John McHugh, Netgear

Interview: John McHugh, senior vice president, Netgear

Image credit: Nick Smith

With a career in networking spanning three-and-a-half decades, Netgear senior vice president John McHugh discusses trends in technology that have heralded our departure from the ‘age of the system’ and ushered us into the ‘era of the endpoint’.

Today the home is becoming, according to John McHugh, the most intense network environment faced by the industry. “Data centres are easy. You know you have these fat, giant pipes and the whole thing is very structured and predictable. But in the home, with everything from HD video next to smart sensors behind your washing machine, cameras, locks and so on, you have endpoints from the most rudimentary items like a light bulb, to some of the most advanced and complicated connected products and systems that are out there.”

McHugh, who is senior vice president and general manager of the Commercial Business Unit at US multinational networking specialist Netgear, says it’s this home connectivity that is putting us in a new phase on the networking evolutionary curve. “We are entering the era of the endpoint. And this endpoint diversity is only just starting to grow.

“I’ve led three different networking businesses over the past 35 years. As a technologist at heart, to be part of an industry that is constantly innovating is exciting. I’ve spent my entire career working in and on networking solutions, and I find this area to be intensely interesting, both in terms of what’s happened in the past decade, but also what’s coming down the road.”

McHugh who has been with Netgear for five years after a string of management and technology positions at Mitel, Brocade, Nortel, ProCurve and HP, says one of the most technically innovative products in the domestic setting is the Wi-Fi access point: “When you think about it, everything is connected to it. There are up to 100 Wi-Fi clients in the digital ecosystem of the modern home. Only a few years ago, if you’d said that, people would say to you ‘what are you talking about?’ But, it’s happening. Now. And the market is an ever-changing beachfront. People tend to rise to leadership and then get taken off the table by start-ups they never even saw coming. Networking is a place where, because of the technologies involved, we’re now doing things we could never have even imagined 15 years ago. It’s a very dynamic environment.”  

McHugh recalls being told early in his career that networking wasn’t an interesting technology space, “because it is becoming commoditised” – the implication being that there was no discernible difference between products from different manufacturers. “That person went on to say, ‘by the way, there’s only one dominant company. Cabletron is here for ever and no one will displace them.’ That same comment is made roughly every seven years, only with a different name attached.”

At the moment Netgear, a $1.4bn turnover company employing just over 1,000 people, is concentrating on product differentiation. The commoditisation of the business never happened. The pace of technology change ensured that, he says.

McHugh says the best way to think about evolution of networks is not as a timeline of events, but of network providers. “Initially it was companies like DEC, IBM and even Hewlett-Packard, where I started my career. They were doing system-to-system connections, and the network was just a bunch of point-to-point connections. What’s fascinating here, and why I think that the networking industry has never become commoditised, is technology has always redefined the network and how it relates to intelligent clients that use it.”

This defining era of the ‘big system’ was pushed out by a new order of networking companies. “As we moved into the 1990s, there were Cisco and Nortel emerging. It was a generation of about 20 solid years in which the network was the strategic asset, and everything was redefined by the capabilities of networking. They were ultimately non-deterministic and multimedia hates that. Yet they suddenly figured out how to do prioritisation, guaranteed access times and various other things. Then ‘boom’ – voice shows up. Video shows up. And guess what? The entire telecommunications industry moves from this giant PBX machine to IP-based voice systems that use the Ethernet ecosystem as their fundamental transmission network. Until 2010, it was all about redefining the data centre. Then everything changed, because networks had become so much more capable and could start replicating these new capabilities in the home.”

Today, says McHugh, we are “in the era of the endpoint”. This will influence the way the industry evolves over the next 20 years. Solving big enterprise network problems – going into the Deutsche Bank or Volkswagen – used to be “the biggest challenge facing any networking company. But, suddenly we noticed that the most difficult customer deployment to handle reliably and coherently was, of all things, the primary school. Kids were all coming into classrooms with smartphones and when the teacher wasn’t keeping them busy enough, they were all heading on to YouTube. Yet the access point had been put in to support a teacher with one or two computers. Suddenly it had to support hundreds of multimedia streams. Other than public Wi-Fi access points in environments such as airports, there’s almost nothing like that. We thought schools would be a comfortable environment to deal with. But actually, it was overwhelming, which is why I call it the endpoint era. And it’s growing exponentially.”

