The Trap of Net Neutrality

net-neutrality

The President recently released a video and statement urging the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) to support net neutrality and ensure that there will be no “pay for play” access to websites or punishment for sites that compete against a provider’s interests.  I wholeheartedly support the idea of net neutrality.  However, I do like to stand on my Devil’s Advocate soapbox every once in a while.  Today, I want to show you why a truly neutral Internet may not be in our best interests.

Lawful Neutral

If the FCC mandates a law that the Internet must remain neutral, it will mean that all traffic must be treated equally.  That’s good, right?  It means that a provider can’t slow my Netflix stream or make their own webmail service load faster than Google or Yahoo.  It also means that the provider can’t legally prioritize packets either.

Think about that for a moment.  We, as network and voice engineers, have spent many an hour configuring our networks to be as unfair as possible.  Low-latency queues for voice traffic.  Weighted fair queues for video and critical applications.  Scavenger traffic classes and VLANs for file sharers and other undesirable bulk noise.  These plans take weeks to draw up and even longer to implement properly.  It helps us make sense out of the chaos in the network.

By mandating a truly neutral net, we are saying that those carefully marked packets can’t escape from the local network with their markings intact.  We can’t prioritize voice packets once they escape the edge routers.  And if we move applications to the public cloud, we can’t ensure priority access.  Legally, the providers will be forced to remark all CoS and DSCP values at the edge and wash their hands of the whole thing.

And what about provider MPLS circuits?  If the legally mandated neutral provider is administering your MPLS circuits (as they do in small and medium enterprise), can they copy the DSCP values to the MPLS TE field before forwarding the packet?  Where does the law stand on prioritizing private traffic transiting a semi-public link?

Chaotic Neutral

The idea of net neutrality is that no provider should have the right to decide how your traffic should be handled.  But providers will extend that idea to say they can’t deal with any kind of marking.  They won’t legally be able to offer you differentiated service even if you were wiling to pay for it.  That’s the double-edge sword of neutrality.

You can be sure that the providers will already have found a “solution” to the problem.  Today, quality of service (QoS) only becomes an issue when the link becomes congested.  Packets don’t queue up if there’s bandwidth available to use.  So the provider solution is simple.  If you need differentiated service, you need to buy a bigger pipe.  Over provision your WAN circuits!  We can’t guarantee delivery unless you have more bandwidth than you need!  Who cares what the packets are marked?  Which, of course, leads to a little gem from everyone’s favorite super villain:

SyndromeEF

Of course, the increased profits from these services will line the pockets of the providers instead of going to build out the infrastructure necessary to support these overbuilt networks.  The only way to force providers to pony up the money to build out networks is to make it so expensive to fail that the alternative is better.  That requires complex negotiation and penalty-laden, iron-clad service level agreements (SLAs).

The solution to the issue of no prioritized traffic is to provide a list of traffic that should be prioritized.  Critical traffic like VoIP should be allowed to be expedited, as the traffic characteristics and protections we afford it make sense.  Additionally, traffic destined for a public cloud site that function as internal traffic of a company should be able to be prioritized across the provider network.  Tunneling or other forms of traffic protection may be necessary to ensure this doesn’t interfere with other users.  Exempt traffic should definitely be the exception, not the rule.  And it should never fall on the providers to determine which traffic should be exempted from neutrality rules.


Tom’s Take

Net neutrality is key to the future of society.  The Internet can’t function properly if someone else with a vested interest in profits decides how we consume content.  It’s like the filter bubble of Google.  A blind blanket policy doesn’t do us any good, either.  Everyone involved in networking knows there are types of traffic that can be prioritized without having a detrimental effect.  We need to make smart decisions about net neutrality and know when to make exceptions.  But that power needs to be in the hands of the users and customers.  They will make decisions in their best interest.  The providers should have the capability to implement the needs of their customers.  Only then will the Internet be truly neutral.

Twitter, Please Stop Giving Me Things I Don’t Want

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Last week, Twitter confirmed that they will start injecting tweets from users you don’t follow into your timeline.  The collective cry from their user base ranged from outrage to a solid “meh”.  It seems that Twitter has stumbled onto the magic formula that Facebook has perfected: create a feature the users don’t care about and force it onto them.  Why?

