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Abstract
There has been a constant debate over the last decade as to whether the Indian information technology sector should
continue to be driven by services revenue or should the firms actively pursue in building high-technology products. Dr
Prashant Joshi, former lead researcher at AT&T Research and IBM Thomas J. Watson Research Centre, New York,
while returning to India in 2002, conceptualized that someday, the world would witness massive deployment of WiFi
networks and that these networks require active 24×7 management. He incubated his start-up in Bangalore, India, with
a vision to build a WiFi secure management product suite for global markets. The case outlines the evolution of Intelli-Fi
networks from a humble beginning to a strong network management firm with installed base all around the world. The
case highlights the technical and managerial challenges of the firm and its entrepreneur founder in building a world class
product.
Keywords
WiFi Networks, network management, cognitive networks, India start-up, cloud networks, tech entrepreneurship
International Institute of Information Technology Bangalore, India
Corresponding author:
Varadharajan Sridhar, Centre for IT and Public Policy, International
Institute of Information Technology Bangalore, 26/C Electronic City,
Hosur Road, Bangalore 560100, Karnataka, India.
Email: vsridhar@iiitb.ac.in
836242 TTC Journal of Information Technology Teaching CasesSridhar
Teaching Case
Sridhar 39
actively in product business. Recent NASSCOM reports
show that product revenue contributes to less than 10% of
total IT industry revenue (NASSCOM, 2017). Off-late
companies such as Microsoft, IBM and SAP Labs have
been shifting their New Product Development to India centres. However, Indian software companies have not been
active in product innovation. One measure of product
development innovation appears in patent data. A quick
look at the US Patent Database (uspto.gov) shows that
Indian IT companies are still very far from firms such as
IBM (54,365), Microsoft (10,958), and SAP (603) in number of patents awarded.
There are inherent risks to developing software products in India that explains the lack of product development
activity. A key determinant of the location of product
development activity in software is the location of the user.
It is explained by many researchers that whenever a firm is
not near to the users, it is difficult to conceptualize the features and functionalities of the product comprehensively
and incorporate them into the product architecture (Sridhar
and Vadivelu, 2011). This is particularly true with business
and technology software in the areas of enterprise systems,
mobile communications, and networking technologies. A
good example is Israel’s long-standing strength in security
software, thanks to the advanced local needs of Israeli
defence forces. Since India, until now, was not matured
enough for the adoption of technology-intensive IT products, the products, if developed, should be targeted at
developed markets in the United States, Europe, Japan,
Korea and the like. In this case, the firms that develop such
products lack visibility on the comprehensive product
requirements specifications, and user needs which
increases the risk in the development process. Although
the domestic IT and telecom markets in India are developing fast and hence provide a testing ground for products, it
remains a dilemma for India-based technology firms
whether they should at all be involved in developing
products.
It is the following thought that provoked Prashant Joshi
to venture in to building global products using the technical
and engineering skills available in plenty in India:
I felt that the whole chaotic existence of India is a very fertile
ground for creativity. In the Valley everything is so smoothly
running, you begin to wonder, what value you’re going to add.
And while there were several IT companies established in
India at that time, they were more IT services based and not
technology based.
What product?
In 1985, the Federal Communications Commission – the
telecom regulatory body in the United States – prompted by
a visionary engineer on its staff, Michael Marcus, decided
to open several bands of wireless spectrum, allowing them
to be used without the need for a government licence (The
Economist, 2004). In 1988, NCR Corporation, which
wanted to use the unlicensed spectrum to hook up wireless
cash registers, approached the Institute of Electrical and
Electronics Engineers (IEEE), where a committee called
802.3 had defined the Ethernet standard. A new committee
called 802.11 was set up, to formulate the standard specifications for wireless local area networks (WLANs) that
would operate in the unlicensed bands of 2.4 and 5.8GHz
(also called as industrial, scientific and medical bands)
approved by the Federal Communications Commission
(FCC). This sparked a silent revolution in large US university campuses in the 1990s in research and deployment of
WLANs. While many WLAN technologies were built
throughout the 1990s, it was the establishment of the
802.11b standard by the IEEE in December 2000, which
was later ratified by manufacturers as wireless fidelity
(WiFi), which set the stage for mass market development
deployment of WLAN products (Prasad and Sridhar, 2014).
