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Aruba mobile engagement platform wins Network Innovation Award

Aruba is pushing Wi-Fi indoor positioning to new levels with a platform geared towards venues that connect with visitors via their smartphones.

In November, Aruba Networks Inc. introduced Aruba Mobile Engagement (AME), a collection of software and hardware that includes beacons, Wi-Fi and Internet access and application development. AME was engineered to exploit the fast-growing Wi-Fi indoor positioning market, allowing venues -- from stadiums to retailers -- to target consumers with personalized messages and promotions they can easily access from their mobile devices. Levi's Stadium in Santa Clara, Calif.; Nebraska Furniture Mart in Omaha; Orlando (Fla.) International Airport and the American Museum of Natural History in New York City are among retailers and venues that have rolled out the platform. In recognition of its efforts to make mobile engagement platform marketing easier to understand and deploy, Aruba is this month's winner of SearchNetworking's Network Innovation Award. SearchNetworking spoke with Jeff Hardison, director of product marketing for Aruba's public-facing enterprise group.

Why is Wi-Fi-based indoor positioning important?

Hardison: When you examine the first wave of Wi-Fi, it was corporate enterprises and universities that had many employees and students who wanted to use their wireless devices on location. What's happening now is that many public-facing enterprises -- such as retailers, hotels and hospitals -- are looking to engage with their visitors -- not just employees and their smart devices. People today use Google Maps when they are outdoors and looking for a nearby restaurant or trying to find a meeting they are going to, and they are using freely available satellite GPS to do that. If you want to do that level of engagement indoors, satellite GPS doesn't work, so the technology industry has been looking for ways to do indoor positioning through the years, and one of those ways was Wi-Fi.

How did Apple and iBeacon change this dynamic?

Hardison: Apple decided it wanted the industry to move away from using Wi-Fi for indoor positioning on their devices. Instead of using Wi-Fi, it introduced the iBeacon standard.

How does iBeacon work?

Hardison: It's a standard Apple offers up to hardware companies that's based on Bluetooth low energy (BLE). Apple liked BLE for a couple of reasons. It believed BLE was inherently more privacy-oriented; the beacon doesn't have the ability to track people indoors. It is simply just chirping a radio-like song, over and over again, 'I am here, I am here.' And what that does is put the power into the consumer and the devices they are carrying that can recognize those beacons. Second, it's affordable and easy to maintain. If you use other types of indoor positioning [technologies], these approaches can take many days to set up and they can create a lot of headaches for IT to set up. And third, it's more precise.

Why did Aruba decide to make its own beacons rather than outsource that to a third-party?

Hardison: One thing we learned is that customers don't want a mixed-bag partner strategy. They'd rather have one vendor for both the software used to build the apps, as well as the hardware used to do the indoor positioning with the apps. We felt we could create the best iBeacon hardware on the market, because we are a hardware company, as well as offer the Meridian software [application development platform] so the apps could be built.

Explain how the Meridian software development platform ties into AME.

There is always cynicism in the tech industry about the word 'solution,' but what it comes down to is this: Venues have problems.

Hardison: Meridian and AME are joined at the hip. The Aruba Meridian software is a platform for building an app from the ground up for a venue. It's been open to all types of indoor positioning technology; we used Wi-Fi when appropriate; we used chip-based indoor position when appropriate, and we found that when the iBeacon standard came out it provided the precision our customers were asking for, the peace of mind the IT people were looking for, and the ability to keep it very low-cost and affordable for venues. We are agnostic when it comes to indoor positioning technology, but we feel like the BLE approach right now is the most practical and user-friendly.

What are some of the capabilities engineered into AME because of Meridian?

Hardison: Meridian allows you to do a couple of different things. First, it does more than just send a push notification. We can do other things as well with indoor positioning, such as indoor navigation, where the blue dot on the map moves along with you as you move about the venue. Hardly any other company does indoor navigation in addition to push notification. So, the things you can build, we do more of because of the Meridian software. Secondly, you can remotely manage all your beacons via your Aruba Wi-Fi. Now, the IT person can log in to the Meridian software, see all the virtual beacons across all of the stores and rest [easy], knowing that all the batteries are working, the beacon hasn't been stolen and that there is a marketing campaign associated with [each beacon]. No one else can do that.

Discuss how the individual components of AME work together.

Hardison: It's not just the infrastructure, but the services enabled by that infrastructure. At the heart of it all, if you have an app or any kind of digital engagement within a venue, you need a good Internet connection. As you know, if you go to a stadium and it's busy, you can barely get a connection because there are so many people using the system. So what we do is build a location-grade Wi-Fi deployment where you can get a great connection, no matter where you are -- even in a packed stadium like Levi's Stadium. Second, when you log onto the Wi-Fi as a guest, it's a great opportunity for the venue to engage you in the browser, where they are going into what you call a captive portal -- where you sign the terms and conditions for the free Wi-Fi. Right there is a great opportunity to put some information tailored to the visitor. Just in the browser -- not in an app, and that can be done with Aruba ClearPass. Second, you can drive people to an app, created in Meridian, and this is where the app gets to play a role. That's important because venues will build apps but they want people to use them. You can put signs up [to promote the app], but wouldn't it be neat to be able to drive people to it in the guest Wi-Fi experience, as well?

