CCDE and CCAr – Why All The Hate?

Cisco Live 2012 gave me an opportunity to sit in a session dedicated to the newer Cisco expert certfications.  BRKCRT-8862 is for CCIEs that are looking at moving to the Cisco Certified Design Expert (CCDE) and maybe even the Cisco Certified Architect (CCAr).  The CCDE is a pretty well known certification at this point.  Developed in large part by Russ White, the CCDE tests a candidate on their knowledge of taking a set of requirements and producing a valid design for a given scenario.  Originally envisioned as a board certification exam not unlike the VMware Certified Design Expert (VCDX), the CCDE is instead an 8-hour exam with some multiple choice and some fill-in-the-blank type questions.  The CCDE is a prerequisite for the CCAr, which is the culmination of something Cisco is trying to do with focusing on solutions.  The CCAr tends to focus more on the Planning and Preparation areas of the PPDIOO model.  Cisco tends to see them as “big picture” solutions engineers that focus on more conceptual ideas that revolve around things like business contraints and specific use cases.  From what Cisco was describing, it appears that the role of the CCAr is to gather information about the customer desires that will then be given to the CCDEs to generate a design.  The CCAr is a 5-month long board exam that is graded by three judges (mostly existing CCArs) that are with you during the entire process, from the initial submission of your application up until the final board review.  Note that not all those that apply to the program will be selected for review.

The BRKCRT session highlighted a lot of hesitation in the CCIE ranks where the CCAr is concerned.  Cisco has spent a lot of time over the last three years attempting to have the CCDE reach parity with the CCIE in terms of importance.  Had they simply called it the CCIE: Design it would likely have been much more accepted in the community.  However, there is a legacy of the original failed CCIE: Design track from a decade ago, so I’m sure that Cisco wanted to avoid carrying the negativity forward.  Instead, they’ve had to fight the reputation that the exam has gotten for being too focused on very specific technologies or being a bad representation of what a design test should be.  Much of this criticism focuses on the major test developer, Russ White.  When I first heard of the exam going live, many people said it was easy so long as you asked yourself “What Would Russ White Do?”  With the new version of the exam being recently released, as well as Cisco offering the exam at new locations, the CCDE may very well be on the road to gaining a little more respect.

The CCAr, on the other hand, is a pretty big target.  CCIEs are upset that the CCDE is the only prerequisite for the exam.  After almost twenty years of being told that the CCIE is the most important certification inside of Cisco, if not the world, now we’re told that the CCIE isn’t even good enough for us to get our foot in the door of the Architect board.  I think some of this comes from the reality that many CCIEs are called upon to do designs in their every day work.  Often, after a CCIE goes through all the training necessary to pass the lab exam, they have a very good idea of the capabilities of the product set within their particular track.  Therefore, many companies call on them to produce designs, as they are usually the best suited to make the decision between using a particular model of switch or router or firewall.  However, not all CCIEs are good at design.  Many of them have a “bottom up” view of things that tends to lead them down the path of point solutions without regard for higher-level thinking.  Call it a “forest for the trees” type of mentality.  They get so bogged down on the decisions between what line cards to use or why they’d rather use a 4500 in place of a 6500 that they lose sight of the bigger goals.  There’s also no guarantee that a CCIE will be able to produce a valid design from a pile of non-technical interviews and business requirements instead of data sheets and performance specs.  The CCDE teaches engineers how to keep a bigger view of things in mind when planning a design.

The problem, however, is that both the CCDE and CCIE are still focused on providing their respective documents, whether they be for design or implementation.  Someone still has to lay the groundwork for the project and figure out how to focus the task of the designers.  Without an even bigger picture, design is just throwing things at the wall until something sticks.  Some designers understand that and ask specific questions before diving into their work.  These are the folks that are the target of the CCAr program.  Cisco doesn’t just want a bill of materials or a pretty Visio document handed to the customer.  They want a cohesive plan and design delivered to sell a vision, whether it be an architecture like a connected sports stadium or a connected energy grid.  Architects take into account more than just technology.  They are constantly thinking about esoteric things like regulatory laws and other logistic restraints.  These are the kinds of things that CCIEs and CCDEs either shy away from or would rather not think about.

Look at it like this:  The CCAr is like the CEO of the team.  They have the vision and the desire to go out and kickstart things by looking at the big picture.  They have to play the role of project manager and pre-sales at the same time.  They keep a handle on the non-technical aspects of the project.  Once they’ve determined the direction, the send in the CCDEs.  These guys take all the documentation the CCAr has generated and meld it with the best practices needed to create a valid, working design.  Once the CCDEs have everything in order, it’s up to the CCIEs to go out and make it all work.  They are the technical piece that gets the hard work accomplished.  The CCAr may not be typing commands in on the CLI, but they are the ones running interference from the other side by keeping customers appraised and kicking over rocks to find things the designers need to know.

If you’d like to read a few more takes on the CCDE, check out Russ White’s Why CCDE? post at the Packet Pushers site.  Also, read about the journey to CCDE success from CCDE 2012::1, Ronnie Angello (@rangello)

Tom’s Take

I’ll be shocked if there are ever more than a hundred Cisco Certified Architects.  The level of thinking required for this exam isn’t something that can be taught.  You are either born to be a technical architect or you aren’t.  With that being said, I think that the skills that are crucial to having a well rounded view of architecture are best served by requiring both the CCIE and CCDE as a prerequisite for the CCAr.  Design without technical know-how is a dicey proposition at best, but trying to attain and architecture role without knowing how to design is equally capable of colossal folly.  Just like any recipe, you need a good mix of both to make the final product come out right.