Like the Internet and Web, WiFi networks became a
mass market technology due to open standards that
unleashed powerful competitive forces and innovations.
There were an estimated 15–18million 802.11b devices by

  1. Among the geeks, WiFi became a fascination, a
    glimpse of the future of the Internet. Like the Web, it is
    open, unregulated and free. It doesn’t require a loyalty oath
    to the Telecom and Internet Service Providers. Anyone can
    deploy it and millions did (Anderson, 2003).
    While this WiFi revolution was taking place, Dr Joshi
    who had years of experience in designing wireless products
    at AT&T and IBM, strategized on riding on this wave.
    However, by 2004, the WiFi products had become commoditized, thanks to IEEE and WiFi alliance standardization and certifications. Products started selling at low prices
    with very little margin.
    What were the options for Prashant to realize his dreams
    of building a product? How could a start-up enter and survive in the market where products are already standardized
    and commoditized with razor thin margins?
    Furthermore, should Prashant and team build a product
    for Indian market which was in the very early stages of
    WiFi adoption or for global market? If it was indeed for
    global market, how could the start-up compete with large
    multinational firms to garner any market share?
    The first big idea: securing wireless
    networks is the key for enterprises
    However, there was an interesting opportunity sensed by
    Prashant. By their very design, WLANs afford open access.
    Similar to cordless phones, they use radio waves to transport data. Unless security is enabled, these signals can be
    readily intercepted by nearby receivers. The IEEE 802.11
    committee standardized wired equivalent privacy (WEP)
    which was found to have many weaknesses. The first practical attack on WEP was identified by researchers Scott
    40 Journal of Information Technology Teaching Cases 9(1)
    Fluhrer, Itsik Mantin and Adi Shamir, who found that, even
    with WEP enabled, third parties with a moderate amount of
    technical know-how and resources could breach WLAN
    security (WiFi Alliance, 2003). Subsequently, the WiFi alliance introduced ‘WiFi protected access (WPA)’ that
    addressed the vulnerabilities of WEP encryption–enhanced
    user authentication schemes.
    Although the aforementioned security standards provided
    reasonable protection for individual users, they were inadequate for enterprise security and protection. Prashant recognized the need for wireless intrusion prevention systems
    (WIPS), which is cost-effective, scalable and accurate.
    However, Prashant was aware that there are hundreds of
    such security products in the market, some of them from
    network pioneers such as Cisco:
    How could Intelli-Fi networks continue to be ahead of the
    curve and beat intense competition in the area of wireless
    network security products?
    After the first pitch for funding, Prashant also realized
    that interesting technology solutions conceived of the
    Entrepreneurs may not necessarily be of interest to the
    Venture Capitalists unless it is proven to be scalable and
    unique.
    Prashant met Gopinath, also a graduate of one of the
    famous IITs at a conference at the Indian Institute of
    Science (IISc) in Bangalore, India. Gopinath was recruited
    to engineer security products that can be embedded into
    WiFi devices and networks to provide enterprise-level
    security. Using comprehensive packet analysis, algorithmic
    classification schemes and prediction methodologies and
    accurate location tracking, the team at Intelli-Fi built the
    most comprehensive enterprise protection solution that
    could prevent all types of wireless threats.
    Currently, there are 1500+ plus private and public sector enterprise across all key geographies that use Intelli-Fi
    security product line to prevent rogue attacks on their WiFi
    networks and take timely action.
    In 2012, the secure product line of Intelli-Fi was rated
    as one of the best WIPS compared with other products
    from firms such as Cisco, Aruba Networks, Fluke Networks
    and Motorola.
    After security, it is the cloud
    WiFi networks and devices have exponentially grown since
    then. According to WiFi Alliance, 3billion WiFi devices are
    expected to ship in 2018, and the installed base is reaching
    9.5billion! The critical infrastructure in a WiFi network is the
    access point (AP). APs are networking devices that allow wireless WiFi devices to connect typically to a backhaul wired network. The backhaul wired network is normally connected to
    the Internet so that the WiFi devices are enabled Internet access.