Twitter Doesn’t Care About Power Users

Twitter has an interesting mix of users.  They reported earlier this year that 44% of their user base has never tweeted.  That’s a lot of accounts that were created for the purpose of reserving a name or following people in read-only mode.  That must concern Twitter.  Because people that don’t tweet can’t be measure for things like advertising.  They won’t push the message of a sponsored tweet.  They won’t add their voice to the din.  But what about those users that tweet regularly?

Power users are those that tweet frequently without a large follower base.  Essentially, everyone that isn’t a celebrity with a million followers or a non-tweeting account.  You know, the real users on Twitter.  The people that make typos in their tweets and actually check to see who follows them.  The ones that don’t have a “social media team” tweeting for them.  Nothing wrong with a team tweeting for a brand, but when they’re tweeting for a person it’s a little disconcerting.

Power users keep getting screwed by Twitter.  The API changes really hurt those that use clients other than the official ones.  Given that Twitter has killed most of it’s “official” clients in favor of pushing people to use the web, it makes you wonder what their strategy might be.  They are entirely beholden to their investors right now.  That means user signups and ad revenue.  And it means focusing on making the message widespread.  Why worry about placating the relatively small user base that uses your product when you can create a method for reaching millions with a unicast sponsored hashtag? Or by injecting tweets from people you don’t follow into your timeline?

The tweet injection thing is like a popup ad.  It serves the purpose of Twitter deciding to show you some tweets from other “users”.  Anyone want to bet those users will quickly start becoming corporate accounts? Perhaps they pay Twitter to ensure their tweets show up in a the timelines of a specific demographic.  It makes total sense when your users are nothing but a stream of revenue

Making Twitter Usable Again

I mentioned some things the other day that I think Twitter needs to do to make their service usable for power users again.  I wanted to expand on them a bit here:

The Unfollow Bug – Twitter has a problem with keeping followers.  For some reason, your account will randomly unfollow a user with no notification.  You usually don’t figure it out until you want to send them a DM or notice that they’ve unfollowed you and mention it.  It’s an irritating bug that’s been going on for years with no hope of resolution.  Twitter needs to sort this one out quickly.  As a side note, if you run a service that monitors people that have unfollowed you, consider adding a digest of users that I have unfollowed this week.  if the list doesn’t match those that I purposely unfollow, at least you know when you’ve been hit by this bug.

Links in Direct Messages – Twitter disabled the ability to send a link in a direct message a few months ago.  Their argument was that it cut down on spam.  The real reason was Twitter’s attempt to turn DMs into a instant message platform.  Twitter experimented with a setting that enabled DMs from users you don’t follow.  They pulled it before it went live due to user feedback.  One of the arguments was that spam accounts could bombard you with URLs that led to phishing attacks and other unsavory things.  Twitter responded by disabling links in DMs even though they removed the feature it was intended to protect.  It’s time for Twitter to give us this feature back.

Token Limits – This “feature” has to go.  Restricting 3rd party clients because they exist destroys the capabilities of your power users. I use a client because it gives me easy access to features I use all the time, like conversation views and muting.  I also don’t like sitting on the garish Twitter website and constantly refreshing to see new tweets.  I’d rather use some other client. Twitter has a love/hate relationship with non-official clients.  Mostly because those clients strip out ads and sponsored tweets.  They don’t let Twitter earn money from them.  Which is why Twitter is stamping them out for “replicating official client features” left and right.  Curiously enough, I’ve never heard about HootSuite being hit with user token limits.  But considering that a lot of Twitter’s favorite celebrities use it (or at least their social media teams do), I’m not shocked they’re on the exempt list.


Tom’s Take

I still find Twitter a very useful tool.  It’s not something that can just be set into automatic and left alone.  It takes curation and attention to make it work for you.  But it also needs help from Twitter’s side.  Instead of focusing on ways to make me see things I don’t care about from people I don’t want to follow, how about making your service work the way I want it to work.  I’m more like to use (and suggest) a service that works.  I barely check Facebook anymore because I’m constantly “fixing” their Top Posts algorithm.  Don’t turn your service into something I spend most of my time fixing.