The Google Glass Ceiling

I finally got around to watching the Charlie Rose interview with Sebastian Thrun.  Thrun is behind a lot of very promising technology, the least of which is the Google Glass project.  Like many, I kind of put this out of my mind at the outset, dismissing it as a horrible fashion trend at best and a terribly complicated idea at worst.  Having seen nothing beyond the concept videos that are currently getting lots of airplay, I was really tepid about the whole concept and wanted to see it baked a little more before I really bought into the idea of carrying my smartphone around on my head instead of my hip.  Then I read another interesting piece about the future of Google and Facebook.  In and of itself, the blog post has some interesting prognostications about the directions that Facebook and Google are headed.  But one particular quote caught my eye in both the interview and the future article.  Thrun says that the most compelling use case for Google Glass right now that they can think of is for taking pictures and sharing them with people on Google+.  Charlie Rose even asked about other types of applications, like augmented reality.  Thrun dismissed these in favor of talking about how easy it was to take pictures by blinking and nodding your head.  Okay, I’m going to have to take a moment here…

Sebastian Thrun, have you lost your mind?!?

Seriously.  You have a project sitting on your ears that has the opportunity to change the way that people like me view the world and the best use case you can think of today is taking pictures of ice cream and posting it to a dying social network?  Does. Not. Compute.  Honestly, I can’t even begin to describe how utterly dumbstruck I am by this.  After spending a little more time looking into Google Glass, I’m giddy with anticipation with what I can do with this kind of idea.  However, it appears that the current guardians of the technology seem fit to shoehorn this paradigm-shifting concept into a camera case.

When I think of augmented reality applications, I think of the astronomy apps I see on the iPad that let me pick out constellations with my kids.  I can see the ones in the Southern Hemisphere just by pointing my Fruity Tablet at the ground.  Think of programs like Word Lens that allow me to instantly translate signs in a foreign language into something I can understand.  That’s the technology we have today that you can buy from the App Store.  Seriously.  No funky looking safety glasses required.  Just imagine that technology in a form factor where it’s always available without the need to take out your phone or tablet.  That’s what we can do at this very minute.  That doesn’t take much imagination at all.  Google Glass could be the springboard that launches so much more.

Imagine having an instant portal to a place like Wikipedia where all I have to do is look at an object and I can instantly find out everything I need to know about it.  No typing or dictating. All I need to do is glance at the TARDIS USB hub on my desk and I am instantly linked to the Wikipedia TARDIS page.  Take the Word Lens idea one step further.  Now, instead of only reading signs, let the microphone on the Google Glass pick up the foreign language being spoken and provide real-time translation in subtitles on the Glass UI.  Instant understanding with possibilities of translating back into the speaker’s language and display of phrases to respond with.  How about the ability to display video on the UI for things like step-by-step instructions of disassembling objects or repairing things?  I’d even love to have a Twitter feed displayed just outside my field of vision that I can scroll through with my eye movements.  That way, I can keep up with what’s going on that’s important to me without needing to lift a finger.  The possibilities are endless for something like this.  If only you can see past the ability to post pointless pictures to your Picasa account.

There are downsides to Google Glass too.  People are having a hard time interacting as it is today with the lure of instant information at their fingertips.  Imagine how bad it will be when they don’t have to make the effort of pulling out their phone.  I can see lots of issues with people walking into doors or parked cars because they were too busy paying attention to their Glass information and not as much time watching where they were walking.  Google’s web search page has made finding information a fairly trivial issue even today.  Imagine how much lazier people will be if all they have to do is glance at the web search and ask “How many ounces are in a pound?”.  Things will no longer need to be memorized, only found.  It’s like my teacher’s telling me not to be reliant on a calculator for doing math.  Now, everyone has a calculator on their phone.

Tom’s Take

In 2012, the amount of amazing technology that we take for granted astonishes me to no end.  If you had told me in the 1990s that we would have a mini computer in our pocket that has access to the whole of human knowledge and allows me to communicate with my friends and peers around the world instantly, I’d have scoffed at your pie-in-the-sky dreams.  Today, I don’t think twice about it.  I no longer need an alarm clock, GPS receiver, pocket camera, or calculator.  Sadly, the kind of thinking that has allowed technology like this to exist doesn’t appear to be applied to new concepts like Google Glass.  The powers that be at GoogleX can’t seem to understand the gold mine they’re sitting on.  Sure, maybe applying the current concepts of sharing pictures might help ease transition of new users to this UI concept.  I would hazard that people are going to understand what to do with Google Glass well beyond taking a snapshot of their lunch sushi and sharing with their Foodies circle.  Instead, show us the real groundbreaking stuff like the ideas that I’ve already discussed.  Go read some science fiction or watch movies like The Terminator, where the T-800s have a very similar UI to what you’re developing.  That’s where people want to see the future headed.  Not reinventing the Polaroid camera for the fifth time this year.  And if you’re having that much trouble coming up with cool ideas or ways to sell Google Glass to the nerds out there today, give me a call.  I can promise you we’ll blast through that glass ceiling you’ve created for yourself like the SpaceX Dragon lifting off for the first time.  I may not be able to code as well as other people at GoogleX, but I can promise you I’ve got the vision for your project.