    Due to the limited range of radio spectrum in WiFi networks,
    many APs are required to provide coverage in a geographical
    area. The APs are installed within (1) private spaces such as
    enterprises, schools, universities and hospitals; (2) homes and
    (3) public spaces such as airports, restaurants (also referred to
    as public hotspots) and railway stations. A typical enterprise
    comprises of hundreds of APs connected to the enterprise networks to provide coverage across the firm. Number of public
    hotspots in the world is showing exponential increasing and is
    expected to reach about 350million by 2018. It is predicted that
    there will be one public hotspot for every 20 persons on the
    earth (iPass, 2014).
    Managing APs is a nightmare for any network department in an enterprise. APs need to be configured and managed for (1) coverage with good signal strength, (2)
    authentication using service set identifier definition (SSID)
    and associated password granting mechanisms, (3) down
    time due to power fluctuations and (4) intrusion protection
    for rouge attacks and so on. If the number of APs exceeds 4
    or 5, then they can be grouped together and managed by
    access controller (AC). However, ACs are also deployed at
    the WiFi network location and hence to be monitored as
    well. Sometimes network engineers need to be sent to the
    site for inspection for fixing faults at odd hours. When users
    have difficulty in Internet connectivity, typically WiFi gets
    the blame. The IT staff spend on an average 50% of their
    time trouble shooting WiFi-related complaints. Hence, it is
    very important for the network managers to keep WiFi networks in good health with minimal down time.
    Prashant recognized this as an opportunity. He and his team
    conceptualized a cloud-based architecture, wherein the management control of the APs is moved to the cloud service,
    instead of being deployed in local ACs. However, proprietary
    cloud-based WiFi management solutions were already available from Cisco and other networking vendors:
    How could Intelli-Fi make a mark and enter in to this
    competitive market?
    Dr Joshi and his team realized that while the hardware of
    network elements are getting commoditized, and intelligent
    value added processing is shifting to software layers. In
    tune with this trend, Cumulus Networks started Open
    Network Install Environment (ONIE) in 2012. The ONIE
    (2017) is an open source initiative that defines an open
    ‘install environment’ for bare metal network switches.
    ONIE enables a bare metal network switch ecosystem,
    where end users have a choice among different network
    operating systems. This is very much beneficial for users,
    as they are not vendor locked. They can mix and match
    inter-working operating systems, hardware elements, network AP software, network controller, and management
    software from different vendors. Soon after its launch,
    many smaller vendors have started manufacturing minimal
    metal network switches including WiFi APs that are ONIE
    compatible. This created a window of opportunities for
    Sridhar 41
    software product companies such as Intelli-Fi networks to
    create layers of software suite for WiFi APs.
    Intelli-Fi developed a ‘cloud WiFi’ platform, through
    which the ONIE-compatible APs can be controlled and
    managed. The cloud-based architecture makes it possible
    for user organizations to scale up their WiFi networks without adding expensive proprietary APs and technicians to
    trouble shoot at installation sites.
    Since cloud controllers collect information from all network APs, these data can be mined and analysed using
    machine learning algorithms to automatically detect network
    anomalies, do root cause analysis and pinpoint solutions in
    real time. Leveraging the powerful and scalable computing
    capabilities of the cloud, Intelli-Fi also developed ‘Smart
    WiFi’ that monitors about 300 performance variables of APs
    and determines what is normal for each environment, draws
    baselines for the behaviour and highlights anomalies.
    Baselines are provided for critical WiFi factors such as client
    connectivity, poor performance, data rates, latency, and
    applications. Smart WiFi leverages intelligent APs and the
    power of the cloud to simplify, automate and provide insights
    into all aspects of WiFi operation, thus improving network
    performance, availability and reliability.
    Intelli-Fi released the first version of its smart WiFi platform that embeds all the above in a single cloud platform in
    early 2016. With the pay-as-you-go model, the cloud-based
    management optimizes operational cost of maintaining
    large scale WiFi network deployment.
    Today, about 2750+ customers subscribe to the smart
    WiFi cloud platform of Intelli-Fi:
    How can Intelli-Fi offer an integrated WiFi solution to the
    customer, including APs, cloud management and smart WiFi?
