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Fri 10 Aug 2018 12:44 AM

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Back to the future: Hewlett Packard's Dr Fabio Fontana

Hewlett Packard Enterprise is sticking to the ideals of its nearly 80-year legacy while using new technology to revolutionise computing and bring Silicon Valley to the Middle East. Vice President Dr Fabio Fontana is playing a key role in these plans

Back to the future: Hewlett Packard's Dr Fabio Fontana

Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) has a long history that dates back to a partnership between electrical engineering graduate students Bill Hewitt and David Packard in 1939, when the two began a business in a rented garage in Palo Alto, California. Today’s company is a result of its split from computer giant Hewlett Packard back in 2015.

Among its lofty goals is to tap into the region’s potential and build a new Silicon Valley in the Middle East, powered by the latest in computer, blockchain and AI technology.

The man charged with growing HPE’s business here is Vice President and Regional Managing Director. Dr Fabio Fontana. The affable Italian has a Master’s degree in Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence from University of Pisa and he also studied Executive Business Management at MIT’s Sloan School of Management and at Stanford University, and he is also a long-time veteran of HP, having first joined the company in 1989.

The HPE Dream Team

In the Middle East, HPE is currently working on developing the skills of young people. Two months ago, they launched an internship programme that, according to regional HR business partner Joanna Kotyrba, has so far brought on 11 interns: seven in Dubai (including three Emiratis) and two in Egypt.

To increase gender diversity, HPE in the Middle East has stipulated that 50 percent of all interns must be female as the programme is expanded in the future. This will then be bolstered by the addition of a graduate programme. The company, Kotyrba says, is actively seeking to promote employee diversity, which she believes in turn will help HPE’s larger business.

“I’m a strong believer that business success is directly tied to our employee’s diverse experiences,” she says. “We are just starting [in Dubai], but if you as a company want to change, you need to start with the juniors.”

Keeping pace with change

As a long-serving employee, Fontana was on hand to watch HPE’s birth in November 2015, when Hewlett Packard split into its two component parts: HP Inc and HPE. The move was followed by another series of spin-offs in 2017 when HPE dispensed its outsourcing and non-core software business. In Fontana’s view, the end result was a more focused, more efficient company better able to serve the needs of customers.

One of the core values of the company was always focusing on listening to the customer”

“Hewlett Packard got to be bigger and bigger, and we reached a point where we were valued at almost $120bn, with over 360,000 employees around the world. One of the core values of the company was always focusing on listening to the customer, seeing what they think and what we can do better,” Fontana recalls. “When you are such a big company, serving the customer is not easy.”

The split-up of Hewlett Packard, Fontana says, allowed HPE to be more agile and allow it to focus on what it identified as its core task: helping customers use technology to accelerate their businesses and help them on their “journey” from traditional IT environments to more efficient, productive, secure and modern systems.

“During this transformation, we created a lot of cash on our balance sheet. So what do we do with this cash? First, we invest a lot in our core technology, and that means computing. We are going to revolutionise computing and how the computer is built,” he notes. “Now, a computer has a CPU, memory and a network, all in one box. What we’re changing is that the core of the computer won’t be the CPU anymore – it’s going to be the memory. Everything will be around that, and it’s a disruptive change after 60 years in the industry. And we’re the only ones doing this.”

Fontana adds that the creation of HPE has also allowed the company to make key strategic acquisitions, such as the $275m purchase of Silicon Graphics International in August 2016 to boost HPE’s supercomputing power, and the $1.2bn acquisition of flash storage manufacturer Nimble Storage in April 2017.

We are going to revolutionise computing, and how the computer is built”

Fontana notes that the company uses the additional funds to finance innovative start-ups that work in related fields through its Pathfinder programme.

“It doesn’t matter where the company is. They can be in the US, in the Middle East or in Europe. Eventually we buy them, or we help them to be successful and grow,” he says. “That’s the spirit of the company, the heritage of HP. The spirit of our co-founders was a willingness to contribute to our society. Even Steve Jobs got an internship at Hewlett Packard. That’s what we want to do with Pathfinder.”

HP Pathfinder

HP Pathfinder is designed to provide expansion stage capital and support to technology start-ups focused on cloud computing, data centres, big data and security. They need to have received previous funding from notable early-stage VC capital firms and have already completed the initial development phase of their service or primary product. Recent investments over the last several months have included a private storage company and a hybrid cloud platform company.

An AI-powered future

Among the most significant tech trends that HPE is pursuing is Artificial Intelligence [AI]. The company offers a range of products designed to help customers ramp up, optimise and scale their AI usage across different business functions. The key benefit of AI, Fontana notes, is its ability to forecast – through “deep learning” – problems and issues before they even take place, in a variety of fields, ranging from IT to medicine and even security.

