding rapidly. While the technology is solid and provides capabilities not available from anyone else, once customers start using our services they can’t get enough. Customers begin thinking about their architecture in a new way and our networking and security services become critical to their business success. that drives us to deliver new features and capabilities every day.

Futuriom: So it appears Aviatrix is focused on building multi-cloud connectivity. Tell us a little bit about how this works.

Mullaney:  Aviatrix delivers advanced networking and security services for the multi-cloud enterprise. What we deliver goes far beyond connectivity. First, we embrace native cloud constructs, meaning that everything we do is born in the cloud for the cloud. We are not shoving legacy technology and operational complexity into the cloud. By embracing the native constructs, we take full advantage of the hyperscaler’s underlying infrastructures. AWS, Azure, Google, Oracle have become the IT infrastructure foundation for enterprise businesses. Then, we extend native cloud constructs to deliver advance networking ad security services. And, we do this by being embedded into the public clouds but operating as an overlay above, across and between multiple cloud providers. This is what customers call their enterprise multi-cloud backbone.

What customers love about Aviatrix is that we simplify, secure and provide operational visibility and control not possible using only native constructs. For example, we have customers who have reduced their customer onboarding processes from 6 days to 2 hours. We have partners, like Palo Alto Networks, whose customers achieve a 10x improvement in throughput to their VM-Series firewalls and all our customers have eliminated otherwise complex manual configurations and day-two operations, using Aviatrix’s intelligent orchestration and control services.

Futuriom: There are signs from recent tech IPO underperformance that we may be nearing the end of an investment cycle. What does that mean for cloud startups now, and how will it impact Aviatrix?

Mullaney:  There is always investment interest in companies who are performing well and can prove there’s a rapidly growing market for their solutions. Investors what to see three things:

  • Are you in an exploding market?
  • Are you accelerating new customer acquisition?
  • Are your existing customers expanding the use of your product or service?

Aviatrix gets a check mark for all three.

Not every “cloud startup” can show the proof needed to attract investment, but I do think you will see more investment in this space as Aviatrix becomes the dominant leader. We have proven the market is there. Now there will undoubtedly be startups that try to follow the same playbook…we just have a 3-4 year head start.

Futuriom: How large is the multi-cloud opportunity? How will the vendors position themselves?

Mullaney:  It’s enormous. As I mentioned earlier, every major market transformation is 10 times larger than the last. The client-server computing model era was at least 10 times as big as the mainframe computing era and the cloud computing era will be at least 10 times bigger than the client server era. The more exciting thing is that it will happen 1,000 times or more faster.

In terms of positioning, this is the interesting thing about transformations. A friend of mine told me many years ago that during market transformations, the “bags of money” get thrown up into the air and land with the companies that deliver the solutions that drive the new era. Enterprises have the money, they always have, they always will ... companies that will succeed will have the architecture and services that help enterprises as they move to the cloud.

Futuriom: You’ve mentioned that the traditional network hardware companies may be in trouble. What’s going to happen to them?

Mullaney:  The corporate data center is dead. Long live the corporate data center… it’s just in the cloud. This is a market transformation, not a transition. In transitions the incumbents always win.  In transformations, the incumbent never wins. There is a major architectural shift, the legacy approach can’t keep up, the operational model has changed, and customers have experienced the new way and the old way just doesn’t cut it. Some traditional companies have the foresight to make it through to the other side, maybe there’s a change in strategy, maybe they acquire the right company that saves them. But luck doesn’t play into the equation, in transformations you transform, or you are screwed.

(Interviewed in Palo Alto, Calif. in May, 2019, with follow up by e-mail in September and October, 2019.)