Finding Value in Cisco Live 2018

The world famous Cisco Live Sign picture, 2018 edition

Another Cisco Live has come and gone. Overall it was a fun time for many. Catching up with friends. Meeting people for the first time. Enjoying the balmy Orlando weather. It was a chance to relive some great times for every one. But does Cisco Live 2018 dictate how the future of the event will go?

Packing The Schedule

Did you get a chance to attend any of the social events at Cisco Live? There were a ton. There were Tweetups and meet ups and special sessions galore. There was every opportunity to visit a lounge or area dedicated to social media presence, Boomerang videos, goofy pictures, or global outreach. Every twenty feet had something for you to do or some way for you to make an impact.

In fact, if you went to all of these things you probably didn’t have time for much else. Definitely not time for the four or five keynote addresses. Or a certification test. Or the classes and sessions. In fact, if you tried to do everything there was to do at Cisco Live, you’d probably not sleep the whole week. There’s almost as much stuff to do outside the conference sessions as there is to do in them.

But is it too much? Are the activities around the learning sessions taking away from the conference itself? Think about something like the Big Ideas theater this year. In theory, it’s a great way to get people to attend sessions that are not specifically related to tech. You can introduce new ideas, especially those that are focused more on changing the world. But you’re also competing for time away from sessions that are focused on new products or building better architectures.

Every booth in the World of Solutions is designed to draw you in and keep you there. For the sponsors of the event it’s important to have conversations about their products and solutions. For Cisco people, it’s almost like they’re competing with the sessions to give you different content or a chance to interview people. Is that how things should be? I can understand the desire of DevNet wanting to change the way people look at programmable networking, for example. But every other little booth like Cisco Advanced Services or the Emergency Response Vehicle? Those feel more like attractions designed to show off rather than educate.

Paying the Piper

And what does all this cost in the long run? Sure, I love having extra features around the conference as much as the next person. But to what end? Things don’t pay for themselves. Every conference has a budget. Every piece of entertainment and every showcase booth costs money in some way or another. And how does that all get paid for? By us, the attendees.

It’s no secret that attending conferences isn’t cheap. A full conference pass for Cisco Live is around $2,000. In the past, there were cheaper options for just attending for the people networking aspect of things. But, with the growth of DevNet and other “included” options at the conference, Cisco needed to find a way to pay for them this year.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time going into the Imagine Pass issue right now because I want to sit down and have an honest discussion with Cisco about the pros and cons of the approach. But it is very important that we examine what we’re getting for the increased cost. There has to be a significant value for people to want to be a part of the event if the costs go up. The way to do that is to create compelling reasons to want to be at Cisco Live.

The way not to do that is to lock the content behind gates. Some of the things at Cisco Live this year were placed in areas that were not easy to access. One of my personal pet peeves is the NetVet lounge. I’m going to start this off by saying that I was a NetVet for many years before I moved to Tech Field Day. I’m no longer a NetVet. However, until 2013 the NetVet lounge was one of the de facto social hangout places. Now, it’s another area where you can get coffee and snacks.

Why does the NetVet lounge bother me? Because of the placement. Front and center across the aisle from the on-site Cisco Store (which took the place of the Social Media hub from 2013). Why does the NetVet lounge get to be outside the World of Solutions? Aside from the historical reasons, I can’t think of a good reason. You need to have a full conference pass to achieve NetVet status. A full conference pass gets you into the World of Solutions. Why not have NetVets meet there?

The obvious reason is that the World of Solutions closes. Yet the NetVet lounge does too. And the hours are pretty similar. Why not move the NetVet lounge into the World of Solutions and give that space to the Social Media folks. There are no restrictions on getting into the Social Media Hub. Why not have them front and center? Again, aside from the “tradition” of having the NetVet lounge outside the World of Solutions I can’t think of a good reason.


Tom’s Take

I love Cisco Live. I realized this year that I’ve been to thirteen of them. Every year since 2006. The conference has changed and grown. The focus has shifted. But the people remain the same. With the changes in the way that the pass structure the people may not be there much longer. We, as IT professionals, need to decide what’s important and give some feedback. We need to make it constructive and honest. Point out what works and what doesn’t. Don’t whine, but offer direct criticism. We can only make the conference we want by telling the people what we need. That’s how you make Cisco Live a place to be for now and for the future.

