The Long And Winding Network Road


How do you see your network? Odds are good it looks like a big collection of devices and protocols that you use to connect everything. It doesn’t matter what those devices are. They’re just another source of packets that you have to deal with. Sometimes those devices are more needy than others. Maybe it’s a phone server that needs QoS. Or a storage device that needs a dedicated transport to guarantee that nothing is lost.

But what does the network look like to those developers?

Work Is A Highway

When is the last time you thought about how the network looks to people? Here’s a thought exercise for you:

Think about a highway. Think about all the engineering that goes into building a highway. How many companies are involved in building it. How many resources are required. Now, think of that every time you want to go to the store.

It’s a bit overwhelming. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of companies that are dedicated to building highways and other surface streets. Perhaps they are architects or construction crews or even just maintenance workers. But all of them have a function. All for the sake of letting us drive on roads to get places. To us, the road isn’t the primary thing. It’s just a way to go somewhere that we want to be. In fact, the only time we really notice the road is when it is in disrepair or under construction. We only see the road when it impacts our ability to do the things it enables.

Now, think about the network. Networking professionals spend their entire careers building bigger, faster networks. We take weeks to decide how best to handle routing decisions or agonize over which routing protocols are necessary to make things work the way we want. We make it our mission to build something that will stand the test of time and be the Eighth Wonder of the World. At least until it’s time to refresh it again for slightly faster hardware.

The difference between these two examples is the way that the creators approach their creation. Highway workers may be proud of their creation but they don’t spend hours each day extolling the virtues of the asphalt they used or the creative way they routed a particular curve. They don’t demand respect from drivers every time someone jumps on the highway to go to the department store.

Networking people have a visibility problem. They’re too close to their creation to have the vision to understand that it’s just another road to developers. Developers spend all their time worrying about memory allocation and UI design. They don’t care if the network actually works at 10GbE or 100 GbE. They want a service that transports packets back and forth to their destination.

The Old New Network

We’ve had discussion in the last few years about everything under the sun that is designed to make networking easier. VXLAN, NFV, Service Mesh, Analytics, ZTP, and on and on. But these things don’t make networking easier for users. They make networking easier for networking professionals. All of these constructs are really just designed to help us do our jobs a little faster and make things work just a little bit better than they did before.

Imagine all the work that goes into electrical power generation. Imagine the level of automation and monitoring necessary to make sure that power gets from the generation point to your house. It’s impressive. And yet, you don’t know anything about it. It’s all hidden away somewhere unimpressive. You don’t need to describe the operation of a transformer to be able to plug in a toaster. And no matter how much that technology changes it doesn’t impact your life until the power goes out.

Networking needs to be a utility. It needs to move away from the old methods of worrying about how we create VLANs and routing protocols and instead needs to focus on disappearing just like the power grid. We should be proud of what we build. But we shouldn’t make our pride the focus of hubris about what we do. Networking professionals are like highway workers or electrical company employees. We work hard behind the scenes to provide transport for services. The cloud has changed the way we look at the destination for those services. And it’s high time we examine our role in things as well.


Tom’s Take

Telco workers. COBOL programmers. Data entry specialists. All of these people used to be the kings and queens of their field. They were the people with the respect of hundreds. They were the gatekeepers because their technology and job roles were critical. Until they weren’t any more. Networking is getting there quickly. We’ve been so focused on making our job easy to do that we’ve missed the point. We need to be invisible. Just like a well built road or a functioning electrical grid. We are not the goal of infrastructure. We’re just a part of it. And the sooner we realize that and get out of our own way, we’re going to find that the world is a much better place for everyone involved in IT, from developers to users.

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