PacketFabric’s CEO discusses disrupting the service provider space
Growing an entirely new service provider business requires determination and investment. But it also requires the commitment to do things differently. In the case of PacketFabric, co-founded in California by industry veterans Jezzibell Gilmore and Anna Claiborne, doing things differently has meant a radical approach to managing connectivity, to the extent it has been called “a modern-day telco.”
It’s a label Chad Milam, PacketFabric’s CEO, accepts. But he argues there is more involved. “We like to think of ourselves as a connection company,” he says, “that facilitates an e-commerce and digital business transformation over a new and modern platform that is distinctive and different from both a traditional telco infrastructure and the public Internet.”
Intelligence Is a Network Asset
Between the two is room for new approaches, he suggests, based on more intelligence in the service layer, and a fast, agile, and transparently-priced model of adjustable, on-demand connectivity with private networking characteristics. Traditional telco infrastructures, he maintains, remain relatively rigid and fixed, frequently lacking direct connection capabilities demanding customers require. The public Internet can deliver coverage, but generally lacks bandwidth capacity, SLAs, and tight security.
PacketFabric’s enterprise customers, he concludes, often have distributed assets and substantive workloads particularly in the cloud and media spaces. Alongside this, high reliability and very high bandwidth needs are also key. “We offer services up to hundreds of gigabits per second, which you are not going to get reliably over the public Internet,” he says.
He continues: “If you buy a single wavelength service between L.A. and Washington, D.C., for example, the frequency with which that is going to be down is relatively high, given the fiber miles connecting those two cities and the single path connectivity which will be prone to interruption. What we do is basically abstract that rigid infrastructure and provide the ability to dynamically reroute traffic around failures or congestion. [This means] a much higher-quality of service to the end customer.”
PacketFabric, in focusing on delivering intelligence in the service layer of the network, buys network capacity from third-party asset owners to ensure route diversity and resiliency where it does not own infrastructure. He acknowledges that this build-versus-buy dynamic is an ongoing debate in network operations across the industry but argues: “We end up with a very high-quality network from stitching together assets that we do not own.”
“We spend an inordinate amount of time, effort, and energy getting the structure of our underlying infrastructure [right], so when we do provide that packet layer, we have very high quality. Additionally, PacketFabric has become a large customer of the fiber owners, and this translates into pretty good economics.”
Even so, scaling is key for business development. PacketFabric announced its first round of institutional fundraising in August, which provided USD 75 million to support expansion both in terms of geography and feature set development. The same initiative brought Cisco in as technology partners to the company. Technology targets, the company says, include effectuating SR-MPLS and delivering agile on-ramp cloud services across its network in an era when wide area 400 Gbps Ethernet services will become the norm for many. PacketFabric sees the U.S. as its “mainstay market” for some foreseeable future but Mr. Milam predicts functionality and services to Western Europe, Asia-Pacific, and Canada, pointing out, “We are trying to grow the geographic footprint of the business and implement a giant pile of new features.”
What Will Be Market Changing?
All this sophistication is taking place in a market that is itself seeing profound shifts, and in near permanent defense against seemingly relentless declines in cost per bit. For PacketFabric, one strategy to maintain a stable business model has been the development of extensive customer support, especially in customer-related engineering expertise.
But the shifts mean service providers need to question their positioning and even potentially their identities. “Certainly, as network operators, we are all figuring out where we land in the [emerging] world of cloud,” he contends. “Figuring out what that world looks like for telecommunications operators will be important [for the future].”
Cutting across this will be technology trends near and medium term. SD-WAN, he sees, as “the future for now” offering good coverage and solving “some problems for some segments.” He disputes, however, that it will answer the “really high bandwidth capacity requirements that corporate headquarters require.”
Longer term, he questions if network edge shifts mean markets will see a major change, perhaps even a shift from the big hyperscale architectures to networks essentially “geared around ephemeral workloads that can be moved around through geographies.” It’s a complex call, he admits, adding: “there could be hundreds of network edges out there.” However, such disaggregations, he asserts, could mean exceptional opportunity for providers like PacketFabric that could deliver flexible service offerings.
The World Is Not Black and White
Such possible market gymnastics inevitably impose demands on management and leadership styles. He reflects on his own industry experience and senior management positions. “I try to balance pragmatism and a focus on operational discipline and excellence with forward-thinking vision and foreseeing where the company is going to be in three, five, or 10 years from now.” He offers a caution: “I do spend some time thinking about whether I am blind to some development in the market that could be a threat or an opportunity.”
In turn, he also argues for flexibility of thinking. “There are few black and white realities in real world problem solving,” he muses. “The world is all about all the gray in the middle. I always try to make sure my mind is not stuck in a particular viewpoint.”
Patience, too, he states, is a key leadership attribute: “I have had to learn over the last decade in leadership positions that I am a little bit impatient [and I need] to slow down and make sure everyone is on the same page.” It promotes a key lesson: “Communication is easier when people are patient.”
Back at his office desk, he similarly sees PacketFabric’s future as one involving continued execution and deployment against a plan where everyone is indeed on the same page. “We have to stay super focused,” he insists. “We are going to do some pretty cool and meaningful things that PacketFabric is particularly well positioned to do, and we don’t think any other telco in the world is actually doing.”