The Great Tech Reaving

It seems as though the entire tech world is splitting up.  HP announced they are splitting the Personal Systems Group into HP, Inc and the rest of the Enterprise group in HP Enterprise.  Symantec is forming Veritas into a separate company as it focuses on security and leaves the backup and storage pieces to the new group.  IBM completed the sale of their x86 server business to Lenovo.  There are calls for EMC and Cisco to split as well.  It’s like the entire tech world is breaking up right before the prom.

Acquisition Fever

The Great Tech Reaving is a logical conclusion to the acquisition rush that has been going on throughout the industry for the past few years.  Companies have been amassing smaller companies like trading cards.  Some of the acquisitions have been strategic.  Buying a company that focuses on a line of work similar to the one you are working on makes a lot of sense.  For instance, EMC buying XtremIO to help bolster flash storage.

Other acquisitions look a bit strange.  Cisco buying Flip Video.  Yahoo buying Tumblr. There’s always talk around these left field mergers.  Is the CEO looking for synergy? Is there a hidden play that we’re unaware of? Sometimes that kind of thinking pays off.  Other times you end up with Zimbra.  More often than not, the company ends up writing down the assets of the acquired company and taking very little from the purchase.  Maybe not as big as the Autonomy write down, but even getting rid of Flip can make waves.

It makes a person wonder what the point of an acquisition is if it’s just going to wind up being an accounting charge later.  Is it a tax shelter?  A way to use up outstanding cash?  Maybe even a way to buy a particularly good developer and fold them into your organization to keep them out of a competitor’s hands?  The reasons are myriad but it appears that the fever is dying down.  And that might end up hurting innovation in the long term.

This Is Not An Exit Strategy

Think about the startup out there making a hot new technology.  They had their heart set on getting bought by a bigger company in the market.  Now, they just watched that company split off half of their business into a new company.  Cash is hard to find for a new acquisition.  Now the startup has to find a different way to monetize things.  Should we redouble our efforts to market the product? Get new investors? Go public?

I’ve said before that pinning your hopes on getting purchased isn’t the best way to run a business.  It’s like betting all your hopes on getting the winning numbers in the lottery.  It might happen, but the odds are against it.  Perhaps the end result of a market full of split companies will be a reevaluation of the idea of an exit strategy.  Rather than building a business for the sole purpose of being bought entrepreneurs will start building businesses to make products and sell them.  It’s a radical idea, but not so radical as to be unbelievable.  Just ask Hewlett and Packard.  Or Jobs and Wozniak. Or anyone else that didn’t have an exit strategy instead of a business plan.


Tom’s Take

Companies can be too big.  IBM has sold off most of what made it IBM.  Symantec and HP are in the process.  The next domino to fall will be EMC.  Then Cisco.  After that, the landscape will look much different.  But in a good way.  It’s like a stock split.  The same amount of knowledge is out there.  It’s just held differently.  That’s good for the industry because it forces the status quo to change.  New alliances, new partnerships, and new synergies can be found by upsetting the apple cart now and then.

Rome Wasn’t Software Defined In A Day

Everywhere you turn, people are talking about software defined networking.  The influence can be felt in every facet of the industry.  Major players are trying to come to grips with the shift in power.  Small vendors are ramping up around ideas and looking to the future.  Professionals are simultaneously excited for change and fearful of upsetting the status quo.  But will all of these things happen overnight?

Not Built In A Day, But Laying Bricks Every Hour

The truth of SDN is that it’s going to take some time for all the pieces to fall into place.  Take a look at the recent Apple Pay launch.  Inside of a week, it has risen to become a very significant part of the mobile payment industry, even if the installed base of users is exclusive to iPhone [6,6+] owners.  But did this revolution happen in the span of a couple of days?

Apple Pay works because Apple spent months, if not years, designing the best way to provide transactions from a phone.  It leverages TouchID for security, a concept introduced last year.  It uses Near Field Communication (NFC) readers, which have been in place for a couple of years.  I even talked about NFC three years ago.  That means the technology to support Apple Pay has been in place for a while.

That kind of support structure is needed to make SDN work the way we want it to.  There’s no magic wand that will convert your infrastructure to SDN overnight.  There is no SDNecronomicon to reference for solving scaling issues or interoperability concerns.  What’s required is the hard work of taking the ideas and processes around SDN and implementing them today.