“We’re investing a lot in AI technology. For example, we have software that allows you to look at your data centre and predict what’s happening, learning from it and then acting. Normally, in every data centre you’ll have a fault, so AI is like a doctor that predicts if you’re going to be sick and what to do,” he says. “You do exactly the same in IT with AI.”

That’s the spirit of the company. The spirit of our co-founders was a willingness to contribute to our society”

Another example – and one that is particularly applicable to the shopping-mad UAE – is the application of AI to aiding security personnel at mega-malls by alerting them of people acting suspiciously.

“The most important thing is to understand the behaviour of people. You have cameras, but if you have 1,000 cameras, you can’t have one person, or even 10 people, looking at them,” Fontana notes. “You need the AI to examine their behaviour.”

Beware blockchain

One area in which Fontana urges caution is blockchain technology. Too many companies, he warns, dive headlong into the field without the proper understanding of how it can and should work for their companies, or what it truly entails. “Blockchain is not easy. It’s a journey. You can implement blockchain in the financial services industry, in hospitality, in manufacturing, but you can’t just say you want to buy the application,” he explains.

“You need to have an infrastructure that enables you to use blockchain. If you use blockchain for core business in finance, or in a telco for payments, you need to make sure that the infrastructure is high-level, mission critical. If you lose one minute as an investment banker, or one minute of billing for your hotel, your company loses money.”

That’s an incredible challenge: how to process things, secure things, and access things”

To cater to customers who are seeking to implement blockchain into their businesses, HPE announced in 2017 that it would offer blockchain as a service, allowing customers in different industries to record transactions across a decentralised network of computers. The move followed an earlier decision, about two years ago, to establish HPE PointNext, which, according to Fontana, aims to “explain and help companies along the blockchain journey, suggesting what they should do.”

The company, he says, oversees “the overall spectrum” of blockchain for its customers, ranging from services to production to implementation.

One exciting blockchain case in which HPE has been involved, Fontana says, is in the automotive sector supply chain. The technology, he says, can help automobile manufacturers avoid the potentially extremely expensive recall of vehicles due to defects.

“If there was a problem [in a factory] between January 1 and February 28, we don’t know which tyres were affected, so we have to recall all the tyres, so that costs a lot of money. But maybe the problem was only for 10 minutes in the production line. The problem is that I don’t know,” he says.

“But with blockchain we have a solution. It’s like taking of picture of every single moment in the supply chain. So when you do a recall, you can recall very specific tyres, and the company saves a lot of money.”

This is a region with a lot of vision, and we want to contribute to that”

In the case of the Middle East, however, at least at the moment he sees more potential for AI than for blockchain, where he says companies often adopt blockchain “just for the sake of buying an application”, which in turns, leads to mistakes.

“If you don’t do it the right way… you can hurt your company and its future success a lot,” Fontana says.

Edge Computing

Among HPE’s primary focuses at the moment is “edge computing”, which the company defines as the “practice of processing data near the edge of your network, where the data is being generated, instead of in a centralised data-processing warehouse.”

In practice, edge computing enables data-stream acceleration and allows for real-time data processing without latency, which in turn allows smart applications and devices to respond to data nearly instantaneously – a key requirement for technologies such as self-driving cars.

Speaking at a Reuters Newsmakers event in San Francisco in early July, HPE CEO Antoino Neri said that “70 percent of the data generated today is at the edge... we’re going to generate more data in the next two years than in the last 2,000 years of human history. That’s an incredible challenge: how to process things, secure things, and access things.”

A commitment to the Gulf

Although Fontana declines to reveal exact sales figures for HPE in the GCC or Middle East region, he is quick to note that HPE considers the market “very important”. As evidence, he points to a number of partnerships the company has established in the region, including a five-year partnership with UAE telco Du to help provide the IT infrastructure, data centre services and operational support necessary to help Dubai realise its dreams of a “smart city”.

In Fontana’s view, HPE’s commitment to the region, however, goes beyond its customers, whether they be businesses or government clients. His 20-person “dream Team” working from the Dubai office has larger goals.

“It’s very simple. We’re not just here to make money. We do want to make money, but we want to serve our customers better and eventually to serve society. We want to contribute to society. This is a region with a lot of vision, and we want to contribute to that.” he says.

“In the future we’ll be doing a lot of local programmes to enhance technology, to enhance innovation, to create an ecosystem to work together with local partners. This is what our founders did in Silicon Valley. We want to create our Silicon Valley here.”

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