Wireless networking has become a critical enabler for businesses, and organisations are preparing their networks to accommodate multiple trends, he explained.
• More devices. The number of Wi-Fi devices deployed is growing rapidly. De Nicolo pointed to figures from the Wi-Fi Alliance showing that there were already eight billion devices earlier in 2017 with another three billion to ship by the end of the year, and Gartner's prediction of 21 billion devices by 2020.
• User expectations. There is a growing expectation of ubiquitous coverage in the workplace, driven in part by the move to 'mobile first' working practices. For example, electronic health records can make a big difference to healthcare delivery providing they are accessible wherever the practitioner happens to be.
But that growth in traffic has an upside, De Nicolo suggested. More traffic means more data to provide insights from connected devices and infrastructure, which can be used to improve the connected experience and to improve security. This extra data will allow more accurate decisions to be made in less time.
People don't only expect good Wi-Fi in their workplaces – it's important to provide them with connected experiences at venues such as airports, university campuses, stadiums, galleries and convention centres.
There is an "expectation that the physical experience is augmented with a virtual experience".
One example can be seen at Allianz Stadium in Sydney, where food and beverage sales increased by 47% after the introduction of a system that lets people place orders from their seats and be notified when the items are ready to be collected.
Cisco's Connected Mobile Experiences (CMX) system makes it easier to provide a customised experience for different events, he claimed, and to use analytics to gain a better understanding of attendees in order to customise content and improve engagement.
Getting the full benefits of a modern Wi-Fi network requires a change in mindset, De Nicolo suggested. It needs to be seen as "a strategic investment that facilitates digitalisation".
This means getting away from the traditional project-by-project view, and instead regarding it as infrastructure that doesn't just address an immediate problem but also provides benefits for future projects.
For instance, where a retailer may have initially installed a Wi-Fi network to support mobile PoS devices, it may now want to use mobile apps to improve customer engagement through special offers, loyalty programs and so on. The existing infrastructure is generally not up to the job, but rather than installing a separate customer network, a better approach is to go for an improved, converged network that can keep separate the different uses.
Cisco uses the term "network intuitive" to describe the second phase of its digital network architecture. The idea is to overlay business rules onto networks, making it relatively easy to deal with situations such as that retail example, and importantly to do so in an automated manner.
Similarly, it makes it possible to determine thresholds that indicate problems are approaching, and then take appropriate action. That might be as simple as alerting the appropriate people, but it could apply machine learning to make changes to rectify the situation.
Such ML capabilities can also be used to improve security by detecting abnormal traffic passing through access points, switches and other pieces of network infrastructure. Again, any deviation can trigger an alert or an automated network policy change.
"We've been able to do that for a couple of years," said De Nicolo, but what's changed recently is the addition of the ability to detect abnormal encrypted traffic — eg, from malware — without having to decrypt it first.
More generally, increased automation can generate significant economies. About three-quarters of the cost of a network is in its management and associated application, as opposed to the capital cost.
"We can dramatically change the economics of networking [through automation]," he said.
Based on early field trials with customers, the ongoing costs can be reduced by up to 60% when using Cisco's technologies.
Analytics based on network data can be used in other ways to benefit an organisation.
For example, Deakin University's smart campus strategy in part focuses on proximity, using network-derived data to help students find a quiet space in a library, to help librarians locate and identify a student who has requested assistance, or to help staff or students find the closest resource of a particular type.
Closer to Melbourne's CBD, the University of Melbourne's extensive campus is about to be split by engineering works for the Metro underground railway project. The university needed to understand the movements of the 200,000 people who come onto the campus on any day in order to determine how the project will affect flows so it can tale steps to minimise the disruption.
A video system was considered, but was not cost effective. Instead, data from the University of Melbourne's 4,500 Wi-Fi access points is being used to the same end.
"They're not unique," said De Nicolo. Similar approaches are being used to manage queues at airports, and to identify parts of premises that are infrequently used with a view to reducing the footprint and therefore real estate costs.
More generally, Wi-Fi can be used to help improve various workflows. He gave the example of a hospital fridge used to store temperature-sensitive drugs. Previously, it automatically requested a service call if the temperature exceeded a certain level. Now, before that request is placed a nearby nurse is called to check that the door hasn't been left open.
"It's an exciting time in the wireless space," with significant growth in the Australian market. "Mobility has become fundamental to business."