There is always cynicism in the tech industry about the word "solution," but what it comes down to is this: Venues have problems. They want to engage with their visitors and they want an integrated product suite that can address their needs. And we believe you have to have good Internet connectivity, you need the ability to create an app if you want; to be able to engage them in the browser as well if they don't want an app and you have to provide indoor positioning to give people more context where they are standing, and that is Aruba's BLE Beacon.

What role is Aruba playing in educating prospective customers about beacon technology? Are you getting a lot of questions about it?

Hardison: Absolutely. There is no shortage of demand among venues asking about the beacons. They are asking about the Meridian platform for building apps. If you think of any venue and you went to the director of marketing and asked, 'What's one of the No. 1 items you want to work on this year?', most will say a mobile strategy. In addition, IT recognizes the value of leveraging existing technology infrastructure to help marketing. So IT and the marketing departments are coming to Aruba, along with digital marketing agencies and advertising agencies, because so many venues are looking to engage with their visitors and their smart devices, and do it in a contextual way.

What are some of the most common questions you get about using beacon technology?

Hardison: One of the most common questions is this: 'Is this as easy to deploy and maintain as it looks?' and the answer is 'yes.' It's one of the first indoor positioning technologies to come out that doesn't require a very sophisticated IT person to set up. Because it's so easy, people are still skeptical because it has been so long since a technology has come out for enterprises that's so easy to set up.

Another question is: 'I'm worried [about] how to scale this across my locations.' So we explain that. A lot of times I'm in conversations with the marketing and IT departments [about how a certain technology might work]. And it finally feels [like] we can get those teams at the table working on a problem together and that is how to engage with smart devices. Both teams might need direction [in how to] think about this strategically [and about] how [this can] impact their business goals, and we can help them with that.

What are some of the challenges that venues should be aware of when launching a beacon-based marketing strategy?

Hardison: I do caution and advise enterprises in a few different ways when doing mobile engagement. One is that venues should begin with a strategy and a goal. What are they looking to achieve with this mobile engagement effort? Are they looking to achieve revenue? Are they a retailer and looking to increase basket size? If you're a hospital, are you looking to lower customer service costs because people are stopping physicians on the way to surgery asking where the cardiology department is? What are they actually looking to do at a business level? Then move back from there and decide. Do we need an app for this? Do we need a browser-based experience? Do we have a budget and think through it from a typical goals/strategy/tactics type of perspective. This helps to reduce the chance they're not just chasing a shiny object, that they will be happy and be able to measure this effort later.

Second is to realize that the iBeacon standard has only been out for a little more than a year. It's a very new market and there are lots of claims being made. It's important to find a vendor you can trust who will be there tomorrow and who offers the entire solution. Oftentimes I will recommend that if you are choosing a vendor in mobile engagement, choose one that has a demo location you can visit that's live to the public.

Next Steps

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This was last published in March 2015

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What challenges do IT pros encounters when deploying Wi-Fi indoor- positioning systems?
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Deploying Wi-Fi systems indoors has its own unique set of challenges that need to be considered. One of the biggest is the way the signal can be impacted by other systems and items in the area - electronics, radios, and certain building materials can all affect the quality of a wi-fi signal and need to be carefully considered by IT teams when they are placing the indoor signal positioning systems.
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A good point. Thanks for your post.
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For us, it comes down to line of sight means most reliable connections. If you can't physically see it, you may well get degraded performance via wireless, at least that's been the case in our building. Fortunately, there are few places where line of sight isn't maintained.
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I think Aruba is facing an uphill battle with the iBeacon approach. Bluetooth Low Energy is a solid protocol, but Wi-Fi is so widespread.
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@Timeth2: Thanks for your thoughts. As a wi-fi company, Aruba certainly didn't consider lightly something other than wi-fi for indoor positioning for mobile apps. You're right: Wi-fi is nearly everywhere, and that's one reason our Aruba Meridian team preferred it as an indoor positioning technology since 2009. Yet, at the same time, we couldn't ignore the mobile operating systems -- which are also everywhere -- instituted changes, making wi-fi-based positioning more difficult for pleasing enterprise customers (and the people who use their apps). Wi-fi-based positioning for mobile apps just doesn't have the precision it once had. Furthermore -- and this has always been the case -- it's a bit difficult for IT pros to set up and maintain. BLE, while not perfect -- and what tech is? -- does provide the precision customers want and is relatively easy to deploy. BLE might not be the answer in 10 years, but it is the most well-rounded approach today. - Jeff Hardison, Aruba Networks (formerly Meridian)
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