    How does it compare with other competing platforms offered by
    Cisco and HP Enterprise networks? Will it stand the test of time?
    The third radio AP
    Most modern WiFi devices are dual-band, meaning that
    they have two radios, one on 2.4GHz, originally designed
    to support devices running older WiFi protocols like
    802.11a/b/g and a more modern 5GHz – 802.11ac running
    at higher speeds than 2.4GHz. A few of the key benefits of
    using the 5GHz band is that it occupies a channel that typically has less interference, is much less congested, and supports better speeds; while the 2.4GHz band has better range
    but is more susceptible to outside interference. Further in
    2009, IEEE standardized IEEE 802.11n that uses ‘multiple
    input multiple output (MIMO)’ to increase data speeds up
    to 600Mbps. While the user demand for better performance
    and more throughput continued, Intelli-Fi developed a
    technique by which all the control and management functions such as spectrum scanning and intrusion prevention
    checking can be assigned dedicatedly to a third radio
    antenna. Dedicating the third radio to any of these functions
    leaves the other two radios free to deliver high-performance
    WiFi access over 2.4 and 5GHz to 802.11n, 802.11ac Wave
    1 and Wave 2 clients.
    In 2016, Intelli-Fi released its first WiFi AP with third radio
    that substantially improved the performance of APs, thus providing users with significantly better network experience:
    However, at the same time, Cisco also released APs with
    third radio with similar functionalities:
    Can Intelli-Fi compete effectively with the large firms with
    their huge sales force and technical manpower in marketing its
    three radio APs? Will firms such as Netgear who also develop
    similar APs join hands with Intelli-Fi for its cloud based
    network management solutions to provide an integrated
    offering?
    Proof is in the pudding
    Prashant with his grit and determination was able to create
    Intelli-Fi with a vision to develop high-tech products from
    India for the global market. The dedicated team of about
    250 engineers at Bangalore, India’s centre of Intelli-Fi,
    continue to augment the product line, keeping up with technology and business trends. It has been a long and satisfying journey for the academician turned entrepreneur now
    that the firm that he created has close to 2800 customers
    deploying 500,000+ devices across the globe
    Intelli-Fi raised over $46million in funding, having
    raised its first Series-A round of funding of $10million
    from early-stage venture capitals, way back in 2003. In
    2017, Intelli-Fi raised $30million in Series-E funding
    round. Revenue of Intelli-Fi touched about $50million.
    Today, Intelli-Fi networks show a healthy trend with clients, including Time Warner Cable, Food and Drug
    Administration (FDA), Hilton, Overstock and ADP.
    Although its main development team is located at
    Bangalore, India, Intelli-Fi shifted its headquarters to
    Mountain View, California, USA, to be nearer to the vibrant
    market for its product line. A veteran with 25 years of international experience was recruited to lead its operations as
    CEO. Prashant continued to be the CTO, guiding the technical efforts of Intelli-Fi.
    Not to forget India
    Intelli-Fi has been selling its products and services mainly to
    clients based in the United States. Opportunity knocked on its
    door in the form of a mobile operator that made a very late
    entry in the Indian mobile services market. This new entrant
    that participated in the spectrum auction held in 2010 in India,
    acquired nationwide licence and spectrum in 2300MHz. After
    much delay, the operator rolled out its first fourth-generation
    long-term evolution (4G-LTE) network in the country in 2017.
    Being a later entrant, the operator had to leverage technology
    to provide better customer experience to acquire and retain
    subscribers to compete against well-entrenched incumbent telcos. WiFi penetration has been and is poor in India. One of the
    42 Journal of Information Technology Teaching Cases 9(1)
    main reasons is the lack of high capacity backhaul. However,
    the operator was one of the first telcos in India to consider
    WiFi as a serious option to improve broadband connectivity.
    The operator embarked on a massive deployment of WiFi networks in the country. Intelli-Fi was chosen as a preferred partner by the operator in its efforts to build WiFi hotspots in the
    country. In one of the first carrier WiFi deployment, Intelli-Fi
    deployed about 100,000 WiFi APs that are then managed by
    its cloud-based smart WiFi architecture. The operator was able
    to leverage the products of Intelli-Fi across the following primary use cases:
  2. Hotspots at public locations for providing data connectivity to its travelling subscribers;
  3. At colleges and educational Institutions, where
    there is a captive WiFi user base of students;
  4. At select locations, especially at indoors for off-loading heavy traffic away from its 4G LTE network to
    WiFi to relieve the load on the cellular network.
