Travelling through the cloud on a tablet

May 31, 2011

John McHugh, VP and Chief Marketing Officer, Brocade

As technology and business travel become ever more inextricably connected, I talk to a man whose life is a symbiosis of both worlds

John McHugh, VP and Chief Marketing Officer of networking infrastructure firm Brocade, proudly sits on both sides of the buyer-seller fence. On one hand, a WiFi-less or WiFi-jammed hotel will not be seeing his custom again in a hurry; on the other, his company offers hotels WiFi deployment.

He knows how tricky it is to design a network where, from “6am to 8.01am and 8pm to midnight” every business traveller downloads their email, watches streamed media or lets their kids use the Xbox.

“Hotels don’t want to spent a lot of money and invest in a lot of infrastructure if they don’t have to; they’re trying to get by on the absolute bare minimum so the system is normally massively oversubscribed at the very time when the user wants to use it.”

It’s a problem that McHugh deals with every day in a world where information and applications, once stored in traditional data centres, are now being distributed in a more ‘virtualised’ manner.

“Part of these networks have to be intelligent enough to make it look like all the information is pretty local to you even though it may not be,” he explains,

Like many of us, McHugh is a rabid consumer of this mobile ecosystem where yet more email, messaging, calendaring, word processing, spreadsheets, slide presentations and file sharing is being pushed out into the ether. But he also recognises the limits of this endeavour.

“We don’t live in a world where you’re perpetually tethered; travelling through London today I lost 3G innumerable times. There are too many places that aren’t connected, on airplanes, in subway tunnels, in the countryside. Only 20-30% of the US has good cellphone coverage; it’s going to be spotty for years.”

McHugh sees the durability of network models where you have a light presence in your hand and much more comprehensive assets in the cloud, with a “healthy” buffer sitting locally to protect you from the vagaries of the communication channel.

Despite nonstop interconnectivity being a pipe dream, smartphones, tablets (of various shapes and sizes) and netbooks have changed the way we communicate, as well as greatly increasing our ability to work when on the move. Gartner, a research consultancy, predicts that 80 percent of companies will have a mobile workforce armed with tablets by 2014.

Are corporations ready for such a seismic shift in workplace philosophy?

McHugh admits to being surprised that employers haven’t taken the mobile workforce idea to heart. “I expected a situation in the last downturn where companies would say, ‘if you want to work with me, you’ll need your own PC.’ I believe that’s going to be the trend.

“We went through the cycle when we were told we were all going to be telecommuters and it didn’t quite click; there’s always going to be some gravity that pulls work groups together, it’s hard to say if it’s cultural, productivity, the ability to manage people more effectively.

“But now most of us now prefer to use our own devices than those they’re given at work. I have a Dell portable [in the office]; if I want to do any secure authorisation or workforce management, I’m supposed to do it on that. But I do everything that I possibly can on my iPad. There’s going to come a point when your IT department doesn’t manage physical assets anymore.”

McHugh can’t imagine the tablet format not resonating with any business traveller, despite the lack of voice functionality. “The tablet does a great job in replacing the desktop PC as a viewer, and travelling executives, in more cases, are viewers rather than creators or deep-knowledge workers.”

My interviewee has both an iPhone and an iPad but, like many people I know, refuses to pay for a 3G plan on both of them. To get WiFi on his iPad he must therefore search for a free signal – and carefully select airports and hotels depending on their WiFi policy and access, and on the prevalence of workspaces.

“Increasingly now I pick airlines based on which one is most efficient, which means I’m often in the back of the plane, hence I can’t do lounges in a lot of places. Also, some of the luxury traditional hotels that don’t have WiFi or power outlets – you just don’t go there anymore.”

He points to Dallas and Phoenix airports as examples of hubs with abundant free WiFi, and Denver and Chicago’s O’ Hara as being “terrible airports for business travellers.”

I’ll leave the reaction to that opinion to the comment section.

Main caption: The shadow of Air Force One is cast on the clouds as a ‘glory’, or optical illusion, surrounds it over Cleveland, Ohio October 31, 2010. REUTERS/Larry Downing


If I can put in a plug for my humble hometown airport (SJC) who has not only great wi-fi access but plenty of outlets and comfy chairs to boot. It would only make sense that the airport serving Silicon Valley would offer such amenities.

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