My Thoughts on the Macbook Pro with Retina Display

At their annual World Wide Developer’s Conference (WWDC), Apple unveiled a new line of laptops based on the latest Intel Ivy Bridge chipset. The Macbook Air and Macbook Pro lines received some upgrade love, but the most excitement came from the announcement of the new Macbook Pro with Retina Display. Don’t let the unweildy moniker fool you, this is the new king of the hill when it comes to beastly laptops. Based on the 15.4″ Macbook Pro, Apple has gone to task to slim down as much as possible. It’s just a wee bit thicker than the widest part of a Macbook Air (MBA) and weighs less than the Macbook Pro (MBP) it’s based on. It is missing the usual Ethernet and Firewire ports in favor of two Thunderbolt ports on the left side and USB3 ports on either side. There’s also an HDMI-out port and an SXHD card reader on the right side. Gone as well is the optical drive, mirroring its removal in the MBA. Instead, you gain a very high resolution display that is “Retina Class”, meaning it is a 2880×1800 display in a 15.4″ screen, gaining enough pixels per inch at the average viewing angle to garner the resolutionary Retina designation. You also gain a laptop devoid of any spinning hard disks, as the only storage options in the Macbook Pro with Retina Display (RMBP) are of the solid state disk (SSD) variety. the base model includes a 256 GB disk, but the top end model can be upgraded to an unheard of 768 GB swath of storage. The RAM options are also impressing, starting at 8 GB and topping out at 16 GB. All in all, from the reviews that have been floating around so far, this thing cooks. So, why are so many people hesitant to run out to the Apple Store and shower the geniuses with cash or other valuable items (such as kidneys)?

The first thing that springs to mind is the iFixit article that has been circulating since day 1 that describes the RMBP as “the most unhackable, untenable, and unfixable laptop ever”. They cite that the RAM and SSD are soldered to the main system board just like in the little MBA brother. They also note the the resolutionary Retina Display is glued to the surrounding case, making removal by anyone but a trained professional impossible. Given the smaller size and construction, it’s entirely possible that there will be very few (if any) aftermarket parts available for repairs or upgrades. That begs the question in my case:

Who Cares?

Yep, I said it. I really don’t give a crap if the RMBP is repairable. I’ve currently got a 13″ MBA that I use mostly for travel and typing blog posts. I know that in the event that anything breaks, I’m going to have to rely on AppleCare to fix it for me. I have a screwdriver that can crack the case on it, but I shudder to think what might happen if I really do get in there. I’m treating the MBA just like an iPad – a disposable device that is covered under AppleCare. In contrast, my old laptop was a Lenovo w701. This behemoth was purchased with upgradability in mind. I installed a ton of RAM at the time, and ripped out the included hard disk to install a whopping 80 GB SSD and run the 500 GB HDD beside it. Beyond that, do you know how many upgrades I have performed in the last two years? Zero. I haven’t added anything. Laptops aren’t like desktops. There’s no graphics card upgrades or PCI cards to slide in. There’s no breakout boxes or 75-in-1 card readers to install. What you get with a laptop is what you get, unless you want to use USB or Thunderbolt attachments. In all honesty, I don’t care that the RMBP is static as far as upgradability. If and when I get one, I’m going to order it with the full amount of RAM, as the 4 GB on my MBA has been plenty so far and I’ve had to work my tail off to push the 12 GB in my Lenovo, even owing to the hungry nature of Windows. The SSD might give some buyers a momentary pause, but this is a way for Apple to push two agendas at the same time. The first is that they want you to use iCloud as much as possible for storage. By giving you online storage in place of acres of local disk, Apple is hoping that some will take them up on the offer of moving documents and pictures to the cloud. A local disk is a one time price or upgrade purchase. iCloud is a recurring sunk cost to Apple. Every month you have your data stored on their servers is a month they can make money to eventually buy more disks to fill up with more iCloud customers. This makes the Apple investors happy. The other reason to jettison the large spinning rust disks in favor of svelt SSD sexiness is the Thunderbolt ports on the left side. Apple upgraded the RMBP to two of them for a reason. So far, the most successful Thunderbolt peripheral has been the 27″ Thunderbolt display. Why? Well, more screen real estate is always good. But is also doubles as a docking station. I can hang extra things off the back of the monitor. I can even daisy chain other Thunderbolt peripherals off the back. With two Thunderbolt ports, I no longer have to worry about chaining the devices. I can use a Thunderbolt display along with a Thunderbolt drive array. I can even utilize the newer, faster USB3 drive arrays. So having less local storage isn’t exactly a demerit in my case.

Tom’s Take

When the new Macbook Pro with Retina Display was announced, I kept saying that I was looking for a buyer for my kidney so I could rush out and buy one. I was only mostly joking. The new RMBP covers all the issues that I’ve had with my excellent MBA so far. I don’t care that it’s a bit bigger. I care about the extra RAM and SSD space. I like the high resolution and the fact that I can adjust it to be Retina-like or really crank it up to something like 1680×1050 or 1920×1200. I couldn’t really care less about the supposed lack of upgradability. When you think about it, most laptops are designed to be disposable devices. If it’s not the battery life going caput, it’s the screen or the logic boards the eventually burn out. We demand a lot from our portable devices, and the stress that manufactures are under to make them faster and smaller forces compromises. Apple has decided that giving users easy access to upgrade RAM or SSD space is one of those compromises. Instead, they offer alternatives in add-on devices. When you think about it, most of the people who are walking into the Apple store are never going to crack the case open on their laptop. Heck, I’m an IBM certified laptop repair technician and even I get squeamish doing that. I’d rather rely on the build quality that I can be sure that I’ll get out of the Cupertino Fruit and Computer Company and let AppleCare take care of the rest.