‘Wi-Fi is going to be one of the most interesting technologies for the next several decades’

John McHugh, Netgear

“The fundamental challenge for our industry now is to deliver advanced networking technology into a user’s hands in a simple format, so they can have a great experience without having to understand all the nuances and complexity that go into a successful network deployment.” He describes a typical domestic scenario: a family unit where smartphones, Netflix, streamed HDTV, Skype and literally dozens of other digital multimedia services and IoT devices are “pounded on” at the same time. “Some users will be technically competent. Yet for the most part people just want to plug in and go.”

One step above this sector, and the one McHugh specialises in at Netgear, is the small- and medium-sized business market, which is “multi-levelled and structured, and can be quite significant in how they scale out. Regardless, Netgear’s mission is exactly the same. Keep it simple for the user.”

This is particularly important with mesh networking, where “we’re taking networking technology to people who aren’t going to do site surveys. They aren’t going to walk around with a signal strength detector to figure out where they have good distribution and blind spots due to construction materials in their home. They just want to turn it on, follow simple instructions and put their mesh devices in positions such as in the centre of the house or close to the access point. Yet behind that, what we recognised is that houses are not very friendly to Wi-Fi signals and we needed to create a tunnelling technology, so when we put a satellite out, we will be able to drill through anything, with a dedicated channel that won’t be shared with any other devices and won’t create a halving of the bandwidth. We built our entire device strategy around that simple idea. We knew we had to make the system immensely robust, but then protect the customer from having to learn how to configure it. This means it’s all done automatically. I think we probably spent a year longer creating our solution than people who were first-to-market, to make sure we could perfect it and differentiate it.”

The end user, says McHugh, simply doesn’t care about any of this. They just want it to work, which has always been one of the biggest frustrations in domestic networks. “My job is to take robust networks into the home and small business market sectors.”

He notes that in making technology more accessible to your target market, “simple is way more complicated to engineer than complicated. To get something that creates an experience where the consumer just plugs in and it all happens is the pinnacle of engineering. There are so many positive side effects of working to understand the human factor and user experience. You aim to get to the point where things are just obvious.”

Achieving that goal starts with the customer. “You think about the challenge in terms of what the customer ultimately values. Then you look at how to traverse from their deployment of that equipment with the minimum amount of knowledge. On the business side, we developed an ecosystem of network devices that connect directly to the cloud, and that can be managed through an app. When it comes to people setting up and managing devices, my challenge to our engineers is always to ask the customer something they already know the answers to, assuming they don’t know how to tune an RF signal to try to make it connect.

“It’s about getting everybody to shift focus and get themselves into the customers’ mindset. If people really are treating your product as a black box, this is what you have to think about. Wi-Fi is clearly going to be one of the most interesting technologies for the next several decades and so having experts that can produce specific results for specific problems is critical in terms of producing a differentiated product and not just a ‘best effort’ outcome.” To this end, one of the areas Netgear has concentrated on most over the past decade is user experience.

Another aspect to the Netgear philosophy is the customer should get a quality product and stick with it. “I’m not really interested in supplying a system that needs to be replaced every three years because it’s broken or not working. We want to be perceived as a safe purchase in the Wi-Fi space. Yet the term Wi-Fi doesn’t cover what we do entirely. What we want is to ensure every individual or small company is provided with the opportunity to link everything together.”

“We’ve seen an entire technology revolution in our lifetimes,” says McHugh, who recalls how as a child he would listen to the radio with his parents “and when they went to bed, I’d take it apart. I always wanted to understand how things work and there’s no better way of doing that. My father always used to say that putting it back together again is the real challenge.” This curiosity led the young McHugh to engineering college, where he read for an undergraduate degree, “and was lucky enough to get hired straight out of the gate into networking [at HP]. In fact, my senior project in college was devising a method of how to put a data stream into a power line and to be able to receive and decode it on the other side of the lab. That was 1981, when we really were trying to convert science fiction to science reality.” After a quarter of a century at HP he moved to several big-name companies dealing with storage and data centre networking, before landing at Netgear. Now in his late fifties, McHugh recalls posting letters, depositing cheques in banks and using public payphones. The transition to a digital world means “we simply have less wasted time in our lives”.

It’s worth noting, he adds, that the automation of our world “is manifesting itself as distributed intelligence, rather than the scary robots science-fiction predicted. Yet the question is: how much of that do we want to invite in? What is our relationship with this intelligence and the layer of the ecosystem that controls all of these devices and how they make decisions? Do we control that sufficiently? Quite frankly, one issue to emerge in the home-networking market among our competitors is they want to get into your house as a benevolent nanny. They want to listen in, to make intelligent choices about things you might want or need. They’re not doing this because they want to provide simple networks.

“It’s all about creating a choice for the customer, which will ultimately be based on how comfortable they feel with that kind of entity existing in their world.”

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