SDN feels like a radical shift to traditional networking because it’s a foreign concept.  If you had told the first generation iPhone users their device would be a application computer with the capability to pay for purchases wirelessly they would have laughed at you and told you it was a fantasy.  That sufficiently advanced technology was beyond their understanding at the time.

SDN is no different.  The steps being taken today to solve traditional networking problems will feel antiquated in four to five years.  But that foundation must be laid in order to make SDN work in the future.  SDN won’t transform the industry overnight, but we have to keep making advances and pushing forward to make the important gains no matter how small they are.

Not Built In A Day, But It Burned In One

The fear of SDN leads to the dark side of standards adoption.  Arguments. In-fighting. Posturing. Interests making decisions not because they are right for customers but because they protect market share.  If SDN fails in the long term, it will be because of these dark elements and not a technological constraint.

Nothing is immune to politics.  Linux has been more or less standardized for years.  Yet tech advances are still hotly debated.  Go mention systemd to your local Linux hacker and prepare for the onslaught of discussion.  Linux has had much less pressure from these kinds of discussions by virtue of the core kernel being very stable and maintained by a small team.  SDN is very different.

The competing ideas around SDN drive innovation, but also threaten it.  The industry will eventually standardize on OpenDaylight for their controller, much like the server industry standardized on Linux for appliances.  But will that same consensus lead to stagnation? Will innovation simply happen as vendors attempt to modify ODL just enough to make their offering look superior?  Before you say that it’s impossible go and find a reference TRILL implementation.

SDN will succeed because the momentum behind it won’t allow it to fail.  But much like Rome, we need to build SDN with the proper architecture.  Simply laying bricks haphazardly won’t fix our problems.  If the infrastructure is bad enough, we may even need our own Nero to “fix” things again.  Momentum without direction is a useless force.  We need to ensure that SDN is headed in the right direction where it benefits customers and users first.  Profit margins are secondary to that.


Tom’s Take

An idea can transform an industry.  A simple thought about making things better can drag the community out of stagnation and into a Renaissance.  That we are witness to an industry shift is undeniable at this point, especially given that so many things are becoming “software defined”.  However, we must face the truth that this little hobby project won’t produce results overnight.  Hard work and planning will win the day.  Rome went from being a village among hills to the largest power in the Western world.  But that didn’t happen overnight.  The long game of SDN needs to be played one move at a time.  And the building of the SDN empire will take more than a single day.

Moscone Madness

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The Moscone Center in San Francisco is a popular place for technical events.  Apple’s World Wide Developer Conference (WWDC) is an annual user of the space.  Cisco Live and VMworld also come back every few years to keep the location lively.  This year, both conferences utilized Moscone to showcase tech advances and foster community discussion.  Having attended both this year in San Francisco, I think I can finally state the following with certainty.


It’s time for tech conferences to stop using the Moscone Center.


Let’s face it.  If your conference has more than 10,000 attendees, you have outgrown Moscone.  WWDC works in Moscone because they cap the number of attendees at 5,000.  VMworld 2014 has 22,000 attendees.  Cisco Live 2014 had well over 20,000 as well.  Cramming four times the number of delegates into a cramped Moscone Center does not foster the kind of environment you want at your flagship conference.

The main keynote hall in Moscone North is too small to hold the large number of audience members.  In an age where every keynote address is streamed live, that shouldn’t be a problem.  Except that people still want to be involved and close to the event.  At both Cisco Live and VMworld, the keynote room filled up quickly and staff were directing the overflow to community spaces that were already packed too full.  Being stuffed into a crowded room with no seating or table space is frustrating.  But those are just the challenges of Moscone.  There are others as well.

I Left My Wallet In San Francisco

San Francisco isn’t cheap.  It is one of the most expensive places in the country to live.  By holding your conference in downtown San Francisco, you are forcing your 20,000+ attendees into a crowded metropolitan area with expensive hotels.  Every time I looked up a hotel room in the vicinity of VMworld or Cisco Live, I was unable to find anything for less than $300 per night.  Contrast that with Interop or Cisco Live in Las Vegas, where sub-$100 are available and $200 per night gets you into the hotel of the conference center.