Cisco Live 2012 – Recap

Cisco Live 2012 Social Media

I knew it was going to be hard to top the great time I had at Cisco Live 2011, but I had great hopes for this year. I flew into San Diego early on Sunday morning. I figured I didn’t do much on Saturday the year before, so Sunday would be a great arrival time. I didn’t even make it out of the airport before I ran into Bob McCouch (@bobmccouch) in the Super Shuttle van. We caught up as we made our way to our respective hotels. The hotel situation in San Diego has been the source of some real consternation, even causing some folks to not be able to attend due to high lodging costs. I think the San Diego area hotels realize that they have their visitors at a premium, so they are charging appropriately for the privilege of staying so close to the convention center and the Gaslamp entertainment area. I’ll definitely be more considerate of places like San Francisco and Las Vegas in the future. Sunday was a bit of a whirlwind. I had been working with the great Cisco Live Social Media Team to try and schedule some times for the people that communicate together on Twitter to meet up and have a little time to catch up before we started the conference proper. I showed up to the convention center and checked in to receive my bag and materials. I then ran into Tony Mattke (@tonhe) and Jeff Fry (@fryguy_pa). We talked for a bit while deciding what to do. I knew the tweetup was going to be at 3 p.m., but I also wanted to take some time to check out other areas, like the NetVet lounge. One of the benefits of coming to Cisco Live as often as I do it the NetVet status. This allows for things like priority seating and access to special lounge. Inside, I picked up my free NetVet Cisco Press book, NX-OS Switching. I’m sure I’m going to need some more stick time on that particular subject. I also quickly linked up with the Cisco website team, as they setup in the NetVet lounge to do surveys and get feedback on the user experience. I work with them frequently as well, so it was good to see them in person once again. I realized that I didn’t have enough time to grab lunch before my scheduled exam, so I rushed over to get in line. I have started taking my exams on Sunday or Monday to cut down on the pressure to find time to study during the week of Cisco Live, as that’s usually impossible. This year, I wanted to attempt the CCIE Data Center Beta written exam, as I’ve blogged about the certification before. I figured it was about time to put my money where my mouth is, even though I’ve got less familiarity with the various platforms (hence the NX-OS book).

It was here that I had my first strange moment. As I was talking with Amy Arnold (@amyengineer) and others, someone came up and told me that they read my blog all the time and thanked me for all the writing that I do. I have to say this was a humbling experience. I still think of myself more as an occasional prognosticator and part-time snarky tech analyst. To have someone approach me out of the blue and give me good feedback about what I’m doing here makes me feel great. Afterwards, I jumped in and took my best shot at the beta. While I can’t disclose what was there, I can say that the test was a great indicator of what will be covered on the exam and I now know where some of my weak areas are when it comes to figuring out what I’m going to need to work on. I got out of the test just in time to get down to the Tweetup area. The Cisco Live team moved things from where I thought we were going to be to a more suitable area. We ended up having about 50-60 people show up, which was a great turnout. The Social Media team provided some refreshments in the form of Frappucinos and Red Bull, along with cookies and other sugary snacks. I had some great conversations and met some outstanding people that I hadn’t talked to before on Twitter. We stuck around for about three hours, since some fellow tweeps were coming from Techtorial sessions. We also wanted to wait for Jay Franklin (@jay25f), as he was taking his CCIE lab on site. Once everyone had caught up, several of us went into the Gaslamp district and had dinner at Mary Jane’s. One thing I will say for social media gatherings: while it’s great to catch up and hang out at dinner together, it’s a bit of pain to try to find a table for 25-30 almost anywhere. Better planning next year, I suppose. The staff at Mary Jane’s was great, and I had an opportunity to talk to @grinthock. After dinner, I went on a mission to a local grocery store to acquire supplies for a joke that would play out on Monday. A walk back to the hotel tired me out enough to make me turn in well before midnight.

Monday started off with me bolting out of bed at 5:15 a.m. local time. Guess my internal clock wasn’t quite adjusted to PDT. I grabbed all my supplies for the day and headed down to the convention center. Breakfast wasn’t served until 7 a.m., so I had a bit of time to catch up on some email and other tasks. After breakfast, I headed up to the NetVet lounge and spent some time talking with the web team. It was there that Jeff Fry and I were told that none other than Carlos Dominguez (@carlosdominguez) wanted to meet up with us and ask us some questions. Opportunities like that don’t come around every day. I skipped my 10:00 session but we were unable to meet up, as Carlos is a very busy guy. Back in the NetVet area, I ran into Shannon McFarland (@eyepv6), who’s class on IPv6 Enterprise Deployment is always good. I was afraid my afternoon schedule might cause me to miss a portion of his class, so I decided to let him in on my joke. I told him on Twitter a few weeks before that I was coming to his class to heckle him. He responded in jest that I was free to do so as long as I didn’t throw fruit. I replied that I was bring watermelons and cantaloupes, and his retort was that was fine so long as I didn’t throw coconuts. Remember my Sunday night trip for supplies? Guess what? I had two coconuts in my backpack. I reminded him that if he didn’t bring the good stuff in his session, I was more than willing to send the projectiles his way. We had a good laugh and set off in separate directions. Alas, I ended up missing his session, as I was called away to do an impromptu Packet Pushers episode. Greg Ferro (@etherealmind) and Ethan Banks (@ecbanks) had come out to Cisco Live to record some great Cisco Virtual Symposium material with Omar Sultan (@omarsultan) from the Data Center and Virtualization team. I just happened to get invited to something a little different. I walked into a podcast with Greg, Ethan, Amy, Wendell Odom (@wendellodom), Scott Morris (@ScottMorrisCCIE), Russ White, and Natalie Timms. The brainpower around the table was overwhelming. We spent a good amount of time talking about certifications, and I was pleased to have a chance to share thoughts with some real stars in the certification arena. I also stayed over to record a Virtual Symposium show with the Packet Pushers team.

Once out of the podcasting, I made it down to the opening of the World of Solutions. I knew that I was going to be running short on time, so I made my way over to the Certifications Lounge to get my CCIE ribbon and spiffy CCIE hat. They once again had the tattoo artist. There were many that were calling for me to get my infamous tattoo once again. There was even talk that Carlos wanted to stop by and see me getting it.  The fates decided to conspire against us and Carlos was delayed. That might have been for the best, as I was going to try to convince Carlos to get one too. Right before I needed to leave for a briefing, I was able to talk Blake Krone (@blakekrone) into doing it with me. We had a great laugh or two and more than a couple of pictures were taken. We sent Twitter buzzing once again with pictures that no one really wanted to see. At this point, though, it’s practically tradition. After a briefing, I finally had a chance to unwind with some friends. Monday night is historically meetup party night, as it’s the only night without an official party scheduled. I had three of them on my calendar and managed to only make the tail end of the INE event. I made it up to the roof just in time to have a quick drink before people started heading for the door. We ended up hanging out with the IP Expert team as well, and many bourbons were had with lots of laughs and good discussion. Little did I know that I would pay for that fun.

