Inside Aruba Networks' efforts to weave digital infrastructure into buildings

Sometimes technology charts an unexpected path. Google went from search engine to cartographer with Maps.

By Tamlin Magee Jun 07th 2018

Sometimes technology charts an unexpected path. Google went from search engine to cartographer with Maps.

Now HPE subsidiary Aruba Networks is no longer just installing Wi-Fi, but wants to join up the dots for a single networking infrastructure that will be able to make digital sense of physical context and semantics.

“I look at what’s in a networked building: the servers and storage have moved out to data centres and to the cloud these days,” says Aruba CTO Partha Narasimhan. “What’s left in the building? People, things, some type of infrastructure, but space itself is an important attribute in here.”

Aruba acquired Portland-based location services business Meridian in 2013, which now serves as a dedicated team to understanding physical space through the lens of location data for the vendor.

Acquired by HPE in 2015, Aruba delivers wired and wireless networks for businesses and increasingly targets digital transformation projects for enterprises, providing networking from on-prem through to cloud and edge, and with a focus on enabling mobile.

Read next: Gatwick 'future proofs' its network with HPE rollout

According to Narasimhan, Aruba wants to be able to understand how empty space relates to the objects and people in it, enabling it to deliver innovative digital experiences.

“How can I find a conference room, for example, how can I make an existing experience better because I’m starting to understand physical space?" he asks.

“Location is that bridge that helps us cross from, or connect, the digital world to the physical world. And the better we get an understanding of location, then the better we get an understanding of users, how they interact with assets, and their behaviours.”

To help visualise this, look to a collaboration between Swiss designer Yves Behar and furniture manufacturer Herman Miller, perhaps most infamous for the Aeron chair.

The collaboration here was an intelligent desk that would learn your patterns to literally mould its ergonomics around the habits of the user. For example, it would inform the user when they had been sitting down for too long (and then shape-shift of its own volition to get you standing up).

See also: What is edge computing?

Aruba’s involvement here was providing network security for Herman Miller’s ‘Live OS’ operating system integrated into the furnishing. But it illustrates how one object can be aware of its surroundings – and vice versa – through the wireless networked environment.

“That desk in particular is the first of its kind, which is a Wi-Fi connected desk along with a mobile app that allows employees to personalise the ergonomics of the desk,” says Janice Le, CMO at Aruba. “That’s just one example of the role of the network and how it enables these new technologies.

“The more things get connected the more important the network becomes. Our job isn’t to produce all those other things that are getting connected, but enable them to connect securely and give off analytics so they can create those smarter, more personal experiences.”

All of the data points from the networked environment together should be able to provide certain insights into the spaces we inhabit.

Taking the workplace as an example, it could be deduced through data analysis that by rearranging pieces of furniture, that an area could become more productive, or it could encourage coworkers to collaborate more, or to serve as a place that gently nudges people to talk to one another.

The controversial side of the connected workplace coin, of course, is where technology can be used to negatively place pressure on, or monitor, staff. Networked environments fitted with sensors can tell just how long an employee has been away from their desk, creating a new, hellish, augmented form of micro-management.

Very real examples of this include Amazon fulfilment centres, where workers have talked of warehouses where technology enabled management to put unrealistic or high-pressure targets in place, that when combined with employee monitoring software and their human bosses, left people exhausted, sick, and miserable.

But Aruba’s messaging is very much about positive workplace experiences, and the idea of working ‘smarter’, not ‘harder’, says Janice Le.

The company has had to put in a lot of work trying to understand the semantics of a physical space, and how to infer what is happening within it.

“Knowing location XYZ is one thing, but attaching semantic interpretations of locations, in user-facing experiences, or in efficiency, or productivity, that’s the value we really see,” says CTO Narasimhan. “The network as the source of that data set – that helps us understand and tie it all together – is becoming clearer.

That’s the value, he says, that we have seen with Google Maps' navigation systems, adding that he “shudders to think” about how we lived 20 years ago without any of these kinds of tools: that technology is helping us traverse the physical world by removing much of the anxiety or fear from it.

“That’s an example of understanding the space and understanding the meaning to it,” Narasimhan explains. “We are trying to bring that indoors, into the space that we have a footprint in. How do we create that same kind of mapping in the indoor space? That’s what we’re looking at.”

A major partner for Aruba is CBRE Group, the largest commercial real estate services and investment firm worldwide. Because most consumers rent or lease their buildings, Aruba is fitting buildings out with digital-ready capabilities from the start, through CBRE. And even, says VP for security solutions Larry Lunetta, baking security into the fabric of those construction projects from the start.

“We are working upstream with the folks who build the buildings, who not only know what’s there, but to build security policies via [network security product] Clearpass,” Lunetta explains to Computerworld UK. “The building will come turnkey not only with the devices and the connectivity, but also the security controls as well.”

Cofounder and president of Aruba, Keerti Melkote, says something that’s key to partnerships with real estate companies like CBRE is to be able to leverage the enormous footprint that they have.

The real estate companies facilitate construction on a mass scale, and then Aruba is able to sweep in and make those spaces digital-ready.

Ultimately Melkote imagines connected spaces that will be familiar to even the most casual sci-fi watcher, “sentient spaces” that know what the user wants. “Your mere presence in the environment could cause lights to come on, lights to go off, a recording to start, or calls to begin,” he tells Computerworld UK.

“I personally think technology should blend into the background: the fabric of the space. So experientially, you can imagine all the different experiences right now, integrated into a single experience.

“What do I mean by that? How you connect to a network is a separate experience from the application. The conference room is the third experience, and conversational interfaces like Alexa could be a fourth experience.”

Think of all the technology blended together as an invisible infrastructure that supports people as they move through a space, without interfering with what they’re doing, and catering to the desired mood of each room, hall, or passageway.

“Video, audio, ambient lighting, humidity, temperature – the environment will all come together in one whole fabric. We’re not there right now but you can imagine that coming together. It’s possible. There are the technologies, they’re just not integrated into an experience, they’re disparate.”