About networkingnerd

Tom Hollingsworth, CCIE #29213, is a former network engineer and current organizer for Tech Field Day. Tom has been in the IT industry since 2002, and has been a nerd since he first drew breath.

Why 2023 is the Year of Wi-Fi 6E

If you’re like me, you chuckle every time someone tells you that next year is the year of whatever technology is going to be hot. Don’t believe me? Which year was the Year of VDI again? I know that writing the title of this post probably made you shake your head in amusement but I truly believe that we’ve hit the point of adoption of Wi-Fi 6E next year.

Device Support Blooms

There are rumors that the new iPhone 14 will adopt Wi-Fi 6E. There were the same rumors when the iPhone 13 was coming out and the iPhone rumor mill is always a mixed bag but I think we’re on track this time. Part of the reason for that is the advancements made in Wi-Fi 6 Release 2. The power management features for 6ER2 are something that should appeal to mobile device users, even if the name is confusing as can be.

Mobile phones don’t make a market. If they were the only driver for wireless adoption the Samsung handsets would have everyone on 6E by now. Instead, it’s the ecosystem. Apple putting a 6E radio in the iPhone wouldn’t be enough to tip the scales. It would take a concerted effort of adoption across the board, right? Well, what else does Apple have on deck that can drive the market?

The first thing is the rumored M2 iPad Pro. It’s expected to debut in October 2022 and feature upgrades aside from the CPU like wireless charging. One of the biggest features would be the inclusion of a Wi-Fi 6E radio as well to match the new iPhone. That would mean both of Apple’s mobile devices could enjoy the faster and less congested bandwidth of 6 GHz. The iPad would also be easier to build a new chip around compared to the relatively cramped space inside the iPhone. Give the professional nature of the iPad Pro one might expect an enterprise-grade feature like 6E support to help move some units.

The second thing is the looming M2 MacBook Pro. Note for this specific example I’m talking about the 14” and 16” models that would features the Pro and Max chips, not the 13” model running a base M2. Apple packed the M1 Pro and M1 Max models with new features last year, including more ports and a snazzy case redesign. What would drive people to adopt the new model so soon? How about faster connectivity? Given that people are already complaining that the M1 Pro has slow Wi-Fi Apple could really silence their armchair critics with a Wi-Fi 6E radio.

You may notice that I’m relying heavily on Apple here as my reasoning behind the projected growth of 6E in 2023. It’s not because I’m a fanboy. It’s because Apple is one of the only companies that controls their own ecosystem to the point of being able to add support for a technology across the board and drive adoption among their user base. Sure, we’ve had 6E radios from Samsung and Dell and many others for the past year or so. Did they drive the sales of 6E radios in the enterprise? Or even in home routers? I’d argue they haven’t. But Apple isn’t the only reason why.

Oldie But Goodie

The last reason that 2023 is going to be the year of Wi-Fi 6E is because of timing. Specifically I’m talking about the timing of a refresh cycle in the enterprise. The first Wi-Fi 6 APs started coming into the market in 2019. Early adopters jumped at the chance to have more bandwidth across the board. But those APs are getting old by the standards of tech. They may still pass traffic but users that are going back to the office are going to want more than standard connectivity. Especially if those users splurged for a new iPhone or iPad for Christmas or are looking for a new work laptop of the Macintosh variety.

Enterprises may not have been packed with users for the past couple of years but that doesn’t mean the tech stood still. Faster and better is always the mantra of the cutting edge company. The revisions in the new standards would make life easier for those trying to deploy new IoT sensors or deal with with congested buildings. If enterprise vendors adopt these new APs in the early part of the year it could even function as an incentive to get people back in the office instead of the slow insecure coffee shop around the corner.

One other little quirky thing comes from an report that Intel is looking to adopt Wi-Fi 7. It may just be the cynic in me talking but as soon as we start talking about a new technology on the horizon people start assuming that the “current” cutting edge tech is ready for adoption. It’s the same as people that caution you not to install a new operating system until after the first patch or service release. Considering that Wi-Fi 6 Release 2 is effectively Wi-Fi 6E Service Pack 1 I think the cynics in the audience are going to think that it’s time to adopt Wi-Fi 6E since it’s ready for action.


Tom’s Take

Technology for the sake of tech is always going to fail. You need drivers for adoption and usage. If cool tech won the day we’d be watching Betamax movies or HD-DVD instead of streaming on Netflix. Instead, the real winners are the technologies that get used. So far that hasn’t been Wi-Fi 6E for a variety of reasons. However, with the projections of releases coming soon from Apple I think we’re going to see a massive wave of adoption of Wi-Fi 6E in 2023. And if you’re reading this in late 2023 or beyond and it didn’t happen, just mentally change the title to whatever next year is and that will be the truth.

Enforcing SLAs with Real Data

I’m sure by now you’ve probably seen tons of articles telling you about how important it is to travel with location devices in your luggage. The most common one I’ve seen is the Apple AirTag. The logic goes that if you have one in your checked suitcase that you’ll know if there are any issues with your luggage getting lost right away because you’ll be notified as soon as you’re separated from it. The advice is sound if you’re someone that checks your bag frequently or has it lost on a regular basis.