Tuesday morning was someone I was both looking forward to and dreading at the same time. Colin McNamara (@colinmcnamara) decided to put together a charity 5K run to benefit the Wounded Warrior Project. Being a wounded warrior himself, Colin understands the benefits of helping out. I had been working my way towards running a 5K for many weeks, so I figured I’d put it all out on the line for such a great cause. Alas, 6 a.m. came early for me after a night of revelry. I managed to make it down for breakfast before rushing over to the run course along the oceanside. Colin and the fellow runners were great fun. I pushed myself to keep going the whole way, and Colin helped out by pacing my the whole way. We both crossed the line to the cheers of the assembled runners some thirty minutes or so after we started. I felt drained but exhilarated at being able to do some great things for a deserving charity. Colin was also able to exceed his hopes for funds, as he ended up raising $1700! I know it will go a long way to helping out. I grabbed a quick shower before heading over to the John Chambers keynote address. Mr. Chambers is still a dynamic speaker, and his talk about the directions that he wants to take Cisco in the coming year really set a tone in some areas. I was also interested that the big demo this year involved Location/ID Separation Protocol (LISP), which is a much-discussed technology for reducing routing table size and increasing mobility. You can check out a very in-depth discussion about LISP on Jeff’s Blog. After the keynote, we met up for lunch before heading back into the World of Solutions. I spent some time walking around, but I had to go back to the Certifications Lounge and get a new CCIE Ribbon. Seems they aren’t as water resistant as I might have liked. While in there, I managed to work my magic and talk Marko Milivojevic (@icemarkom) and Colin McNamara into getting my famous CCIE tattoo. I’d managed to increase the CCIE Tramp Stamp club membership by 50% in just a single day, so I was mighty happy to post for yet more pictures. I got a quick chance to meet Amy Lewis (@CommsNinja) of the DCV team and her roving reporter Josh Atwell (@Josh_Atwell). They are a hilarious duo that had me in stitches for a bit.

I really wanted to attended my Nexus 5500 architecture class, but I had to miss it due to the CCIE NetVet reception. I walked over to the event with none other than Terry Slattery himself, which is always an honor and a privilege. We rode up to the Ultimate Skybox and enjoyed some refreshment before Mr. Chambers arrived. I got up to go to the restroom, and when I came back John was sitting in my spot. I couldn’t very well ask him to move, so I knelt down beside him as he started asking our group if we had any questions. This really floored me, as the CEO of a major networking company was having one-on-one discussions with engineers about issues that affected them. While he normally has a Q&A, the personal attention this year with a small group really set a tone for things. While I respect the setting and the candor with which the discussion takes place, I can say that Mr. Chambers is very aware of many of the pressing issues that we all feel and things are being examined even as we speak. After our discussion, we headed back to the Tweetup area to gather people before our trip to the CCIE party at the USS Midway museum. We got a chance to get on board a floating aircraft carrier and walk around. There were even some pretty impressive planes on the flight deck that many people were taking pictures next to. While this party was better than the Wax Museum the year before, there were still some issues. San Diego can be chilly at night, especially on the water. The flight deck was a bit cold, even under the provided heaters. The lines for food were also longer than expected, and many people were going back to the end of the line right away, as some portions weren’t large enough to satisfy. I’m still trying to think of logistics on the scale of the CCIE party, and no easy answers come right to mind. Still, I know that Cisco tries hard to have fun and do interesting things for their flagship engineers. We decided to jump out a bit early and head over to Brian’s 24 to meet up with Amy Lewis and the rest of the Data Center team for a “bacon & waffles” tweetup. This consisted of hanging out with a smaller group in a great little diner and stuffing our faces full of breakfast food. Thanks to a warning from Ethan, I manage to not order a large portion of food, but the Stuffed French Toast that I did get was like eating a plate-sized club sandwich. I packed away what I could before calling it a night and heading back to the hotel. Blake Krone’s hotel was so far away that I told him he could room with me, as I had two queen beds and ample room to save him the long walk back to his hotel.

Wednesday was another packed day. We attended the Padma Warrior keynote discussing new technologies like Cisco’s approach to Software Defined Networking (SDN). There’s been some recent buzz around things like OpenFlow and network programmability, so seeing Cisco enter the conversation about them made me perk up and bit and start paying attention. This is certainly something I’ll be looking more into in the future. I also managed to get my picture on the big screen during Carlos’s introduction. Colin, Marko, and I were once again famous for our proud display of the CCIE logo in an embarrassing location. After the keynote, I had the chance to meet up with the Cisco Demo team for a small Q&A session. We talked about the pressure to have demos going off without a hitch on stage and the fun that can be had making new technology accessible to a big audience. I also got the chance to meet Jim Grubb (@jimgrubb) as well as Padma Warrior (@padmasree). I even managed to finally catch up with Carlos! We had a great time, and I supplied Jim and Carlos with little Twitter ribbons for their conference badges to show the power of social media to Cisco Live. I went back to the World of Solutions after lunch to try and grab a t-shirt or two before yet another briefing. My hectic schedule was really cutting into my session time, but the valuable information that I lucked into is going to help a lot down the road. I jumped back into the WoS Social Media lounge to meet up with Mike Fratto (@mfratto) and Narbik Kocharians (@NarbikK). I always love chatting with my good buddy Narbik and picking his brain about some challenging scenarios. With the Customer Appreciation Event looming, I elected to go to dinner with the website user interaction team and give them some feedback about things. I made sure to draw on some of the things that my friends and readers had been telling me in the past few months that have been bothering them about the website. Here’s hoping that we can have some positive changes down the road. However, that made me about two hours late to the CAE, well into the start of Weezer’s program. I worked my way up to the exclusive CAE Tweetup skybox and enjoyed a view of the stage from the comfort of a chair. The CAE ended about 10:30 or so and a good time was had by all. A few of us ventured out into the wilds of San Diego, but I quickly realized that a noisy bar packed with people is not the place for me. I came back to the hotel and crashed due to an 8 a.m. session the next day.