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Conference Impostor Syndrome

In IT we’ve all heard of Impostor Syndrome by now. The feeling that you’re not just a lucky person that has no real skills or is skating by on the seat of their pants is a very real thing. I’ve felt it an many of my friends and fellow members of the community have felt it too. It’s easy to deal with when you have time to think or work on your own. However, when you take your show on the road it can creep up before you know it.

Conferences are a great place to meet people and learn about new ideas. It’s also a place where your ideas will be challenged and put on display. It’s not to difficult to imagine meeting a person for the first time at a place like Cisco Live or VMworld and not feeling little awe-inspired. After all, this could be a person whose works you’ve read for a long time. It could be a person you look up to or someone you would like to have mentor you.

For those in the position of being thrust into the limelight, it can be extremely difficult to push aside those feelings of Impostor Syndrome or even just a general level of anxiety. When people are coming up to you and thanking you for the content you create or even taking it to further extremes, like bowing for example, it can feel like you’re famous and admired for nothing at all.

What the members of the community have to realize is that these feelings are totally natural. You’re well within your rights to want to shy away from attention or be modest. This is doubly true for those of us that are introverts, which seems to happen in higher numbers in IT.

How can you fight these feelings?

Realize You Are Enough. I know it sounds silly to say it but you have to realize that you are enough. You are the person that does what they can every day to make the world a better place in every way you can. It might be something simple like tweeting about a problem you fixed. It may be as impressive as publishing your own network automation book. But you still have to stop and realize you are enough to accomplish your goals.

For those out there that want to tell their heroes and mentors in the community how awesome they are, remember that you’re also forcing them to look at themselves in a critical light sometimes. Some reassurances like, “I love the way you write” or “Your ability to keep the podcast going smoothly” are huge compliments that people appreciate. Because they represent skills that are honed and practiced.

Be The Best You That You Can Be. This one sounds harder than it might actually be. Now that you’ve admitted that you’re enough, you need to keep being the best person that you can be. Maybe that’s continuing to write great content. Maybe it’s something as simple as taking a hour out of your day to learn a new topic or interact with some new people on social media. It’s important that you take your skill set and use it to make things better overall for everyone.

For those out there that are amazed at the amount of content that someone can produce or the high technical quality of what they’re working on, remember that we’re all the same. We all have the same 24 hours in the day to do what we do. So the application of the time spent studying or learning about something is what separates leaders from the pack.

Build Up Others Slowly. This one is maybe the hardest of all. When you’re talking to people and building them up from nothing, you need to be sure to take your time in bringing them along. You can’t just swamp them with knowledge and minute details about their life that have gleaned from reading blogs or LinkedIn. You need, instead, to bring people along slowly and build them up from nothing into the greatest person that you know.

This works in reverse as well. Don’t walk up to someone and start listing off their requirements like a resume. Instead, give them some time to discuss it with you. Let the person you’re talking to dictate a portion of the conversation. Even though you may feel the need to overwhelm with information to justify the discussion you should let them come to their place when they are ready. That prevents the feeling of being overwhelmed and makes the conversation much, much easier.


Tom’s Take

It’s very easy to get lost in the world of feeling inadequate about what others think of you. It goes from adulation and excitement to an overwhelming sense of dread that you’re going to let people down. You have to fix that by realizing that you’re enough and doing the best you can with what you have. If you can say that emphatically about yourself then you are well on the way to ensuring that Conference Imposter Syndrome is something you won’t have to worry about.

A Wireless Brick In The Wall

I had a very interesting conversation today with some friends about predictive wireless surveys. The question was really more of a confirmation: Do you need to draw your walls in the survey plan when deciding where to put your access points? Now, before you all run screaming to the comments to remind me that “YES YOU DO!!!”, there were some other interesting things that were offered that I wanted to expound upon here.

Don’t Trust, Verify

One of the most important parts of the wall question is material. Rather than just assuming that every wall in the building is made from gypsum or from wood, you need to actually go to the site or have someone go and tell you what the building material is made from. Don’t guess about the construction material.

Why? Because not everyone uses the same framing for buildings. Wood beams may be popular in one type of building, but steel reinforcement is used in other kinds. And you don’t want to base your predictive survey on one only to find out it’s the other.

Likewise, you need to make sure that the wall itself is actually made of what you think it is. Find out what kind of sheetrock they used. Make sure it’s not actually something like stucco plastered over chicken wire. Chicken wire as the structure of a plaster wall is a guaranteed Faraday Cage.