The idea behind using technology to enforce an agreement is a great one. We make these agreements all the time, especially in networking. These service level agreements (SLAs) are the way we know we’re getting what we pay for. Take a leased line, for example. You typically pay for a certain speed and a certain amount of availability. The faster the link or the more available it is the more it costs. Any good consumer is going to want to be sure they’re paying for the right service. How can you verify you’re getting what you’re paying for?

For a long time this was very hard to do. Sure, you could run constant speed tests to check the bandwidth. However, the reliability was the part that was typically the more expensive thing to add to the service. Making a circuit more reliable means adding more resources on the provider side to ensure it stays up. Allocating those resources means someone needs to pay for them and that is usually on the customer side.

It’s easy to tell when a link goes down during working hours. You can see that you’re not getting traffic out of your network. But what about those times when the circuit isn’t being as heavily utilized? What about the middle of the night or holidays? How can you ensure that you’re getting the uptime you pay for?

Trust and Verify

This is actually one of the groundbreaking areas that SD-WAN pioneered for networking teams when it came out years ago. Because you have a more modern way of maintaining the network as well as a way to route application traffic based on more than source and destination address you can build in some fancy logic to determine the reliability of your circuits too.

One of the biggest reasons in the past to use a leased line over a broadband circuit was that reliability factor. You need MPLS because it’s more stable than a cable modem. You get guaranteed bandwidth. It’s way more reliable. Those are the claims that you might hear when you talk to the salesperson at your ISP. But do they really hold water? The issue for years is that you had no way of knowing because your analytics capabilities were rudimentary in most cases. You could monitor the link interface but that was usually from the central office and not the remote branch. And depending on the polling interval you could miss downtime events.

SD-WAN changed that because now you could put an intelligent device on the edge that constantly monitored the link for throughput and reliability. The first thought was to do this for the broadband links to see how congested and unreliable they could be do know when to switch traffic to the more stable link. Over time admins started putting those same monitors on the MPLS and leased line circuits as well. They found that while broadband, such as cable and DSL, was typically more reliable than the sales people would have you believe it was the relatively unreliable leased circuits that surprised everyone.

Much like the above example of lost luggage you previously had to take the airlines at their word when they said something was lost. No details were available. Did your bag ever leave the airport when you flew out? Did it make it to the right location but get stuck somewhere? Did your bag get on the wrong plane and end up in Cleveland instead of Las Vegas? Because the airline reporting systems were so opaque you had no idea. Now, with the advent of Tile and AirTags and many others, you can see exactly where it is at all times.

The same thing happened with SD-WAN analytics. Now, armed with proof that links weren’t as reliable as the SLA, admins could choose to do one of two things. They could either force the provider to honor the agreement and provide better service to meet the agreement. Or the company could reduce their contract to the level of service they are actually getting instead of the one that is promised by not delivered. Having the data and a way to prove the reliability helped with the negotiations.

Once the providers knew that organizations had the ability to verify things they also had to up their game by including ways to monitor their own performance to ensure that they were meeting their own metrics. Overall the situation led to better results because having technology to enforce agreements makes all sides aware of what’s going on.


Tom’s Take

I’ve only had a couple of bags misplaced in my travel time so I haven’t yet had the need to go down the AirTag route. I’ve done it on occasion for international travel because knowing when my bag is about to come out on the carousel helps me figure out how much time it’s going to take me to get through customs. The idea of using technology to make things more transparent is important to me on a bigger scale though. If you can’t verify the promises you make then you shouldn’t make them. Having the AirTag or SD-WAN software to ensure we’re getting what we pay for are just parts of a bigger opportunity to provide better experiences.

All Problems Are Hardware Problems

When I was a lad in high school I worked for Walmart. I learned quite a bit about retail at my early age but one of the fascinating things I used in the late 1990s was a wireless inventory unit, colloquially known as a Telxon. I was amazed by the ability to get inventory numbers on a device without a cable. Since this was prior to the adoption of IEEE 802.11 it was a proprietary device that only worked with that system.

Flash forward to the 2020s. I went to Walmart the other day to look for an item and I couldn’t find it. I asked one of the associates if it was in stock. They said they could check and pulled out their phone. To my surprise they were able to launch an app and see that it was in stock in the back. As I waited for them to return with the item I thought about how 25 years of progress had changed that hardware solution into something software focused.

Hardware Genesis

All problems start as hardware problems. If there’s a solution to an issue you’re going to build something first. Need to get somewhere fast? Trains or cars. Need to get there faster? Planes. Communcations? Phones or the Internet. All problems start out by inventing a thing that does something.

Technology is all about overcoming challenges with novel solutions. Sometimes those leaps are major, like radio. Other times the tool is built on that technology, like wireless. However they are built they almost always take physical form first. The reasoning is simple in my view. You have to have the capability to build something before it can be optimized.