Las Vegas is built for conferences.  It has adequate inexpensive hotel options.  It is designed to handle a large number of travelers arriving at once.  While spread out geographically, it is easy to navigate.  In fact, except for the lack of Uber, Las Vegas is easy to get around in than San Francisco.  I never have a problem finding a restaurant in Vegas to take a large party.  Bringing a group of 5 or 6 to a restaurant in San Francisco all but guarantees you won’t find a seat for hours.

The only real reason I can see for holding conferences at Moscone, aside from historical value, is the ease of getting materials and people into San Francisco.  Cisco and VMware both are in Silicon Valley.  Driving up to San Francisco is much easier than shipping the conference equipment to Las Vegas or Orlando.  But ease-of-transport does not make it easy on your attendees.  Add in the fact that the lower cost of setup is not reflected in additional services or reduced hotel rates and you can imagine that attendees have no real incentive to come to Moscone.


Tom’s Take

The Moscone Center is like the Cotton Bowl in Dallas.  While both have a history of producing wonderful events, both have passed their prime.  They are ill-suited for modern events.  They are cramped and crowded.  They are in unfavorable areas.  It is quickly becoming more difficult to hold events for these reasons.  But unlike the Cotton Bowl, which has almost 100 years of history, Moscone offers not real reason to stay.  Apple will always be here.  Every new iPhone, Mac, and iPad will be launched here.  But those 5,000 attendees are comfortable in one section of Moscone.  Subjecting your VMworld and Cisco Live users to these kinds of conditions is unacceptable.

It’s time for Cisco, VMware, and other large organizations to move away from Moscone.  It’s time to recognize that Moscone is not big enough for an event that tries to stuff in every user it can.  instead, conferences should be located where it makes sense.  Las Vegas, San Diego, and Orlando are conference towns.  Let’s use them as they were meant to be used.  Let’s stop the madness of trying to shoehorn 20,000 important attendees into the sardine can of the Moscone Center.

The Pain of Licensing

Frequent readers of my blog and Twitter stream may have noticed that I have a special loathing in my heart for licensing.  I’ve been subjected to some of the craziest runarounds because of licensing departments.  I’ve had to yell over the phone to get something taken care of.  I’ve had to produce paperwork so old it was yellowed at the edges.  Why does this have to be so hard?

Licensing is a feature tracking mechanism.  Manufacturers want to know what features you are using.  It comes back to tracking research and development.  A lot of time and effort goes into making the parts and pieces of a product.  Many different departments put work into something before it goes out the door.  Vendors need a way to track how popular a given feature might be to customers.  This allows them to know where to allocate budgets for the development of said features.

Some things are considered essential.  These core pieces are usually allocated to a team that gets the right funding no matter what.  Or the features are so mature that there really isn’t much that can be done to drive additional revenue from them.  When’s the last time someone made a more streamlined version of OSPF?  But there are pieces that can be attached to OSPF that carry more weight.

Rights and Privileges

Here’s an example from Cisco.  In IOS 15, OSPF is considered a part of the core IOS functionality.  You get it no matter what on a router.  You have to pay an extra license on a switch, but that’s not part of this argument.  OSPF is a mature protocol, even in version 3 which enables IPv6 support.  If you have OSPF for IPv4, you have it for IPv6 as well.  One of the best practices for securing OSPF against intrusion is to authenticate your area 0 links.  This is something that should be considered core functionality.  And with IPv4, it is.  The MD5 authentication mechanism is built into the core OS.  But with IPv6, the IPSec license needed to authenticate the links has to be purchased as a separate license upgrade.  That’s because IPSec is part of the security license bundle.

Why the runaround for what is considered a best practice, core function?  It’s because IPv6 uses a different mechanism.  One that has more reach that simple MD5 authentication.  In order to capture the revenue that the IPSec security team is putting in, Cisco won’t just give away that functionality.  Instead, it needs to be tracked by a license.  The R&D work from that team needs to be recovered somehow.  And so you pay extra for something Cisco says you should be doing anyway.  That’s the licensing that upsets me so.

License Unit Report

How do we fix it?  The money problem is always going to be there.  Vendors have to find a way to recapture revenue for R&D while at the same time not making customers pay for things they don’t need, like advanced security or application licenses.  That’s the necessary evil of having affordable software.  But there is a fix for the feature tracking part.

