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Sanjit Biswas Wants You to Live in the Cloud

When he first picked up his father’s computer science books as a child, the question wasn’t whether Sanjit Biswas was going to be a technological success, but when. The answer turned out to be sooner rather than later.

At age 15, Biswas, born and raised in California, became the youngest computer engineer ever employed by the database giant, Oracle. “The only time his age became apparent was when he had to rush out of work so his mom could pick him up,” recalled an Oracle co-worker in a 1998 news story.

Today, at 30, Biswas is the co-founder and CEO of Meraki, based in San Francisco, California, a company that has become a leader in the rapidly expanding field of cloud computing.

The cloud, in essence, transforms computing into a service instead of a collection of discrete products. Cloud computing means that shared resources, whether software applications or data transmission and storage, are delivered over the Internet as a utility, like the electrical grid.

Meraki uses the cloud computing model to provide easily installed wireless networks just about anywhere, including parts of South Asia, Africa and Latin America where Internet access had previously been almost nonexistent or prohibitively expensive.

In 2007, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) named Biswas one of the top innovators in the world under the age of 35. A year later, Inc. Magazine listed him as one of its top "30 Under 30” entrepreneurs, and in 2010, Laptop magazine called him one of the 25 most influential individuals in mobile technology.

"Free the Airwaves"

"Meraki’s mission is to help connect the next billion people to the Internet," Biswas declares in a YouTube video, part of a "Free the Airwaves” public campaign to open up the broadcast spectrum. In 2008, Biswas and a few Meraki volunteers demonstrated what they were talking about when they descended on a low-income apartment complex in San Francisco. After installing a network router, they attached wireless repeaters throughout the development. The entire process took several hours. Then they turned on the system. “Within a few minutes,” Biswas said, "the community went from zero access to the Internet to having free WiFi throughout their buildings and homes.”

Despite working in a highly competitive field dominated by industry giants like Cisco Systems, Meraki has enjoyed remarkable success in deploying its technologies to schools, businesses, housing complexes and government offices throughout the United States and internationally.

MIT and innovation

After working at Oracle and notching perfect scores on his SAT college qualification exams, Biswas earned degrees in computer science and engineering from Stanford University in California and MIT.

For his MIT doctoral program, Biswas conducted research into a pioneering network application known as mesh technology. In such a mesh or “smart” network, communications nodes no longer receive and pass data automatically; instead, the nodes analyze the data’s signal strength and destination to determine which nodes should transmit the data along the network.

In practical terms, this means that the network can rapidly adapt to changing circumstances, whether shifts in radio transmissions, or even blockages caused by something as simple as a passing truck. When coupled with off-the-shelf hardware, these networks can provide inexpensive wireless communications to isolated or poor communities that lack reliable Internet access.

In 2006, Biswas took a leave of absence from MIT, and together with fellow student John Bicket, used their research breakthrough to found Meraki. In addition to low-cost wireless installations, Meraki offers another attraction for network administrators beleaguered by the proliferation of smartphones, iPads and other mobile devices. Using a Meraki “cloud controller,” they can manage geographically dispersed wireless systems from a central location, using only a simple Web screen.

Meraki is providing its services to roughly 18,000 companies, schools and other organizations in more than 140 countries. In April, it announced that, along with revenue growth of 300 percent over the previous year’s quarter, it had added 1,200 new customers during the first three months of 2011.

“With Meraki,” Biswas said, “we’ve been able to change the economics of Internet access so it’s no longer something that requires a huge expenditure for people who often don’t have the money to get online.”

Howard Cincotta is a U.S. Department of State writer and editor.