If you’re sitting there saying to yourself that a lot of our solutions today are software-focused you would be correct. However, you’re also making some assumptions about hardware ubiquity already. Sure, the smartphone is a marvel of software simplicity that provides many technological solutions. It’s also a platform that relies on wireless radio communications, Internet, and cloud computing. If you told someone in 2005 that cellular phones would be primarily used as compute devices they would have laughed at you. Because the hardware at the time was focused on audio communications and only starting to be used for other things, like texting or PDA functions.

Hardware exists first to solve the issue at hand. Once we’ve built something that can accomplish the goal we can then optimize it and make it more common. Servers seem like a mainstay of our tech world today but client/server architecture wasn’t always the king of the hill. Cloud computing seems like an obvious solution today but AWS and GCP haven’t always existed. Servers needed to become commonplace before the idea to cluster them together and offer their capacity as a rentable service emerged.

Software to the Rescue

Software doesn’t like unpredictability. Remember the Telxon example above? Those devices ran proprietary software that interfaced with a single server. There was no variation. If you wanted to use the inventory software on a different device you were out of luck. There was zero flexibility. It was a tool that was designed for a purpose. So many of the things in our lives are built the same way. Just look at your home phone, for example. That is, if you still have one. It’s a simple device that doesn’t even run software as we know it. Just a collection of electrical switches and transistors that accomplish a goal.

However, we have abstracted the interface of a telephone into a device that provides flexibility. Any smart phone you see is a computer running software with a familiar interface to make a phone call. There’s no specialized hardware involved. Just an interface to a system that performs the same functions that a traditional phone would. There are no wires. No switches like an old telecom engineer would recognize. Just a software platform that sends voice over the Internet to a receiving station.

Software becomes an option when we’ve built a hardware environment that is sufficiently predictable as to allow the functions to be abstracted. The Walmart Telxon can function as an app on a smartphone now because we can write an app to perform those same functions. We’ve also created interfaces into inventory systems that can be called by software apps and everyone that works for Walmart either carries a phone or has access to a device that can run the software.


Tom’s Take

Programs and platforms provide us with the flexibility to do things any time we want. But they only have that capability because of the infrastructure we’ve built out. We have to build the hardware before we can abstract the functions into software. The most complicated unsolved problem you can think of today will eventually be solved by a piece of kit that will eventually become a commodity and replicated as a series of functions that run on everything years later. That’s the way that things have always been and how they will always be.

Friday Mobility Field Day Thoughts

I’m finishing up Mobility Field Day 7 this week and there’s been some exciting discussion here around a lot of technology. I think my favorite, and something I’m going to talk about more, is the continuing battle between 5G and Wi-Fi. However, there’s a lot going on that I figured I’d bring up to whet your appetite for the videos.

  • What is mission critical? When you think about all the devices that are in your organization that absolutely must work every time what does that look like? And what are you prepared to do to make them work every time? If it’s a safety switch or some other kind of thing that prevents loss of life are you prepared to spend huge amounts of money to make it never fail?
  • Operations teams don’t need easier systems. They need systems that remove complexity. The difference in those two things is subtle but important. Easier means that things are simplified to the point of almost being unusable. Think Apple Airport or even some Meraki devices. Whereas reduced complexity means that you’ve made the up front configuration easy but enabled the ability to configure other features in different places. Maybe that’s by giving your engineers the ability to log in to an Advanced dashboard or something like that.
  • When you’re trying to figure out where your audience is on a subject, always aim slightly above their technical level. If all goes well you will pull them up to where you want them and they’ll appreciate the opportunity to stretch their thinking to meet you there. If not you’ll provide them lots of great material to learn about when they get there later.

Tom’s Take

Technology changes quickly but the way we teach it doesn’t need to if we do it right the first time. By taking the time to aim high and educate instead of retelling something we’ve already said a few times we create content that endures.

Getting Tough with Cyberinsurance

I’ve been hearing a lot of claims recently about how companies are starting to rely more and more on cyberinsurance policies to cover them in the event of a breach or other form of disaster. While I’m a fan of insurance policies in general I think the companies trying to rely on these payouts to avoid doing any real security work is going to be a big surprise to them in the future.

Due Diligence

The first issue that I see is that companies are so worried about getting breached that they think taking out big insurance policies are the key to avoiding any big liability. Think about an organization that holds personally identifiable information (PII) and how likely it is that they would get sued in the event of a breach. The idea is that cyberinsurance would pay out for the breach and be used as a way to pay off the damages in a lawsuit.

The issue I have with this is that companies are expecting to get paid. They see cyberinsurance as a guaranteed payout instead of a last resort. In the initial days of taking out these big policies the insurers were happy to pay out because they were getting huge premiums in return. However, as soon as the flood of payouts started happening the insurers had to come back down to earth and realize they had to put safeguards in place to keep themselves from going bankrupt.

For anyone out there hoping to take out a big insurance policy and get paid when you inevitably get compromised you’re about to face a harsh reality. Gone are the days of insuring your enterprise against cyber threats without doing some form of due diligence on the setup. You’re going to have to prove you did everything you could to prevent this from happening before you get to collect. And if you’ve ever filed an insurance claim for a car or a house you know that it can take weeks for them to investigate everything to find out if there is a way for them to not pay out.