Another fun thing to run across is old buildings. One site survey I did for a wireless bid involved making sure that a couple of buildings on the outer campus were covered as well. When I asked about the buildings and when they were made, I found out they had been built in the 1950s and were constructed like bomb shelters. Thick concrete walls everywhere. Reinforcement all throughout. Once I learned this, the number of APs went up and the client had to get an explanation of why all the previous efforts to cover the buildings with antennas hadn’t worked out so well.

X-Ray Vision

Speaking of which, you also need to make sure to verify the structures underneath the walls. Not just the reinforcement. But the services behind the walls. For example, water pipes go everywhere in a building. They tend to be concentrated in certain areas but they can run the entire length of a floor or across many floors in a high rise.

Why are water pipes bad for wireless? Well, it turns out that the resonant frequency of water is the same as 802.11b/g/n – 2.4GHz. It’s how microwaves operate. And water loves to absorb radiation in that spectral range. Which means water pipes love to absorb wireless signals. So you need to know where they are in the building.

Architectural diagrams are a great way to find out these little details. Don’t just assume that walking through a building and staring at a wall is going to give you every bit of info you need. You need to research plans, blueprints, and diagrams about things. You need to understand how these things are laid out in order to know where to locate access points and how to correct predictive surveys when they do something unexpected.

Lastly, don’t forget to take into account the movement and placement of things. We often wish we could get involved in a predictive survey at the beginning of the project. A greenfield building is a great time to figure out the best place to put APs so we don’t have to go crawling over bookcases. However, you shouldn’t discount the chaos that can occur when an office is furnished or when people start moving things around. Things like plants don’t matter as much as when someone moves the kitchen microwave across the room or decides to install a new microphone system in the conference room without telling anyone.


Tom’s Take

Wireless engineers usually find out when the take the job that it involves being part radio engineer, part networking engineer, part artist, and part construction general contractor. You need to know a little bit about how buildings are made in order to make the invisible network operate optimally. Sure, traditional networking guys have it easy. They can just avoid running cables by florescent lights or interference sources and be good. But wireless engineers need to know if the very material of the wall is going to cause problems for them.

Avoiding A MacGyvered Network

Ivan Pepelnjak has an interesting post up today about MacGyver-ing in the network. He and Simon Milhomme are right that most small-to-medium sized networks are pretty much non-reference architectures and really, really difficult to manage and maintain properly on the best of days. On the worst of days, they’re a nightmare that make you want to run screaming into the night. But why?

One Size Never Fits All

Part of the issue is that reference architectures and cookie-cutter designs aren’t made for SMEs. Sure, the large enterprise and cloud providers have their own special snowflakes. But so too do small IT shops that have been handed a pile of parts and told to make it work.

People like Greg Ferro and Peyton Maynard-Koran believe this is due to vendors and VARs pushing hardware and sales cycles like crazy. I have attributed it to the lack of real training and knowledge about networking. But, it also has a lot to do with the way that people see IT as a cost center. We don’t provide value like marketing. We don’t collect checks like accounting. At best, we’re no different than the utility companies. We’re here because we have to be.

Likewise, when IT is forced into making decisions based on some kind of rebate or sale we tend to get stuck with the blame when things don’t work correctly. People that wouldn’t bat an eye at buying a new Rolex or BMW get downright frugal when they’re deciding which switches to buy to run their operation for the next 10 years. So, they compromise. Surely you all can make this switch work? It only has half the throughput as the one you originally specced but it was on sale!

So, stuck with bad decisions and no real documentation or reference points, we IT wizards do what we can with what we have. Just like Angus MacGyver. Sure, those networks are a pain to manage. They’re a huge issue when it’s time to upgrade to the next discount switch. And given the number of fires that we have to fight on a daily basis we never get a chance to go back and fix when we nailed up in the first place. Nothing is more permanent than a temporary fix. And no install lasts longer than one that was prefaced with “let me just get this working for the next week”.

Bespoke Off The Rack

So, how do we fix the MacGyver-ing? It’s not going to be easy. It’s going to be painful and require us to step out of our comfort zones.

