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Google broadband: Is there an enterprise angle?

Topeka, Kansas, wanted to rename itself Sergeyville (after Google founder Sergey Brin), but opted instead for Google, Kansas, in an effort to bring Google’s “Fiber for Communities” experiment to that city. Google’s early 2010 announcement about a high-speed Internet service surprised some of its watchers. Telecommunications companies pointed to TiSP , Google’s 2007 test of free, in-home wireless broadband service, as a harbinger of free, high-speed service for cities. Google, despite its mounting legal woes, has not lost its knack for surprising, disruptive action. The Google announcement kick-started some city managers into action. Will Topeka become a guinea pig? (The mayor proclaimed that for the month of March, Topeka would be known as Google, Kansas—The Capital City of Fiber.) Greensboro, N.C., Grand Rapids, Mich., and Tallahassee, Fla., want Google to pick them as well.

Many questions must be answered about this brilliant marketing play. Google, continuing its multipronged effort to force telecommunications companies to move or get out of the way, sees gigabit speed connectivity as necessary for more sophisticated online services. For consumers, the chief advantage of a fast connection is rich media, including digital video. For Google, high-speed connectivity lubricates its bandwidth-intensive applications. Those range from geospatial to medical information systems to interactive applications like online games.

Interesting investment

Google has the cash, the technical know-how and the desire to put pressure on television, cable companies and any other company that it perceives as blocking its progress. In the present economic environment, targets of Google pressure will have to respond. A public relations battle is beginning, and the lawyers are buttoning their vests.

But is the high-speed play relevant to Google’s enterprise business? The short answer is, “maybe.” With media coverage of Topeka becoming Google, Kansas, in high gear, Google has some other technology that could be used to disrupt high-speed Internet services in organizations of almost any size.

Google has its own, homegrown telecommunications technology. From an early quality of service invention to the raft of content delivery patent documents, Google has some impressive capabilities in its labs or idling in the firm’s data centers. In November 2009, Google said it would support the idea of the high-speed wireless technology, WiMax. But Google has at least one interesting investment that might provide a glimpse of how it will penetrate the enterprise with high-speed connectivity.

Have you heard about Meraki, a startup company founded in 2007 and based in San Francisco? Probably not. Google does not make it easy to locate information about some of its more interesting investments. The firm has been funded by Sequoia Capital, DAG Ventures and Google. The firm’s technology enables low-cost, high-speed networking systems for organizations of any size.

Meraki’s unique, cloud-hosted controller architecture provides centralized management and security through an intuitive Web interface. The approach eliminates the costs associated with traditional network management methods in use at most cable companies and broadband vendors. An organization needs some network devices that cost about one-third what a more traditional high-speed wireless device from Cisco or another major network vendor charges. The small boxes connect to the organization’s network. Then the Meraki magic kicks in.

An organization with several locations can manage the high-speed wireless networks from a single browser window. The Meraki technology eliminates the need for individual configuration, provisioning and administration of wireless networks. That reduces costs by shifting the administration of different, geographically distributed networks to the cloud. Meraki has focused on improving the efficiency of high-speed network management. Reports and security can be administered by one person, ensuring more consistency, better uptime and quicker response to problems at different locations.

Let’s assume that you operate a business with a corporate headquarters in a midsize city, one warehouse and distribution center, and a smaller sales and support office in a suburban office park.

You want employees to have wireless access in each facility. In the distribution center, the orders are managed with third-party barcode scanners that connect wirelessly to the company’s inventory management system. In other offices, wireless connectivity has replaced more traditional hardwire cabling. Employees have access to e-mail and Web browsing to access intranet and Internet resources. Each location has a system administrator who babysits the systems. At headquarters, the company has a networking guru who steps in when the other system administrators run into a technical glitch with the firm’s wireless system. Each administrator has been trained to use the proprietary devices from well-known vendors like Cisco, Lucent or Juniper, among others.

The hardware is expensive. The administrators need special training. The maintenance activities have to be performed on site and then coordinated among the team responsible for the wireless network and its security.

Enter Meraki. A customer plugs in the Meraki devices at each facility and connects them to the company’s network. A single administrator can manage the wireless connectivity at the three locations. The staff can be redeployed or terminated. Security is handled from a single console.

The core technology of Meraki is the Enterprise Cloud Controller. Meraki combines multiple networks into one virtual network. The administrator can handle device management, provisioning, security and status monitoring. When the distribution company opens an office in a city halfway across the United States, Meraki’s administrative tools allow the newly acquired company to be integrated into the corporate network in a day or two, sometimes less. Using locally managed resources, the integration can take weeks, sometimes months. The savings are not measured in reduced hardware costs. The savings result from elimination of staff, engineering services and expensive troubleshooting, which might require the networking guru to visit the remote location and fix the problem. No special training is required to administer a Meraki network via a browser.

Meraki can deliver high-speed connectivity to the organization’s employees without towers. A Meraki device is needed, which connects to the Internet, and the company’s cloud-based control system takes over. Instant high-speed wireless Internet.

Meraki implements a zero-configuration solution. High-speed wireless becomes available when the devices are plugged in and connected to a high-speed network like the one Google proposes to test. The Meraki gizmos discover the network and perform automatic configuration in a way that is similar to how Apple computers handle network connectivity. Once connected, the Meraki device then hooks into the Cloud Controller. Meraki strikes me as a pain reliever for network configuration migraines.

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