There is a very reasonable chance your policy will exclude certain conditions that could have easily been prevented. It would be potentially embarrassing for your executives to find out you are unable to collect on an insurance policy because it specifically doesn’t cover social engineering or business email compromise (BEC).

Getting Ahead of the Insurance Game

How can you prevent this from happening? What steps can you take today to make sure you’re not going to find yourself on the losing end of a security incident?

  1. Check Your Coverage – It’s boring and reads like stereo instructions but you really do need to check your insurance policy completely, especially the parts that mention things that are specifically excluded from coverage. You need to know what isn’t going to be covered in a breach and have a response for those things. You need to know how to respond in areas that are potential weak points and be ready to confirm that you didn’t end up getting attacked there.
  2. Look for Suggestions From the Insurer – I know people that will only buy cars based on safety reports from industry groups. They’d rather have something less flashy or cool in favor of a car that is going to keep them protected in the event of an accident. The insurance companies love to publish those reports because it means that more sales of those cars means smaller payouts on claims. Likewise, more companies that provide cyberinsurance are starting to publish lists of software that they would encourage or outright require in an organization in order to have coverage or be eligible for a payout. If your company has such a list you should really get it and make sure you’ve checked the boxes. You don’t want to find yourself in a situation where one missed avenue of attack cost you the whole policy.
  3. Make Sure Your Reports Are Working – In the event that everything does go wrong you’re going to need to provide proof to people that you did all you could to prevent it. That means logs and incident reports and even more data about what went wrong and when. You don’t want to go and pull up that reporting data after the worst day of your cybersecurity life only to find the reporting system hasn’t been working properly for months. Then you’re not only behind on getting the incident dealt with but you’re also slowing down the potential recovery on the policy. The insurance company is happy for you to take as much time as you need because every day that they don’t pay you is one more day they’re making money off their investments. Don’t delay yourself any more than you need to.

Tom’s Take

The best insurance is the kind you don’t need. That doesn’t mean you don’t get it, especially if it’s a requirement. However, even if you do have it you need to act like you don’t. Assuming that there’s a safety net to catch you isn’t always the case when that net comes with conditions that could pull the rug out from under you. You need to know what your potential exposure could be and what could prevent you from collecting. You need to be prepared to put new mechanisms in place to protect your enterprise and have a plan for what exactly to do when things go wrong. That should be paramount even without the policy. If you have everything ready to go you won’t need to worry about what happens when disaster strikes.

Saying “Yes” the Right Way

If only I had known how hard it was to say “no” to someone. Based on the response that my post about declining things had gotten I’d say there are a lot of opinions on the subject. Some of them were positive and talked about how hard it is to decline things. Others told me I was stupid because you can’t say no to your boss. I did, however, get a direct message from Paul Lampron (@Networkified) that said I should have a follow up post about saying yes in a responsible manner.

Positively Perfect

The first thing you have to understand about the act of asking something is that we’re not all wired the same way when it comes to saying yes. I realize that article is over a decade old at this point but the ideas in it remain valid, as does this similar one from the Guardian. Depending on your personality or how you were raised you may not have the outcome you were expecting when you ask.

Let me give you a quick personal example. I was raised with a southern style mentality that involves not just coming out and asking for something. You may have seen this expressed as excessive small talk when you are trying to ask for help. You may feel frustrated that the person that is asking you for something doesn’t come right out and ask for it. You may not understand that this person is trying to feel out your emotional responses before asking a question so they’re almost assured to get a positive answer.

Apply that knowledge to the opposite situation. What if the person that has a hard time come right out and asking for something is trying to interpret a request from someone else? Are they going to accept it for what it is? Or are they going to apply their own knowledge to the situation and assume that the person must be asking for something very important because they know how hard it is for them to ask in that situation? Can you see how this disconnect can create strife in the workplace because different values are being applied to something as simple as a request for help? Now you can see the undertones of the earlier conversation about saying “no” to people that constantly ask for things.

How To Say Yes

How do we agree to things then? If we’re trying to get things accomplished we need to be able to ask for help or tell our coworkers we need them to do something. How do we say “yes” and make sure that everyone involved knows that we are doing what we can to make it happen? How do we avoid being overwhelmed?

First, don’t just agree to make people happy. This is the number one issue that needs to be resolved in the workplace. It’s one that starts early on in our careers. We need to put limits on what we’re going to agree to do in order to keep from not having any boundaries whatsoever. Imagine a junior admin or a new hire constantly agreeing to work on things or come in on the weekends to do cutovers and the like. Does that style of work appeal to you? Do you think it’s something that show initiative and desire? If you’ve been in your role for a while do you think it’s a good thing to come in on the weekends? Or does it sound more like this person needs to have a little more work life balance?