  1. Shut Up And Do As I Say. This one is hard. Instead of having management breathing down your neck to get something installed or working on their schedule, you need to push back. You need to tell people that rushing is only going to complicate things. You need to fire back when someone hands you equipment that doesn’t meet your spec. You need to paraphrase the famous Shigeru Miyamoto – “A delayed network is eventually good, but a rushed installation is bad forever.”
  2. Document Like It Will Be Read Aloud In Court. Documentation isn’t just a suggestion. It’s a necessity. We’ve heard about the “hit by a bus” test. It’s more than just that, though. You need to not only be able to replace yourself but also to be able to have references for why you made the decisions you did. MacGyver-ing happens when we can’t remember why we made the decisions we did. It happens when we need to come up with a last minute solution to an impossible problem created by other people (NSFW language). Better to have that solution documented in full so you know what’s going on three years from now.
  3. Plan Like It’s Happening Tomorrow. Want to be ready for a refresh? Plan it today. Come back to your plan. Have a replacement strategy for every piece of equipment in your organization. Refresh the plan every few months. When someone comes to you with a new idea or a new thing, write up a plan. Yes, it’s going to be a lot of spinning your wheels. but it’s also going to be a better solution when someone comes to you and says that it’s time to make a project happen. Then, all you need to do is pull out your plan and make it happen. Imagine it like the opposite of a DR plan – Instead of the worst case scenario this is your chance to make it the best case.

Tom’s Take

There’s a reason the ringtone on my phone has been the theme from MacGyver for the last 15 years. I’m good at building something out of nothing. Making things work when they shouldn’t. And, as bad as it sounds, sometimes that’s what’s needed. Especially in the VAR world. But it shouldn’t be standard operating procedure. Instead, make your plan, execute it when the time comes, and make sure no one pushes you into a situation where MacGyver-ing is the last option you have.

The Voice of SD-WAN

SD-WAN is about migrating your legacy hardware away from silos like MPLS and policy-based routing and instead integrating everything under one dashboard and one central location to make changes and see the impacts that those changes have. But there’s one thing that SD-WAN can’t really do yet. And that’s prepare us the for the end of TDM voice.

Can You Hear Me Now?

Voice is a way of life for some people. Cisco spent years upon years selling CallManager into every office they could. From small two-line shops to global organizations with multiple PRIs and TEHO configured everywhere. It was a Cisco staple for years. Which also had Avaya following along quickly to get into the act too.

Today’s voice world is a little less clear. Millenials hate talking on the phone. Video is an oddity when it comes to communications. Asynchronous chat programs like WhatsApp or Slack rule the day today. People would rather communicate via text than voice. We all have mobile devices and the phone may be one of the least used apps on it.

Where does that leave traditional voice services? Not in a good place for sure. We still need phone lines for service-focused businesses or when we need to call a hotline for support. But the office phone system isn’t getting any new features anytime soon. The phone system is like the fax machine in the corner. It’s a feature complete system that is used when it has to be used by people that are forced to use it unhappily.

Voice systems are going to stay where they are by virtue of their ubiquity. They exist because TDM technology hasn’t really advanced in the past 20 years. We still have twisted pair connections to deliver FXO lines. We still have the most basic system in place to offer services to our potential customers and users. I know this personally because when I finally traded out my home phone setup for a “VoIP” offering from my cable provider, it was really just an FXS port on the back of a residential cable modem. That’s as high-tech as it gets. TDM is a solved problem.

Call If You WANt To

So, how does SD-WAN play into this? Well, as it turns out, SD-WAN is replacing the edge router very quickly. Devices that used to be Cisco ISRs are now becoming SD-WAN edge devices. They aggregate WAN connections and balance between them. They take MPLS and broadband and LTE instead of serial and other long-forgotten connection methods.

But you know what SD-WAN appliances can’t aggregate? TDM lines. They don’t have cards that can accept FXO, FXS, or even PRI lines. They don’t have a way to provide for DSP add-in cards or even come with onboard transcoding resources. There is no way for an SD-WAN edge appliance to function as anything other than a very advanced packet router.

This is a good thing for SD-WAN companies. It means that they have a focused, purpose built device that has more software features than hardware muscle. SD-WAN should be all about data packets. It’s not a multitool box. Even the SD-WAN vendors that ship their appliances with LTE cards aren’t trying to turn them into voice routers. They’re just easing the transition for people that want LTE backup for data paths.