    Future beckons
    The excitement around WiFi does not seem to end. With the
    development of IEEE 802.11ad that operates in the high-frequency 60GHz spectrum, access speeds of up to 1Gbps are
    possible. The WiFi alliance is also promoting fixed wireless
    local loop using IEEE 802.11ay, which gives emerging countries such as India to provide reliable last-mile access. World
    over, the V-band (i.e. 60GHz band) has been delicensed for
    the proliferation of the above technologies.
    There is a new thrust for setting up 5million public WiFi
    hotspots by 2020 in the National Digital Communications
    Policy 2018 of India. All these provide huge opportunities
    for Intelli-Fi networks:
    Having grown to a successful firm deploying the cutting edge
    WiFi technologies, should Intelli-Fi and its founders look for
    exit? If so, is it an Initial Public Offering (IPO)? Or selling
    stakes to a larger networking company?
    Suggested case questions
  5. What should be the focus of tech entrepreneurs such
    as Dr Prashant Joshi while building products for a
    global market?
  6. How is IT product development different from IT
    services?
  7. Should a firm such as Intelli-Fi concentrate on
    products, services or both?
  8. What are the characteristics of an entrepreneur that
    could lead to success in the venture? How do you
    see them manifesting in Dr Prashant Joshi?
  9. What is the future of WiFi and related products?
  10. What could be the augmentation to Intelli-Fi’s smart
    cloud platform?
  11. What could be the future of Intelli-Fi? Is it prone to
    acquisition?
    Declaration of conflicting interests
    The author(s) declared no potential conflicts of interest with
    respect to the research, authorship and/or publication of this
    article.
    Funding
    The author(s) received no financial support for the research,
    authorship and/or publication of this article.
    Note
    Dr Joshi is a pseudonym for the purposes of the case.
    ORCID iD
    Varadharajan Sridhar https://orcid.org/0000-0002-1038-9908
    References
    Anderson C (2003) The Wi-Fi revolution. Available at: https://
    www.wired.com/2003/05/wifirevolution (accessed 11 May
    2018).
    iPass (2014) WiFi growth map. Available at: https://www.ipass.com/
    press-releases/ipass-wi-fi-growth-map-shows-one-public-hotspot-for-every-20-people-on-earth-by-2018/ (accessed 2 April
    2019).
    National Association for Software and Services Companies
    (NASSCOM) (2017) IT-BPM Industry in India: Sustaining
    growth and investing for the future.
    Open Network Install Environment (ONIE) (2017) Available at:
    http://onie.org/(accessed 2 April 2019).
    Prasad R and Sridhar V (2014) The Dynamics of Spectrum
    Management: Legacy, Technology, and Economics. Oxford:
    Oxford University Press.
    Sridhar V and Vadivelu S (2011) Challenges in Developing
    Products for an Advanced Mobile Market: Sasken’s
    Experience (Case Reference No: 09/459C). Lung Fu Shan,
    Hong Kong: Asia Case Research Centre, The University of
    Hong Kong.
    The Economist (2004) A brief history of Wi-Fi. The Economist,
    10 June. Available at: https://www.economist.com
    /node/2724397 (accessed 11 May 2018).
    WiFi Alliance (2003) Securing Wi-Fi wireless networks with
    today’s technologies. Available at: http://kambing.ui.ac.
    id/onnopurbo/library/library-ref-eng/ref-eng-3/physical
    /wireless/security/wp_4_Securing%20Wireless%20
    Networks_2-6-03.pdf (accessed 11 May 2018).
    Author biography
    Varadharajan Sridhar is the author of two books published by the
    Oxford University Press: The Telecom Revolution in India:
    Technology, Regulation and Policy (2012), and The Dynamics of
    Spectrum Management: Legacy, Technology, and Economics
    (2014). His third book titled Emerging ICT Polices and Regulations:
    Roadmap to Digital Economies is in process and expected to be
    completed in 2019 with Springer Nature Publications.

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