If you agree to do things because you’re trying to make your boss happy or show your value to the organization you’re setting yourself up for eventual failure. Good managers and leaders don’t want robots that have zero personal time. They want good employees that know when they’re reaching their limits and can respectfully and responsibly decline things that would push them over the edge. When you agree to do something outside the scope of your job or perform extra work, make sure that the person you’re talking to understands that it’s outside the norm for you. If you tell them that this isn’t normally part of your role but you’re doing it to learn or that you’re helping someone out that asked you to come in for a cutover you’re setting the expectation that there is a purpose behind what you’re doing and not just that you agree to anything you’re told.

Second, you need to help people understand what is going on with what you’re doing. If an overworked colleague comes to you to ask you for help with something and you’re overworked too you’re not going to be able to provide them with much help or support. For those out there that think an outright refusal is a bad thing, like me present you with the following statement to clarify what’s going on:

What I need to make my answer “yes” is…

In essence, you’re telling the person that you want to agree to do what they’re asking but you need them to understand what’s going on beyond just agreeing. You’re not putting conditions on your answer so much as you’re telling them what you’re involved with and what needs to change in order to help them out. You’re informing them of the roadblocks that are keeping you from helping. That’s responsible in my book. While I’m sure there are people that will say it feels selfish to phrase answers like that you also have to see that you’re not saying “no” without providing context. You’re telling them you do want to help but that you need these other things to go a certain way too.

Third, you need to make sure you keep track of what happens after you agree. Does the job need to be done frequently and you always get asked to do it? Is it a one-time thing never to be seen or heard from again? Are you recognized for your effort? Even if it’s just a simple “thank you”? It sounds silly to keep track of things like this but it’s important because it provides data for you about how often you’re being pulled away to do other things. If this is a recurring task that your manager is asking you to do then it needs to be included in your job role. If it’s something that gets asked of you all the time and no one ever knows what you’re doing then you need to find out why.

Documenting your extra tasks will help you understand who is always coming to you for help and let you do something to reduce that. Do they need additional training? Are they being tasked with something that someone else should be handling? Do they just have a habit of asking you to help them with things because they’re overwhelmed too? Or, in a more negative light, are they making you do the work so they can take the credit? These are all questions that can only be answered when you have data. If you just have it in your head that you’re always helping a particular coworker or it feels like you’re always getting a phone call to run a particular report for someone you need to keep track of it so you can speak with confidence when it comes up.


Tom’s Take

There’s a lot of effort that goes into agreeing to do something for someone outside of what you normally do at work. It is true that you can’t say “no” to every request. However, you can agree in such a way as to help people understand what you’re working on and under what conditions you will be able to help. Again, I’m pretty sure there are those in the community that will tell me that I’m being prickly when I say that you need to put conditions on your agreement but you also have to see that saying yes to everything without taking your own situation into account is just as bad as saying no to things. Either you’re going to be seen as the person with no boundaries that will just do anything or you’re going to get so overwhelmed with work that you don’t get anything done and you end up in the same mess you’d be if you’d said no.

The Silver Lining of Cisco Live

Cisco Live 2022 Attendees by the big sign

Cisco Live was last week and it was an event full of both relief and worry. Having not seen any of my friends and colleagues during the Geek Summer Camp for since 2019 I was excitedly anticipating how things would go this year. While I was thrilled to see everyone in real life again there were also challenges that presented themselves by the end of the event that we need to discuss as well.

I could spend volumes detailing every little thing that went on but no one really wants to read that kind of discussion. I’ll just summarize some the stuff that I liked, some of it that I didn’t, and some bigger things that everyone needs to think about.

What Worked for Me

I was happy to once more be a part of the CCIE Advisory Council. We have been meeting via Webex for the entire pandemic but there’s just something about being in a room together that fosters conversation and sharing. The ideas that we discussed are going to have a positive impact on the program as we look at what the future of certifications will be. There’s a lot more to this topic than I can cover in just a quick summary paragraph.

I was a bit confused about the Social Media Hub hours on Sunday, so I resurrected my original tweet about meeting people right outside registration:

I had lots of people stop by that morning and say hello. It warmed my heart to see everyone before the conference even started. Thankfully, the Cisco Live social team came out to tell me that you could get to the Social Media Hub even though the show floor wasn’t open yet. I went in and grabbed a comfy chair to await the opening tweetup.

The tweetup itself was a good one. Lots of new faces means lots of people that are getting introduced to the social side of Cisco. That means the community is going to continue to grow and prosper. One point of weirdness for me was when people would introduce me to their friends and such by pointing at the Social Media Hub and saying, “Tom is the reason we have all this.” While that’s technically true it still makes me feel weird because the community it was keeps driving Cisco Live forward. No one person defines it for everyone else.

I enjoyed the layout of the World of Solutions this year because I wasn’t packed in with everyone else elbowing my way through crowded alleys trying to visit a booth. It felt like Cisco put some thought into having ample space for people to spread out instead of trying to maximize space usage. I know that this is partially a result of the COVID pandemic (which we’ll cover more of in a bit) but I wouldn’t be sad to see this layout stick around for a few more years. Less crowded means better conversations.

The keynote was fun for me, mostly because of where I enjoyed watching it. We put together a watch party for the Tech Field Day Extra delegates and it was more fun than I realized. We were able to react live to the presentation without fear of making a calamitous noise in the arena. I had forgotten how much fun the MST3K style of keynote commentary could be.