Voice devices were moved out of the TDM station and shelf and into data routers as Cisco and other companies tried to champion voice over IP. We’re seeing the fallout from those decisions today. As the data routing devices become more specialized and focused on the software aspects of the technology, the hardware pieces that the ISR platform specialized in are now becoming a yoke holding the platform back. Now, those devices are causing those platforms to fail to evolve.

I can remember when I was first thinking about studying for my CCIE Voice lab back in 2007-2008. At the time, the voice lab still have a Catalyst 6500 switch running in it that needed to be configured. It had a single T1 interface on a line card that you had to get up and running in CallManager. The catch? That line card would only work with a certain Supervisor engine that only ran CatOS. So, you have to be intimately familiar with CatOS in order to run that lab. I decided that it wasn’t for me right then and there.

Hardware can hold the software back. ISRs can’t operate voice interfaces in SD-WAN mode. You can’t get all the advanced features of the software until you pare the hardware down to the bare minimum needed to route data packets. If you need to have the router function as a TDM aggregator or an SBC/IPIPGW you realize that the router really should be dedicated to that purpose. Because it’s functioning more as a TDM platform than a packet router at that point.


Tom’s Take

The world of voice that I lived in five or six years ago is gone. It’s been replaced with texting and Slack/Spark/WebEx Teams. Voice is dying. Cell phones connect us more than we’ve ever been before but yet we don’t want to talk to each other. That means that the rows and rows of desk phones we used to use are falling by the wayside. And so too are the routers that used to power them. Now, we’re replacing those routers with SD-WAN devices. And when the time finally comes for use to replace those TDM devices, what will we use? That future is very murky indeed.

Is Training The Enemy of Progress?

Peyton Maynard-Koran was the keynote speaker at InteropITX this year. If you want to catch the video, check this out:

Readers of my blog my remember that Peyton and I don’t see eye-to-eye on a few things. Last year I even wrote up some thoughts about vendors and VARs that were a direct counterpoint to many of the things that have been said. It has even gone further with a post from Greg Ferro (@EtherealMind) about the intelligence level of the average enterprise IT customer. I want to take a few moments and explore one piece of this puzzle that keeps being brought up: You.

Protein Robots

You are a critical piece of the IT puzzle. Why? You’re a thinking person. You can intuit facts and extrapolate cause from nothing. You are NI – natural intelligence. There’s an entire industry of programmers chasing what you have. They are trying to build it into everything that blinks or runs code. The first time that any company has a real breakthrough in true artificial intelligence (AI) beyond complicated regression models will be a watershed day for us all.

However, you are also the problem. You have requirements. You need a salary. You need vacation time. You need benefits and work/life balance to keep your loved ones happy. You sometimes don’t pick up the phone at 3am when the data center blinks out of existence. It’s a challenge to get you what you need while still extracting the value that is needed from you.

Another awesome friend Andrew von Nagy (@RevolutionWiFi) coined the term “protein robots”. That’s basically what we are. Meatbags. Walking brains that solve problems that cause BGP to fall over when presented with the wrong routing info or cause wireless signals to dissipate into thing air. We’re a necessary part of the IT equation.

Sure, people are trying to replace us with automation and orchestration. It’s the most common complaint about SDN that I’ve heard to date: automation is going to steal my job. I’ve railed against that for years in my talks. Automation isn’t going to steal your job, but it will get you a better one. It will get you a place in the organization to direct and delegate and not debug and destroy. In the end, automation isn’t coming for your job as long as you’re trying to get a better one.

All Aboard The Train!

The unseen force that’s opposing upward mobility is training. In order to get a better job, you need to be properly trained to do it. Maybe it’s a lot of experience from running a network for years. Perhaps it’s a training class you get to go to or a presentation online you can watch. No matter what you need to have new skills to handle new job responsibilities. Even if you’re breaking new ground in something like AI development you’re still acquiring new skills along the way. Hopefully, if you’re in a new field, you’re writing them all down for people to follow in your footsteps one day.

However, training is in opposition to what your employer wants for you. It sounds silly, doesn’t it? Yet, we still hear the quote attributed to W. Edwards Deming – “What happens if we train our people and they leave? What happens if we don’t and they stay?” Remember, as we said above you are a protein robot that needs things like time off and benefits. All of those things are seen as an investment in you.