Thursday was a much slower day thankfully. I managed to catch my 8 a.m. class, a great discussion about the CCDE exam as well as the Cisco Certified Architect exam. I’m thinking about writing a blog post specifically about this session, as there were a lot of things discussed that I want to talk about. My session ended and I headed back to the World of Solutions to record a special edition of the Packet Pushers Podcast. With many of the great minds of social media in the WoS, Packet Pushers and the NSA Show thought it would be a great idea to do a kind of “round table interview” style of podcast to get some thoughts and discussion around the things we’d heard about at Cisco Live. I really liked the interaction of the assembled guests and the format worked better than I could have hoped. I’m really looking forward to seeing the final product, so stay tuned to the Packet Pushers. A quick lunch was followed by once again returning for a last swag run through the WoS. I didn’t really come away with much this year, but that’s fine, as I’m still on t-shirt probation with my wife anyway. The closing keynote this year was from none other than the Mythbusters, Adam Savage (@donttrythis) and Jamie Hyneman (@jamienotweet). There were some great stories from them, as well as a couple of special videos that hadn’t been seen before. It was a special chance to hear from some real “geek” legends that inspire people to dig deeper and not accept things at face value. Afterwards, we hopped over to the tweetup area to enjoy a refreshment or two before walking down to the Cisco Live sign to take the picture above. I was really happy to see that this year’s picture was even bigger than last year, even if it didn’t include the occasional random person.

I want to take an opportunity to say a special thanks to the Cisco Live Social Media team for making all of this fun possible. They worked their tails off to address issues and answer questions all week. They were the driving force behind the Tweetup area and the lounge in the WoS. Without their support, this year’s corner wouldn’t have been nearly as successful as it was. I was once again humbled that people were referring to the area as “Tom’s Corner”. However, without the amazing people that I am friends with from social media, it would just be a guy sitting in a chair making snarky comments on Twitter. I’ve said it time and again: Cisco Live is the best because of the people. Whether it be the army of Twitter or the tireless efforts of the social media team, I think we showed the top people at Cisco this year that social media is a big part of what we do. I hope someday to have participation like EMC World or VMWorld. I know that every one of you in the picture above, as well as many others out there have really stepped up to help make the networking pieces of social media such an amazing place. I am once again honored and excited to know each and every one of you and I can’t wait until June 2013 to see you all again in Orlando.

The CCIE Spelling Bee

I’ve seen a lot of discussion recently about the CCIE with regards to how “hard” the test really is.  There is no denying that the exam is of a very high difficulty level.  The discussion revolves around application.  It has been said that one of the reasons the CCIE lab exam is so difficult is because it doesn’t test the candidate on “real world” network designs.  According to these folks, the CCIE lab tests you on things that you would never see yourself doing in reality outside a lab environment solely for the purpose of seeing how well you can follow directions.  There is some merit to this, as the overview for the CCIE clearly states that this is not a “best practices” examination of networking theory.  It’s a practical implementation test with a given set of parameters and instructions.  There was also a story told in one of my bootcamps with Narbik Kocharians about a student taking a mock lab that took two hours to finish the first section because he spent all his time doing it the “right” way and ensuring there couldn’t be any possible problems down the road.  He thought like an engineer working on a production network instead of a CCIE candidate.  Those clues tend to lend credence to the idea that the CCIE is hard because you are doing things you might not do otherwise.

The more I thought about this, the more I realized the CCIE lab exam is a lot like another type of test that almost every one of us has taken at some point in our lives – a spelling bee.  The time honored tradition of rounding up a group of students and giving them strange words out of the dictionary to see how well they can disassemble them and regurgitate them back in serialized order.  When you think about it, there’s a lot in common with the granddaddy of networking exams.  Both are practical, in that multiple choice isn’t allowed (curiously, the first round of the Scripps National Spelling Bee uses a multiple choice format sometimes, similar to the CCIE written qualification exam).  Both exams don’t give any points for partial credit.  Transposing two letters of a word gets you the same number of points as forgetting to enable mls qos on a switch in the lab (zero).  Both exams give you all the answers up front.  For the CCIE, it’s all there in the documentation. In the spelling bee, you usually get a word list of some kind, either the Spell It! book or Webster’s Third International Dictionary.  In both cases, the amount of documentation that must be sorted through is rather large.  Both tests tend to introduce a large amount of performance anxiety.  And finally, both tests tend to focus on things you wouldn’t normally see for the sake of testing the candidate’s abilities.

Think about this for a moment.  The winning words for the last three National Spelling Bee winners were (in order) cymotrichous, Stromuhr, and Laodicean.  I can’t even pronounce those words, let alone use them in general conversation.  There are even differences in the vocabulary I use in my blog posts versus the words I use in conversation.  Does it make the above words any less valid if the only appear in a dictionary?  No, it doesn’t.  Yes, many of the constructs in the CCIE lab are presented in such a way as to test the candidate’s grasp on applying concepts.  Yes, the lab is crafted in such a way as to eliminate several obvious choices that make life easier.  Just like a spelling bee doesn’t give you access to the dictionary.  Yes, there is a time crunch in the lab.  Just like a spelling bee doesn’t give you three hours to think about how to spell the word.  You only have 2.5 minutes to spell the word from the time it’s first pronounced.  Overall, both the spelling bee and the CCIE lab exam take specific examples that demonstrate advanced concepts and give the test takers a short amount of time to produce results.  It shouldn’t matter that I may never configure multi-router redistribution or RIP neighbor relationships across RSPAN VLANs.  The point is that these examples are designed to test my knowledge of a subject, just like cymotrichous is designed to test my spelling ability a lot better than dog or cat.