Lastly, the social media team knocked it out of the park. They were on top of the tweets and answering questions throughout the event. I have some issues with the social media stuff in general but the team did a top notch job. They were funny and enjoyed bantering back and forth with everyone. Social media is hard and doing it as a job is even harder. I just hope we didn’t scar anyone with our tweets.

What I Was Concerned About

Not everything is perfect at events. As someone that runs them for a living I can tell you little things go wrong all the time and need to be addressed. Here are some of the things that happened that made me take a few notes.

The communication across the whole event felt a bit rushed. Like certain things were announced at the last minute or were only announced in certain places. Nailing down the best way to share information is always difficult but when in doubt you need to share it everywhere. If you have access to social media, email, digital signage, and other avenues use them all. It’s better to overshare and remove doubt than undershare and end up fielding questions anyway.

There was some grumbling about the way that some of the social media aspects were handled this year. I think that sentence gets typed every year. Some of it comes down to the focus that stakeholders want to put on certain aspects of the event. If they want more video content that’s going to favor folks that are comfortable recording videos. If they want more long-form written items that naturally prioritizes those that are good at writing. No one is ever going to find the perfect mix but, again, communication is key. If we know what you want to see we can help make more of it.

The other thing that annoys me a bit, specifically about Las Vegas, is the land rush of sponsored parties. On Monday evening I was walking back to the Luxor to my room to drop my backpack and more than half the restaurants and bars I walked past all had banners out front and signs stating they were closed for a special event or booked until a certain time. While I appreciate that the sponsors of the event are willing to go out of their way to spend money and entice attendees to go to their party and hear about how awesome their products are it also creates an artificial crunch for other things. If half the bars are closed then the other half have to pick up the remainder of the hungry people. That means that a half-full exclusive party causes a two-hour wait at a restaurant next door. While this is nothing new in the conference community the lack of other options at the south end of the Las Vegas strip means you’re pretty much stuck taking a taxi to another hotel if you don’t want to wait to have a burger or pizza. In full transparency one of those parties on Monday was one that I attended for the Cisco Champions program but there were also two other parties booked in Ri Ra that night concurrently.

What We Should All Be Asking

Now it’s time for the elephant in the convention center. The reason why we haven’t had an in-person Cisco Live in three years is COVID. We were locked down during the pandemic and conference organizers erred on the side of caution in 2021. 2022 was a hopeful year and many conferences were back to being live events. RSA happened in San Francisco the week before Cisco Live. There were thousands of people there and a reported 16,000 people at Cisco Live.

The reports coming out of Cisco Live were that a lot of people tested positive for COVID after returning home. Cisco had a strict policy of requiring proof of vaccination to attend. Yet people were testing positive as early as Sunday before the conference even started. The cases started rising throughout the week and by the time folks got home on Thursday evening or Friday my Twitter feed was full of friends and colleagues that came back with the extra strength conference crud.

Thankfully no one has been seriously affected as of this writing. Most everyone that I spoke with has said they feel like they have a cold and are tired but are powering through and should be clear to leave quarantine at home by today. I, amazingly, managed to avoid getting infected. I tested every day and each time it came back clear. I’m not actually sure how I managed to do that, as I wasn’t wearing a mask like I really should have been and I was around people for most of the day. I could attribute it to luck but the logical side of my brain says it’s more likely that I caught it sometime in May and didn’t realize it so my body had the latest antibody patch to keep me from coming down with it.

Between RSA and Cisco Live there are a lot of people asking questions about how in-person conferences of size are going to happen in the future with COVID being a concern. RSA was tagged as a “super spreader” event. Cisco Live is on the verge of being one as well. There are lots of questions that need to be asked. Can a conference ensure the safety of the attendees? Are there measures that should be mandatory instead of encouraged? What value do we get from face-to-face interaction? And will the next event see fewer people now that we know what happens when we get a lot of them in one place?


Tom’s Take

I could go on and on about Cisco Live but the important thing is that it happened. No last minute cancelations. No massive outbreaks leading to serious health problems. We all went and enjoyed the event, even if the result was coming home to quarantine. I went fully expecting to get infected and I didn’t. Maybe I should have done it a little differently but I think a lot of people are saying the same thing now. I hope that Cisco and other companies are encouraged by the results and continue to have in-person events going forward. Not everyone is going to attend for a variety of reasons. But having the option to go means building back the community that has kept us going strong through difficult times. And that’s a reason to see a silver lining.

Practice Until You Can’t Get It Wrong

One of the things that I spend a lot of my time doing it teaching and training. Not the deeply technical stuff like any one of training programs out there or even the legion of folks that are doing entry-level education on sites like Youtube. Instead, I spend a lot of my time bringing new technologies to the fore and discussing how they impact everyone. I also spend a lot of time with youth and teaching them skills.

One of the things that I’ve learned over the years is that it’s important to not only learn something but to reinforce it as well. How much we practice is just as important as how we learn. We’re all a little guilty of doing things just enough to be proficient without truly mastering a skill.