We have the analytics capability with modern software to send anonymized usage statistics to manufacturers and vendors about what feature sets are being used.  Companies can track how popular IPSec is versus MD5 or other such feature comparisons.  The software doesn’t have to say who you are, just what you are using.  That would allow the budgets to be allocated exactly like they should be used, not guessing based on who bought the whole advanced communications license for Quality of Service (QoS) reporting.


 

Tom’s Take

Licensing is like NAT.  It’s a necessary evil of the world we live in.  People won’t pay for functionality they don’t use.  At the same time, they won’t use functions they have to pay extra for if they think it should have been included.  It’s a circular problem that has no clear answer.  And that’s the necessary evil of it all.

But just because it’s necessary doesn’t mean we can’t make it less evil.  We can split the reporting pieces out thanks to modern technology.  We can make sure the costs to develop these features gets driven down in the future because there are accurate statistics about usage.  Every little bit helps make licensing less of a hassle that it currently is.  It may not go away totally, but it can be marginalized to the point where it isn’t painful.

Twitter Tips For Finding Followers

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I have lots of followers on Twitter.  I also follow a fair number of people as well.  But the ratio of followers to followed isn’t 1:1.  I know there are a lot of great people out there and I try to keep up with as many of them as I can without being overwhelmed.  It’s a very delicate balance.

There are a few things I do when I get a new follower to decide if I want to follow them back.  I also do the same thing for new accounts that I find.  It’s my way of evaluating how they will fit into my feed.  Here are the three criteria I use to judge adding people to my feed.

Be Interesting

This one seems like a no brainer, right?  Have interesting content that people want to read and interact with.  But there’s one specific piece here that I want to call attention to.  I love reading people with original thoughts.  Clever tweets, interesting observations, and pertinent discussion are all very important.  But one thing that I usually shy away from is the account that is more retweets than actual content.

I don’t mind retweets.  I do it a lot, both in quote form and in the “new” format of pasting the original tweet into my timeline.  But I use the retweet sparingly.  I do it to call attention to original thought.  Or to give credit where it’s due.  But I’ve been followed by accounts that are 75% (or more) retweets from vendors and other thought leaders.  If the majority of your content comes from retweeting others, I’m more likely to follow the people you’re retweeting and not you.  Make sure that the voice on your Twitter account is your own.

Be On Topic

My Twitter account is about computer networking.  I delve into other technologies, like wireless and storage now and then.  I also make silly observations about trending events.  But I’m on topic most of the time.  That’s the debt that I owe to the people that have chosen to follow me for my content.  I don’t pollute my timeline with unnecessary conversation.

When I evaluate followers, I look at their content.  Are they talking about SANs? Or are they talking about sports?  Is their timeline a great discussion about SDN? Or check ins on Foursquare at the local coffee shop?  I like it when people are consistent.  And it doesn’t have to be about technology.  I follow meteorologists, musicians, and actors.  Because they are consistent about what they discuss.  If you’re timeline is polluted with junk and all over the place it makes it difficult to follow.

Note that I do talk about things other than tech.  I just choose to segregate that talk to other platforms.  So if you’re really interested in my take on college football, follow me on Facebook.

Be Interactive

There are lots of people talking on Twitter.  There are conversations going on every second that are of interest to lots of people.  No one has time to listen to all of them.  You have to find a reason to be involved.  That’s where the interactivity aspect comes into play.

My fifth tweet was interacting with someone (Ethan Banks to be precise):

If you don’t talk to other people and just blindly tweet into the void, you may very well add to the overall body of knowledge while missing the point at the same time.  It’s called “social” media.  That means talking to other people.  I’m more likely to follow an account that talks to me regularly.  That tells me I’m wrong or points me at a good article.  People feel more comfortable with people they’ve interacted with before.

Don’t be shy.  Mention someone.  Start a conversation.  I’ll bet you’ll pick up a new follower in no time.


Tom’s Take

These are my guidelines.  They aren’t hard-and-fast rules.  I don’t apply them to everyone. But it does help me figure out if deeper analysis is needed before following someone.  It’s important to make sure that the people you follow help you in some way.  They should inform you.  They should challenge you.  They should make you a better person.  That’s what social media really means to me.

Take a look at your followers and find a few to follow today.  Find that person that stays on topic and has great comments.  Give them a chance.  You might find a new friend.