Tom’s Take

There’s no denying the CCIE is a hard exam.  The question of real word application versus crafted lab scenarios is a semantic one at best.  While many feel that making the exam reflect scenarios that you might encounter in your job every day would be more appropriate, I feel that having it test a broad subject matter with intricate questions is a better application.  I’d much rather be looking at a problem and think to myself, “Hey! I’ve seen this in the lab before!”  That way, I feel more comfortable having seen it work in a controlled environment before.  At the end of the day, making the CCIE lab a “real world” test is as bad an idea as making the National Spelling Bee only test over words used in everyday conversation.  The test would soon become a very rigid and insular example of the mythical “real world” that would either need to be updated every six months to stay current or it wouldn’t be updated frequently enough and eventually become what people are accusing it of today, namely being a “bad” example of the real world.  I think it’s better to stretch our horizons and spend a little time thinking outside the box for solutions that may not apply in every day life but force us to think about our methods and processes.  Whether that involves routing protocol configuration or challenging the “I before E except after C” rule, the end result is the same.  People question more and dig deeper rather than just accepting someone’s idea of what reality looks like.  And, after all, we know that in our world, I and E really come after two Cs.

Cisco Live 2012 – Social Locations (with maps)

Now that Cisco Live is upon us, I figured it was due time to show you where all the fun social media stuff is going to happen.  I’ve already told you about it before, but a picture is worth a thousand words.  Or, in this case, a map.

On Sunday, June 10, there will be a tweetup happening on the upper level of the San Diego Convention Center (SDCC) at 3 p.m.  I know there’s a lot of stuff going on that day.  People are arriving and checking in.  There are techtorials and tests and all manner of things.  This event will be casual and come-and-go so as not to crimp anyone’s schedule. It’s mostly a chance for the social media folks to get together and hang out before the craziness of the week starts up on Monday.  Here’s where we’ll be (look for the circled area):

It should be labeled as Lounge 2 on your maps, either on your tablet/phone or in the map you get at check-in.  We’ll be there for a while, so don’t worry if you can’t make it right at 3 p.m.  I’m usually the last one to leave, so if you are worried about not making it be sure to ping me on Twitter and I’ll tell you what’s going on.

During the event, starting Monday at 4 p.m., the World of Solutions (WoS) will be open for attendees.  This is where the Cisco Social Media Lounge will be located.  During the hours the WoS is open, I’m going to be in the Social Media lounge most of the time.  Consider this “Tom’s Corner” for Cisco Live 2012.  I’m sure the couches will be more comfortable than the chairs from last year.  Here’s our spot on the big map:

Right by the entrance.  And, conveniently located by the t-shirt booth as well.  I’ll be in the Social Lounge when the WoS opens on Monday evening.  Right after I go to the Certifications Lounge and get my CCIE ribbon.  I plan on mingling and hanging out as much as I can and meeting new people, so don’t be afraid to stop by and say hello.  There’s a lot of great discussion that goes on when a few engineers get together.

I can barely contain the excitement that I have for Cisco Live this year.  All of my friends from social media made Cisco Live 2011 the best conference ever.  Now that everyone has shown me the power of social media, let’s do the same for Cisco.  I want the most talked-about thing from Cisco Live 2012 to be the amazing time that everyone had during the tweetups and in the Social Media Lounge in the WoS.  Let’s send the message the Cisco Live really is the best place to be social!

The Rush To 802.11ac

Things seem to be moving quickly in the wireless world.  In January, many presenters at Wireless Field Day 2 were discussing the future of client-side wireless.  It all revolves around 802.11ac, the specification that leads to gigabit-speed wireless connections.  A 5 GHz-only specification, 802.11ac uses wider channels and more spatial streams to create more throughput for client devices.  Whereas a single spatial stream in 802.11n can create about 150 Mbit of bandwidth at a 20 MHz channel bandwidth, the default single spatial stream for 802.11ac can deliver almost three times that at 433 Mbits across an 80 MHz channel.  The numbers just keep climbing from there when you include the ability to use 160 MHz wide channels and up to 8 spatial streams.  No wonder people are salivating over the idea of this new generation of wireless.  So much so that vendors have already started coming out with hardware to support 802.11ac even before the specification is fully ratified.  After Broadcom announced support for 802.11ac in forthcoming chipsets, Buffalo announced an 802.11ac home router and media station.  Cisco has even gotten in on the 802.11ac game with a new module designed to extend the 3600 series AP to support 802.11ac.  The times, they are a changing.  However, for those of you that like to live on the bleeding edge of technology, there are some things to keep in mind as you race out to Best Buy to make your Wi-Fi super fast.