Hours of Fun

You may have heard of the rule proposed by Malcolm Gladwell that it takes 10,000 hours to become an expert at something. There’s been a lot of research debunking this “rule of thumb”. In fact it turns out that the way you practice and your predisposition to how you learn has a lot do to with the process as well.

When I’m teaching youth, I see them start a new skill and keep going until they get their first success. It could be tying a knot or setting up a tent or some other basic skill. Usually, with whatever it is, they get it right and then decide they are proficient in the skill. And that’s the end of it until they need to be tested on it or something forces them to use it later.

For me, the proficiency aspect of basic skills is maddening. We teach people to do things like tying knots or programming switch ports but we don’t encourage them to keep practicing. We accept that proficiency is enough. Worse yet, we hope that the way they will gain expertise is by repetition of the skill. We don’t set the expectation of continued practice.

That’s where the offhanded Gladwell comment above really comes from. The length of time may have been completely arbitrary but the reality is that you can’t really master something until you’ve done it enough that the skill becomes second nature. Imagine someone riding a bicycle for the first time. If they stopped when they were able to pedal the bike they’d never be able to ride it well enough to maneuver in traffic.

Likewise, we can’t rely on simple proficiency for other tasks either. If we just accept that an operations person just learns VLAN configuration once and then we hope they’ll know it well enough that they can do it again later we’re going to either be frustrated when they have to keep looking up the commands for the task or, worse yet, when they bring down the network because they didn’t remember that you needed to use the add keyword on a trunk port and they wipe out a chunk of the network core.

Right vs. Wrong

For all those reasons above I ask my students to take things a little further. Rather than just doing something until you have an initial success I ask them to practice until they have it ingrained into their motor pathways. Put more simply:

Don’t practice until you get it right. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.

The shift in thinking helps people understand the importance of repeated practice. Getting it right is one thing. Understanding all the possible ways something can be done or every conceivable situation is something entirely different. Sure, you can configure a VLAN. Can you do it on every switch? Do you know what order the commands need to be done in? What happens if you switch them? Do you know what happens when you enable two contradictory features?

Obviously there are things you’re not going to need to practice this much all the time. One of my favorites is the people in CCIE study groups that spend way more time working on things like BGP leak maps or the various ways that one could configure QOS on a frame relay circuit. Are these important things to know? Yes. Are they more important to know than basic layer 2/3 protocols or the interactions of OSPF and BGP when redistributing? No.


Tom’s Take

When I was younger, I watched the Real Ghostbusters cartoon. One of the episodes featured Winston asking Egon if he could read Summerian. His response? “In my sleep, underwater, and in the dark. Of course I can read Summerian.”

Practice the basics until you understand them. Don’t miss a beat and make sure you have what you need. But don’t stop there. Keep going until you can’t possibly forget how to do something. That’s how you know you’ve mastered it. In your sleep, underwater, and in dark. Practice until you can’t get it wrong.

Friday Thoughts Pre-Cisco Live

It’s weird to think that I’m headed out to Cisco Live for the first time since 2019. The in-person parts of Cisco Live have been sorely missed during the pandemic. I know it was necessary all around but I didn’t realize how much I enjoyed being around others and learning from the community until I wasn’t able to do it for an extended period of time.

Now we’re back in Las Vegas and ready to take part in something that has been missed. I’ve got a busy lineup of meetings with the CCIE Advisory Council and Tech Field Day Extra but that doesn’t mean I’m not going to try and have a little fun along the way. And yes, before you ask, I’m going to get the airbrush tattoo again if they brought the artist back. It’s a tradition as old as my CCIE at this point.

What else am I interested in?

  • I’m curious to see how Cisco responds to their last disappointing quarter. Are they going to tell us that it was supply chain? Are they going to double down on the software transition? And how much of the purchasing that happened was pull through? Does that mean the next few quarters are going to be down for Cisco?
  • With the drive to get more and more revenue from non-hardware sources, where does that leave the partners of Cisco? Is there still a space for companies to create solutions to work with aspects that Cisco doesn’t do well? Or will they find themselves in a Sherlock situation eventually?
  • I’m cautiously optimistic that a successful conference will mean more of the same going forward. I know there’s going to be reports of COVID coming out of Vegas because there’s no way to have a group that big together and be 100% free. If there is a big issue with rates skyrocketing after a combined two weeks of RSA and Cisco Live it will force companies to rethink a return to conference season.

Tom’s Take

If you’re in Vegas next week I hope to see you around! Even if it’s just in passing in the hallway stop me and say hello. It’s been far too long since we’ve interacted as a group and I want to hear how things have been going. For those that aren’t going to go make sure to stay tuned for my recap.

The Tyranny of Technical Debt, Numerically

A Candlestick Phone (image courtesy of WIkipedia)

This week on the Gestalt IT Rundown, I talked about the plan by Let’s Encrypt to reuse some reserved IP address space. I’ve talked about this before and I said it was a bad idea then for a lot of reasons, mostly related to the fact that modern operating systems are coded not to allow 240/4 as a valid address space, for example. Yes, I realize that when the address space was codified back in the early days of the Internet that decisions were made to organize things and we “lost” a lot of addresses for experimental reasons. However, this is not the only time this has happened. Nor is it the largest example. For that, we need to talk about the device that you’re very likely reading this post on right now: your phone.

