A Guide to SDN Spirit Animals


The world of computers and IT has always been linked with animals.  Whether you are referring to Tux the Penguin from the world of Linux or the various zoological specimens that have graced the covers of the O’Reilly Media library you can find almost every member of the animal kingdom represented.  Many of these icons have become mascots for their users.  In the world of software defined networking (SDN), we have our own mascot as well.  However, I’m going to propose that we start considering a few more as well.

The Horned Wonder

If you’ve read any kind of blog post about SDN in the last year, you’ve probably seen reference to a unicorn at some point.  Unicorns are mythical creatures that are full of magic and wonder.  I referenced them once in a post concerning a network where I had trouble understanding how untagged packets were traversing VLANs without causing a meltdown.  When the network admin asked me how it was happening I replied, “They must be getting ferried around on the backs of unicorns!”  That started my association of magical things happening in networks and their subsequent attribution to unicorns.  Greg Ferro (@etherealmind) is fond of saying that new protocols without sufficient documentation must be powered by “unicorn tears”.  Ivan Pepelnjak (@ioshints) is also a huge fan of the unicorn, as evidenced by this picture:

Ivan rides his steed into battle

Ivan rides his steed into battle

The unicorn is popular because it represents a fantastic explanation for a difficult problem.  However, people that I’ve talked to recently are getting tired of attributing mythical properties of various SDN-related technologies to the mighty unicorn.  I thought about it and realized that there are more suitable animals depending on what technology you’re talking about.

King of Beasts

griffin

If you ask most SDN companies, they’ll tell you that their spirit animal is the griffin.  The griffin is a mythical creature with the body and hindquarters of a lion combined with the head, wings, and front legs of an eagle.  This regal beast is regarded as a stately amalgam of the king of beasts and the king of birds.  It typically guards important and sacred treasures.  It is also a popular animal in heraldry, where it represents courage and boldness.

You can tell from that description that anyone writing an API for their existing OS or networking stack probably has one of these things hanging in their cubicle.  It stands for the best possible joining of two great ideas.  Those APIs guard the sacred treasures for those that have always wanted insight into the inner workings of a network operating system.  The griffin is the best case scenario for those that want to write an effective API or access methodology for enabling SDN.  But as we all know, something the best strategies are sometimes poorly implemented.

Design by Committee

Chimera

The opposite of the griffin would have to be the chimera.  A chimera is a mythical beast that has the body, head, and front legs of lion.  It has a goat’s head jutting from the middle of the body and a snake’s head for a tail, although some sources say this is a dragon head with the associated dragon wings as well.  This nightmarish beast comes from Greek mythology where it was an omen of disaster when spotted.

The chimera represents what happens when you try to combine things and end up with the worst possible combination.  Why is there a goat’s head in the middle?  What good does a snake head for a tail really do?  In much the same way, companies that are trying to create SDN strategies by throwing everything they can into the mix will have end results that should use a chimera for a mascot.  Rather than taking the approach of building the product with the best and most useful features, some designers feel the need to attach every thing they can in an effort to replicate existing non-useful functionality.  “Better to have it and not need it” is the rallying cry most often heard.  This leads to the kind of unwieldy and bloated applications that scare people away from SDN and back to traditional networking methodology.

Tom’s Take

Every project needs a mascot.  Every product needs an icon or a fancy drawing on the product page.  Sooner or later, those mascots come to symbolize everything the project stands for.  Content penguins aside, most projects are looking for something cute or cuddly.  Security vendors are notorious for using scary looking animals to get the point across that they aren’t to be messed with.  I think that using mythologic creatures other than the unicorn to symbolize SDN projects is the way to go.  It focuses the developers to ground themselves in real features.  Hopefully it helps them avoid the mentality that could create nightmarish creatures like the chimera.

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