Cyan Works the Big Screen

Fresh off a successful IPO, the packet-optical and SDN supplier is still in search of profitability

May 14, 2013

4 Min Read
Cyan Works the Big Screen

The last time Michael Hatfield was involved in an IPO, it was 1996 and he was marketing chief at Advanced Fiber Communications, one of the first telecom startups to make its mark on the picturesque egg-farming town of Petaluma, a 40-minute drive north of San Francisco. "You're darn tootin'," someone might have said to Hatfield back then, grabbing a line from what he says is his favorite movie, Fargo. AFC's stock came out on the NASDAQ exchange at $25 and by the next day it had hit $47. Last Thursday, as president of Cyan Inc., also in Petaluma, Hatfield rang the opening bell at the New York Stock Exchange as that company went public. Cyan's stock opened at $11 and a few days later is trading at $12 and change. "It's very different," Hatfield says when asked how the IPO process may have changed since his first experience, "and in some ways, it's just the same." Not only have traders' hand signals given way to banks of monitors and other technology on the exchange floors, but the whole roadshow process has changed under the influence of technology. Most of a company's dog-and-pony presentation gets recorded, slide decks and all, and by the time company executives finally meet with potential investors, the Q&A starts almost immediately. Still, Hatfield says, "It's cool to be on the floor of the exchange." And it's cool to position Cyan less as an optical networking play, as so many Petaluma startups have done over the years, than as one situated on the ground floor of the Next Big Thing, software-defined networking (SDN). "There was a time when optical was its own thing," says Hatfield. "Now, so much of it is integrated. Optical is just one aspect of what you do." Since last fall, Cyan has been positioning itself mainly as a provider of an open SDN scheme, offering software that runs on a server and enables applications to orchestrate the activities of Ethernet switches and other networking elements. For now, this orchestration is focused on the packet level, but over time, it's expected that the optical layer can be profitably subjected to real-time, software-driven control. "Lots of what [Cyan] is doing today centers around software affecting the network. You can't assume companies working to build optical have to worry about software. We're using optical technology to get scale, but it's just one aspect of the product line. Software definition of the network becomes the real focus," Hatfield says. Cyan's SDN platform, called Blue Planet, is being designed to appeal to both the telecom and enterprise markets. Hatfield declines to break down sales by those categories, but the latter is looking good, he says. "We're seeing significant number of enterprise customers moving to join the data center and network assets," Hatfield says. Not surprisingly, these are primarily large enterprises that are seeking "more control over the network. They're saying, 'We want to take matters into our own hands.'" Clearly, Internet and media companies are on this path, he notes -- think Amazon and Netflix Inc. -- as are those in financial services. One area Cyan has been putting much effort into is visualization, using techniques taken from video gaming. The idea is to help engineers peel away successive layers of the network -- fiber, TDM, higher-level services, etc. -- and explore their interdependencies and statuses and current performance. "It's eye-candy," concedes Joe Cumello, Cyan's chief marketing officer, "but it's actually very useful." In fine optical-networking form, Cyan is losing money. For the year ending Dec. 31, the company reported losses of $16.6 million, or $6.60 per share, on revenues of $95.9 million. And while revenues have grown from $23.5 million in 2010, Cyan's net loss has stayed at about $16 million each of the last three years. So, when will Cyan get to see a change in the color of ink in its books, from red to strong, solid black? Cumello wouldn't say, though he notes that a number of analysts are projecting Cyan to reach profitability by the second quarter of next year. One last question for Hatfield: Why Fargo? "I don't know what it is," he says. "I could watch that a lot. The Coen brothers do some good work." Yah, you betcha.

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