Training is another investment that companies like to tout. When I worked at a VAR, we considered ourselves some of the most highly trained people around. The owner told me when I started that he was “going to put half a million dollars into training me.” When I asked him about that number after five years he told me it felt like he put a kid through college. And that was before my CCIE. The more trained people you have, the easier your job becomes.

But an investment in training can also backfire. Professionals can take that training and put it to use elsewhere. They can go to a different job and take more money. They can refuse to do a job until they are properly trained. The investments that people make in training are often unrealized relative to the amount of money that it costs to make it happen.

It doesn’t help that training prices have skyrocketed. It used to be that I just needed to go down to the local bookstore and find a copy of a CCNA study guide to get certified. I knew I’d reached a new point in my career when I couldn’t buy my books at the bookstore. Instead, I had to seek out the knowledge that I needed elsewhere. And yes, sometimes that knowledge came in the form of bootcamps that cost thousands of dollars. Lucky for me that my employer at the time looked at that investment and said that it was something they would pick up. But I know plenty of folks that can’t get that kind of consideration. Especially when the training budget for the whole department won’t cover one VMware ICM class.

Employers don’t want employees to be too trained. Because you have legs. Because you can get fed up. Because you can leave. The nice thing about making investments in hardware and software is that it’s stuck at a location. A switch is an asset. A license for a feature can’t be transferred. Objects are tied to the company. And their investments can be realized and recovered. Through deprecation or listing as an asset with competitive advantage companies can recover the value they put into a physical thing.

Professionals, on the other hand, aren’t as easy to deal with. Sure, you can list a CCIE as an important part of your business. But what happens if they leave? What happens when they decide they need a raise? Or, worse yet, when they need to spend six months studying for a recertification? The time taken to learn things is often not factored into the equation when we discuss how much training costs. Some of my old coworkers outright refused to get certified if they had to study on their own time. They didn’t want their free non-work time taken up by reading over MCSE books or CCNA guides. Likewise, the company didn’t want to waste billable hours from someone not providing value. It was a huge catch-22.

Running In Place

Your value is in your skillset at the company you work for. They derive that value from you. So, they want you to stay where you are. They want you trained just enough to do your job. They don’t want you to have your own skillset that could be valuable before they get their value from you. And they definitely don’t want you to take your skillset to a competitor. How can you fix that?

  1. Don’t rely on your company to pay for your training. There are a lot of great resources out there that you can use to learn without needed to drop big bucks for a bootcamp. Use bootcamps to solidify your learning after the fact. Honestly, if you’re in a bootcamp to learn something you’re in the wrong class. Read blogs. Buy books from Amazon. Get your skills the old fashioned way.
  2. Be ready to invest time. Your company doesn’t want you using their billable time for learning. So that means you are going to make an investment instead. The best part is that even an hour of studying instead of binge watching another episode of House is time well-spent on getting another important skill. And if it happened on your own time, you’re not going to have to pay that back.
  3. Be ready to be uncomfortable. It’s going to happen. You’re going to feel lost when you learn something new. You’re going to make mistakes while you’re practicing it. And, honestly, you’re going to feel uncomfortable going to your boss to ask for more money once you’re really good at what you’re doing. If you’re totally comfortable when learning something new, you’re doing it wrong.

Tom’s Take

Companies want protein robots. They want workers that give 125% at all times and can offer a wide variety of skills. They want compliant workers that never want to go anywhere else. Don’t be that robot. Push back. Learn what you can on your time. Be an asset but not an immobile one. You need to know more to escape the SDN Langoliers that are trying to eat your job. That means you need to be on the move to get where you need to be. And if you sit still you risk becoming a permanent asset. Just like the hardware you work on.

Time To Get Back To Basics?

I’ve had some fascinating networking discussions over the past couple of weeks at Dell Technologies World, Interop, and the spring ONUG meeting. But two of them have hit on some things that I think need to be addressed in the industry. Both Russ White and Ignas Bagdonas of the IETF have come to me and talked about how they feel networking professionals have lost sight of the basics.

How Stuff Works

If you walk up to any network engineer and ask them to explain how TCP works, you will probably get a variety of answers. Some will try to explain it to you in basic terms to avoid getting too in depth. Others will swamp you with a technical discussion that would make the protocol inventors proud. But still others will just shrug their shoulders and admit they don’t really understand the protocol.

