Those who are rooting for Huawei to leave the U.S. market will have to wait a while longer. According to a translated interview, Huawei CEO Ren Zhengfei did say Huawei was exiting the market to avoid increasing the political friction between the United States and China, but that’s not the literal truth. Huawei is no longer trying to sell into the U.S. telecom market — something the company announced earlier this year — but its ambitions for U.S. enterprises and data centers, and for cloud computing and software-defined networking (SDN), remain intact.
Just before the holidays, we sat with Jane Li, chief operating officer of Huawei Enterprise USA, to get some perspective on Huawei’s plans. A polished executive with a quiet voice, she works from a Huawei office in one of the tech complexes that’s been squeezed into Cupertino, Calif.’s busy business district.
We were joined by Ajay Gupta, director of product marketing and management, who filled in the specifics about products and roadmaps.
So, clue me in on what happened with the Ren Zhengfei interview.
Li: I read the original transcript. To me, there are a lot of cultural nuances. We Americans talk more literally, so we interpret things more literally. Chinese, with 5,000 years of history, sometimes we talk more from perspectives — there’s a lot of undertone. It’s not surprising based on what we’ve experienced in the past 12 years in the U.S.
That whole interview is about Huawei’s business in Europe, in France, and Huawei’s investment there. It’s funny how no matter what we talk about, [the story ends up being] about the U.S. and China.
We are very right in timing from technology inflection-point perspective, but we are very wrong in timing in that we are sitting right in between two world economic powers trying to battle it out.
As it became clear that the government would never let Huawei into the U.S. telecom networks — did any of that rub off on the enterprise side? Do you run into general distrust or suspicion?
Li: Well, until Mr. Snowden showed up. Then we realized all governments do the same thing! [Laughter all around.]
Now nobody trusts anybody. Maybe the answer is to not build a network.
Li: To say there’s no influence to our business — of course, that would be a lie. For the Huawei U.S. business, it’s obviously one of the challenges. And this is the most advanced IT market in the world, so for any non-U.S. company to enter the U.S. market, it’s a challenge. We might have some additional ones, but we understand that.
I often talk to people about Toyota entering the U.S. market in the 1970s. [Ed. note: Toyota arrived in the U.S. in the 1950s but became controversial during the oil crisis of the 1970s.] There are a lot of similarities — the largest Asian automobile company entering the largest, traditionally U.S.-manufacturing-only market. But it happened with patience, and we think that’s how it’s going to go for us too, as long as we are persistent. Toyota focused on consumer value, and we are going to focus on data center/enterprise value, and we’ll build trusted partners like Toyota built their trusted dealerships. We have a very channel-focused strategy. We make sure we empower them with tools so they can go to their customers and tell the story. It’s going to take some time, of course, but the market will get there.
Even if it weren’t for Huawei, eventually the IT market will be a global market, especially with the cloud movement you see on the consumer side. The cloud is already global. The iPhone works in the U.S., and it’s going to work in China with the same cloud. It’s going to happen in the enterprise as well.
How have your R&D goals changed in light of SDN?
Li: Being a very strong networking company, we have done some major renovation on our product roadmap. Our announcement of SDN — [To Gupta:] Do you remember, when was the agile switch announcement…
Li: It really generated some major attraction, because it’s not just the S12700. It’s announcing a whole roadmap change and a commitment to SDN and a whole new way of thinking how we make the network easier to manage.
On the access side, we have a target of zero-touch configuration. We had some customers at our global event in Shanghai and they were so excited to hear that a router can be put in, or a switch can be put in, and you don’t have to have a CCIE [Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert] any more.
How many customers really need SDN now, as opposed to those who are just kicking the tires?
Gupta: Network virtualization, security centralization, the branch WAN — these are applications that are sort of going to take a head start when it comes to the enterprise side. But people are still getting more clarity. At the end of the day, they need to justify the dollars.
Maybe greenfield installations might be more prone to getting SDN, as opposed to existing ones, because if it works, you don’t want to touch it.
And anything greenfield would have a greater likelihood of being cloud-involved as opposed to making a slow migration to the cloud.
Li: So next year, from our perspective, our agile switch series will be released one by one. Once that’s complete, then for greenfield, for new companies especially, then it becomes very practical to adapt a cloud+SDN strategy. You’re no longer going to hire a bunch of CCIEs anyway. In a way, you’re kind of forced to adopt a strategy with a zero-configuration switch and leveraging the public cloud as much as you can.
It’s clear that SDN is going to change the nature of networking and IT jobs. How are you going to help companies make that shift?
Li: As I said, our focus is on the channel strategy, so the issue is a couple of layers away from us. But there’s an obstacle for newcomers, not just Huawei, but also the other vendors: Today’s staff is more trained in the incumbents’ language, and that’s why the movement to the cloud and SDN is going to help.
From a partner perspective, there is a different goal. Partners — the channel and value-added resellers, I mean — with all this movement into the cloud, who is going to help them transform their businesses? They know, five years later, they can’t just sell box after box any more. It will be more about the cloud and applications. But for the traditional vendors, they are mostly public and they have that quarterly result, and they want to keep holding onto their channel selling the boxes. We are more flexible. We are more about how we work together and how we can be a partner for the long term. And by the way, we are one of the very few guys in the world that offer innovations in storage and compute and networking and the converged infrastructure. So, that’s how I think we can help this issue.
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