1.  There are no 802.11ac client devices today.  All the horsepower in the world on the infrastructure side of things won’t matter one whit if the clients connecting to the devices don’t have support to interface with these blazing fast speeds.  It wasn’t that long ago at Wireless Field Day 1 that Cisco was telling us the 3×3:3 support in an AP was a bunch of hooey because most laptops on the market don’t have support for three spatial streams.  Of course, a year later and almost all consumer laptops now have the requisite support.  Coincidentally, now so do the newest Cisco APs.  And that’s just the laptop side of things.  Look around right now at the majority of devices that are using the wireless in your house or at the office or even at Starbucks.  Odds are good that those devices are phones or tablets of some kind.  Those present huge issues for 802.11ac adoption.  Take the iPhone and iPad as an example.  The iPhone is a 2.4 GHz-only device.  With 802.11ac being a 5GHz-only protocol, your iPhone won’t even be able to talk to your 802.11ac router.  You’re going to need to keep 2.4 GHz connectivity.  Odds are good that Apple and other phone manufacturers will eventually build 5 GHz radio support into their hardware, but that’s unlikely to happen until there is a way to shrink the size of the antennas and provide better battery life for the throughput.  Even the iPad, which supports 5 GHz radios, had to make some battery life concessions.  It’s a 1×1:1 device, so even on 802.11n it can never use more than 150 Mbits of bandwidth.  It can’t even support the use of 40 MHz channels on 802.11n.  If these devices don’t see hardware changes in the future, it’s going to be difficult for 802.11ac to see much adoption when the majority of “post PC” BYOD devices won’t come close to supporting the new standard.

2.  802.11ac throughput is nice.  In theory.  When you look at the high-end specs for 802.11ac, the amount of data that can be transferred is downright sexy.  However, the same can be said for 802.11n.  There is support for up to four spatial streams in 802.11n, although I’ve never seen APs that support more than 3.  Hitting the top end of 802.11n capabilities requires you to use 40 MHz channels, reducing the number of available channels by 50%.  That’s not a huge concern in the 5 GHz range today due to a larger number of non-overlapping channels.  However, 802.11ac is going to create bigger issues.  The default channel bandwidth in 802.11ac is 80 MHz, so we’ve already reduced the number of available channels by another 50%, so we’re working with a quarter of what we were before.  If you want to really cook on 802.11ac at those sexy data rates, you’re going to need to enable 160 MHz-wide channels.  Now we’re looking at something like 3 or 4 non-overlapping 160MHz channels instead of the 23 that are available by default in the 5GHz range.  Sounds pretty crowded to me.  You also need to realize that 5 GHz doesn’t penetrate walls as well as 2.4 GHz.  A typical 5 GHz deployment today has to have APs clustered a lot closer together to provide the same coverage as a 2.4 GHz setup.  Add in the fact that those wanted to pump out the data are going to want to be as close to the AP as possible to get the best signal and throughput, and you’ve got a real interesting scenario unfolding.  There’s a real possibility of a log jam of frequencies in a given area.  A lot of this can be sorted out by doing proper site surveys and planning.  Hope you’ve been doing them all along because you are definitely going to have to do them before you order your first 802.11ac AP.

3.  802.11ac isn’t a final standard yet.  All that wonderful gigabit wireless goodness is a nice idea, but right now it’s not much more than just that – an idea.  We’re still technically working from the 0.1 draft spec approved in January of 2011.  The finalization of the draft specification isn’t expected to happen until sometime at the end of 2012, and the 802.11 Working Group isn’t expected to give their approval until 2013.  Even after that, it’s going to take quite a while for the devices to really permeate the market.  The 802.11ac devices you can buy today might not even support the final standards.  This is exactly what happened before with 802.11n.  I can remember going into my local office supply company and seeing these new fast Wi-Fi devices based on the 802.11n Draft 1 spec.  The device in question was from Belkin.  Of course, there was a lot that changed from Draft 1 to Draft 2, so those Belkin Draft 1 devices only really work with the Belkin cards that were sold to go with the routers.  When the Draft 2.0 and the finalized 802.11n devices came out later, you basically had to repurchase everything to make it work correctly.  This bit more than a couple of people that I know, and in some cases I got to remind them of that fact when I was pulling out the old Draft 1 equipment and replacing it.  I can see this same thing happening with the current crop of SOHO devices from companies like Buffalo.  There may not be a whole lot that changes between the 802.11ac 0.1 spec and the final draft, but if there is you are going to have to toss out your bleeding edge gear and buy something new.  Larger enterprise vendors like Cisco are more than happy to offer you upgrade protection for your 802.11ac modules if you buy them now to be on the cutting edge.  Of course, because you are buying enterprise-grade APs, you’re going to be paying more up front for them.  Either way, being an early adopter of 802.11ac is going to cost you in the long run, either from buying upgrade protected devices or from buying a whole new kit when the final 802.11ac specs are released.

Tom’s Take

The only two sure things in information technology are death (of products) and upgrades.  Just like the plain jane 802.11 spec and the hopefully-departed 802.11b spec, everything eventually gets old and needs to be replaced by something newer and better.  When you think about the amazement of being able to use a computer without being connected to the network just a few years ago at a staggering 11 Mbits to the ability on the near horizon to pump out more than 1 Gbit of traffic over the airwaves it is almost mind boggling.  However, with any new standard coming out, you need to be careful that you don’t jump on it at the wrong time.  Everyone wants to be the first person on the block to get something new.  Whether it be the first generation iPhone or the newest Intel octo-core chips, there are always going to be those people that want to be on the upward slope of the early adopter curve.  On the other hand, there are people like me that want to take a little extra time to be sure that what is coming out is going to work.  I’m one of those people that tends to wait a few days before upgrading to a new software release before installing it to make sure the bugs are worked out.  I tend to wait to upgrade to a new version of Windows until the first service pack is on the horizon.  When it comes to 802.11ac, I’m going to wait out this first round of products.  I don’t have anything that can take advantage of all that extra speed and I likely won’t have anything in the near future.  I don’t want to go out and spend money today that I’m likely going to have to go back and spend again later. Add in the fact that I really prefer my devices to be based on some sort of standard protocol that other things can interoperate with and you can see that 802.11ac 0.1 is going to be a “pass” in my book.  I know that there are great things on the horizon and I can see them getting closer all the time.  It just takes a little patience to get there.  And if I can learn to have a little patience then so can everyone else.