It’s a common problem when a technology gets to the point of being mature and ubiquitous. One of my favorite examples is the fuel system on an internal combustion engine. On older cars or small engines, the carburetor is responsible for creating the correct fuel and air mixture that is used to power the cylinders. Getting that mix right is half science and half black magic. For the people that know how to do it properly it’s an easy thing that they can do to drive the maxim performance from an engine. For those that have tried it and failed, it’s something best left alone to run at defaults.

The modern engine uses fuel injection. It’s a black box. It can be reprogrammed or tinkered with but it’s something that is tuned in different ways from the traditional carburetor. It’s not something that’s designed to be played around with unless you really know what you’re doing. The technology has reached the point where it’s ubiquitous and easy to use, but very difficult to repair without a specialized skill set.

Most regular car drivers will look under the hood and quickly realize they know nothing about what’s going on. Some technical folks will be able to figure out what certain parts do by observing their behavior. But if you ask those same people how a fuel injection system or carburetor works they’ll probably give you a blank stare.

That’s the issue we find in modern networking. We’ve been creating VLANs and BGP route maps for years. Some people have spent their entire careers tuning multicast or optimizing layer 2 interconnects. But if you corner them and ask them how the protocol works or how best to design an architecture that takes advantage of their life’s work they can’t tell you aside from referencing some old blog post or some vendor’s validated design on their hardware.

Russ and Ignas each touch on something important. In the good old days before there were a hundred certification guides and a thousand SRNDs people had to do real work to find the best solution for a problem. They had to put pencil to paper and sort out the mess before they could make something work. That’s where the engineering side of the network comes from.

Today, it’s more “plug and play”. You drop in pieces of a solution and they should work together. In practice, that usually means all the pieces have to be from the same vendor or from approved partner sources. And anything that goes awry will need a team of experts and many, many consulting hours to figure out.

Imagine if we could only install networks without understanding how they work. Could you see a world where everything we install from a networking perspective is a black box like a fuel injector? That’s the case to a certain degree with cloud networking today. We don’t see what’s going on under the surface. We can only see what the interface exposes to us. That’s fine as long as the applications we are using support the things we’re trying to do with them. But when it comes to being able to fix the network at the level we’re used to seeing it could be difficult if not downright impossible.

Learning The Ropes

But, moreover, are the networking professionals that are configuring these networks even capable of making those changes? Does anyone other than Narbik really understand how EIGRP works? Facebook seems to think that lightweight messaging packets for routing protocols are outdated. So they used ZeroMQ without understanding why that’s a bad idea for slow speed links. They may understand how a routing protocol works in theory, but they don’t completely understand how it’s supposed to work in extreme cases.

Can we teach people the basics and understanding of protocols and design that they need in order to make proper designs outside of vendor reference documents? It’s a tall order for sure. Most blog posts are designed to talk about features or solve problems. Most literature from creators is designed to make their new widget work correctly. Very little documentation exists about integration or design. And a good portion of what does exist is a bit outmoded and needs to be spruced up.

We, as the stewards of networking, need to help this process along. We need to spend more time talking about design and theory. We need to dissect protocols and help people understand how to use the tools they have rather than hoping someone will build the best mousetrap ever to solve each piece of a complicated puzzle. We need to teach people to be thinkers and problem solvers. And, yes, that does mean a bit less complaining about things like vendor code quality and VAR behavior.

Why? Because those people are empowered by a lack of knowledge. Customers aren’t idiots. They have business reasons for the things they do. Our technology needs to support their business needs. Yes, that means we need to think critically about what we’re doing. And yes, they may mean eating our words now and then to avoid a showdown about something that’s ultimately unimportant in the long run.

If we increase the amount of knowledge about the important topics like design and protocols it should make the overall level of understanding go up for everyone. That means better designs. More integrated technology. Less reliance on being force-fed the bare minimum information necessary to make things work. And that means things will run faster and much more smoothly. Which is a win for everyone.


Tom’s Take

I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know the dirty mechanics of Frame Relay switching or how to tune OSPF Hello timers for non-standard link types. It’s a skill I don’t use every day. But I know where to find them if I need them. And I know that it can help in certain situations where you see odd protocol behavior. Likewise, I know that if I need to go design a network for someone I need to get a lot of information about business needs and build the best network I can with the constraints that I have. Things like budget and time are universal. But one of those constraints shouldn’t be lack of knowledge about protocols and good design. Those are two things that should be ingrained into anyone that wants to have a title of “senior” anything.