Cathie Anderson

HP veterans make it easy to set up office Internet, without the IT guys

As new mobile applications pushed consumers and corporations into the era of cloud computing, a handful of Hewlett-Packard veterans envisioned a business world where any office manager could set up a safe, reliable wireless internet network in minutes – without calling an IT guy.

Now, over in a small office in a Rocklin, Chuck Black, Paul Congdon, Matt Davy, Ali Ezzet and Bill Johnson are ushering in that world. They accepted early retirement packages from HP to found Tallac Networks in 2012.

Johnson, Tallac’s president, asked this columnist to think back to “the old days,” five to 10 years ago: “When you had to set up a network, you usually had to hire an IT guy. He had to install a bunch of stuff, and he had to have a certain certification and education to set all that up and make it all work.”

Tallac’s engineers have created a setup wizard that makes the job as easy as TurboTax has made tax filing. Within minutes, a system can be up and running, said Andrew Wilkinson, Tallac’s vice president of sales and marketing, and once that setup process is complete, Tallac’s devices phone into the cloud and automatically establish a local area network, or LAN.

Wilkinson and Johnson talked with The Bee about their work to create an autonomous network that will recognize when the network connection is failing and take corrective action before humans notice.

Q: How did you come to work on this concept?

Johnson: In 2012, there was a group of us working at Hewlett Packard, and they offered the ability to take a package. We’d been working there for quite a while: Paul as chief technologist, Ali as a system architect, and me as the research and development manager. We said, “You know, with everything that is changing right now, it’s a good time to go out and reinvent how campus (internet) networks are built and deployed.”

We took that vision and we built it. We got some help from hardware manufacturers because they see this coming. They’re one of our investors who came in with money and partnership opportunities, so we have hardware, we have software that orchestrates that hardware and we have a new business model.

Describe your business model.

Wilkinson: So, you use a wireless network at home, at a business, all around the world. What happens when the wi-fi doesn’t work? It’s a disaster, right?

So, what do you do at home if the Wi-Fi doesn’t work? One of the first things they tell you when you call up is you unplug it. Well, it’s the same in a big building. You have these IT-trained guys running around when something happens, and they have to call someone, find out what’s going on, and get them to come out and reboot the system.

We’re bringing a level of automation that makes those kind of networks even more reliable. We want to take all the intelligence of the guy who drives out in his car and does all the clever, magical stuff and automate it.

There’s more to it than the automation. There’s making sure that it’s secure, making sure that it adapts to the business need. Imagine a business with five locations, and they want a sixth one. I can get that sixth one up and running in hours, not days, which is typically how it was.

We don’t have to live in a world where Wi-Fi stops working and people think, “Should I just go home? Do I use the Wi-Fi hotspot on my (mobile) phone? What’s going to happen to our credit-card transactions?”

Those kind of things should become a thing of the past. It’s like electricity. Occasionally, it’s out, and we all know why. Some event knocked it out. But most of the time, we just turn it on and it works because, behind the scenes, someone has automated all that stuff and it works.

Q: Why do you think the time is right for this particular innovation?

Wilkinson: There’s a big market out there. There’s a staggering amount of money — $25 billion spent across the industry from the very big companies such as ExxonMobil and Time Warner down to the (small to midsize businesses). Everyone has a network of varying degrees of complexity. We see this market continuing to change from this world of having someone on site to fix networking issues and into a world where they will want someone to repair it from anywhere. They will want to automate it, and they will want it to be error-free. They won’t want a configuration error that crashes their connection.

We also see that everyone is shifting to a world where you pay by the month. A lot of applications now, you don’t buy the software for $800. You pay $15 a month. We pay so much a month for our cellular phones. We pay so much a month for our electricity bill. Well, networking is going in the same direction, where it’s a utility. We pay so much and it’s provided for us.

Paying monthly is changing the industry from the old days when you’d go to Cisco and spend $100,000 in a big capital chunk that had to last for three years. The world is saying, “Rather than that big capital expenditure hump, let’s just do this model where you’re paying so much a month.”

And, a lot changed with cloud computing (where remote servers on the internet store, manage and process data rather than a local server or a personal computer).

Johnson: You can plug in several of our devices. They all phone home themselves, get their configuration from the cloud. It’s pushed back out, along with whatever special services you might have ordered. Boom, it’s up and running. In the old days, you would have to get on every one of those devices with a console cable and type through a command-line interface. You’d set the internet address and set the radio strength. All that is now done through automation.

Wilkinson: The industry has to progress to a level of automation where the network will start healing itself before anyone even notices. We shouldn’t get to the point where someone stops and says, “Is the Internet working for you?” And suddenly, everyone is at a standstill.

We want to get to the level where that doesn’t happen. Our analogy is the self-driving car. Wouldn’t it be great if we could just get in, give it a destination, and it takes care of it for us? We want our networks to become almost autonomous. They’re meant to be doing what they’re doing, and the moment they stop, they’re looking at themselves and taking action. We see a future where a network will go, “Wait a second. I can’t reach the Internet,” and it starts a series of routines like a technician would do if he’s there …

There comes a certain point in time when you need to get to that expert — perhaps one in every 10 instances, and that person can do it real-time without having to travel. That’s the difference between us and our competition. We want to see a level of automation and self-healing of a network rather than today’s world of the $150-an-hour technician that’s going to take two hours to get there.

Q: Are Tallac’s system currently in the marketplace?

Johnson: We have thousands of devices in use around the world today, currently plugged in and serving hundreds of thousands of end users. (That includes local organizations such as Hacker Lab and Center of Praise Ministries.)

We really see our customer as being the managed service provider (companies that remotely manage information technology services for businesses). The reality of being a boot-strapped company is we have the solution and technology, but we’re still trying to build the revenue base to be able to afford salespeople. We’re not big enough to grow a big sales team at this point in time.

We’re branding our product under the names of larger companies. They have a sales force that can promote the solution — or at least a subset of the solution. It doesn’t fulfill all of our vision yet, because that’s held for our own use, but they use components of our technology and take that to market. That’s how we’re building our current revenue base.

Q: What’s a big challenge you face?

Wilkinson: When you’re a small company, you realize just how difficult it is to make noise in the world. You are this big (holding his thumb apart from his forefinger) in this ocean. You’ve got great stuff, but you have to refine and refine the message because you’ve got nanoseconds of opportunity to find the connection to get the next set of customers who will get you to the next chunk of revenue.

This conversation has been edited for content, clarity and space.

Cathie Anderson: 916-321-1193, @CathieA_SacBee

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