By the Numbers

We’re going to be referring to the North American Numbering Plan (NANP) in this post, so my non-US readers are going to want to click that link to understand how phone numbering works in the US. The NANP was devised back in the 1940s by AT&T as a way to assign numbers to the telephone exchanges so they were easy to contact. The first big decision that was made was to disallow a 1 or a 0 digit at the start of the prefix code. On a pulse dialing system that sends electrical pulses instead of the tones we associate with DTMF the error rate for having a 1 as the first digit was pretty high. It was generally ignored by the equipment. A 0 was used as the signal to a switchboard operator to get assistance. So the decision was made to restrict the 1 and the 0 for technical reasons. That’s the first technical debt choice that was made.

Next, the decision was made to make it easier for the CO switchboard operators to memorize numbers using mnemonics. That meant assigning letters to the numbers on the phone rotary dial (later keypad). Every number got three letters, leaving out Q and Z because they’re weird. Every number, that is, except 1 and 0. Because they weren’t used as the start of a prefix code they didn’t get letters assigned as noted above. Every telephone exchange was named based on the numerical prefix, which could have a 0 or a 1 in the first two digits. For example, the exchanges that started with 47x would be named using a letter from the 4 followed by a digit from the 7. Those words started with GR, such as “GRanite”, GReenwood”, and so on. it was handy to remember those as long as the telephone system didn’t get too big. If you ever watch an old movie from the 50s and hear someone asking to talk to a person whose number is KLondike5-6000 that’s why. We’ll come back to KLondike in a minute. The use of words instead of number was slowly phased out starting in 1958 because it was just easy for people to use nothing but numbers.

So what about dialing outside of your local exchange? Well, for that you need an area code right? But that area code looks just like a prefix code. How can you tell someone that you want to dial a different state? Well, AT&T came up with an interesting rule there. Remember how no prefix code started with a 0 or a 1? AT&T said that area codes MUST have a 0 or a 1 as the middle number. That organization allowed for the switchboard operator or signaling equipment to know that the first three digit code was an area code, followed by seven digits for the prefix and handset number. Simple, right? Combined with using the 1 digit to signal a long-distance interchange call you had a system that worked well for a number of years. Almost fifty, in fact, from 1947 all the way to 1995.

What happened in 1995? The telephone administrators realized they were going to run out of room given the explosion of phone numbers. The phone companies, now more than just AT&T, realized all the way back in the 1960s that growth would eventually lead to them needing to do away with the rules about restricting the middle digit of an area code to a 1 or a 0. That’s why area codes created after 1995 have middle digits in the 2-9 range. Thanks to things like mobile phones we doubled or tripled the amount of phone numbers we were going to need. Which meant tearing up all those careful plans about how to use the numbers that were created back in the 1940s to solve technical challenges.

To The Klondike

What about that KLondike number I mentioned earlier? Well, KL is 55 on the dial/keypad, so a KLondike5 number actually starts with 555. Most movie buffs will tell you that any number that has a 555 in the prefix code is a fake number since that’s what you hear in movies all the time. Originally these number were assigned to local exchanges only and used for testing purposes, except for 555-1212 which is a universal directory assistance number in every area code. In 1994, people realized that there were a huge amount of numbers that could be added to the NANP pool by reclaiming those test numbers.

However, if someone gave you a 555 number in a business setting or at a bar or club, how likely would you be to say that it was a fake or invalid number? Likely pretty high given the preponderance of usage in film. In fact, 555-0100 through 555-0199 were still set aside for “fake” number or entertainment purposes, not unlike 192.0.2.0/24 being reserved for documentation purposes.

The 555-XXXX number range is the perfect example of why a plan like Let’s Encrypt and their suggestion to reclaim the space is going to ultimately fail. You’re going to have to do a significant amount of programming to get every operating system to not immediately reject 240/4 as invalid or not immediately assume 127/8 is a loopback address. Because those decisions were made long ago, relatively speaking, and are going to take time and effort to undo. Remember that AT&T knew they were going to need to change area code rules back in the 1960s and it still took 30 years to put it into practice.

Moreover, the plans by Let’s Encrypt and others seeking to implement the Schoen draft in the IETF are ignoring a very simple truth. If we’re going to spend all this time and energy rewriting half the networking stacks in use today, why aren’t we using that energy to implement IPv6 support universally instead? It’s already a requirement if you interface with the US federal government. Why are we going to spend so much time fixing a problem we know is broken and not scalable in the future? Is it because we’re holding on to some idea from the past the IP addresses should be four octets? Is it because we want to exhaust every possible resource before being dragged into the IPv6 future? Or is it because after all these years we don’t want to admit that a better solution exists and we’re just ready to move to the next version of IP after IPv6 and we don’t want to say it out loud?


Tom’s Take

Technical debt is the result of decisions we made at the time to do what needed to be done. It’s not malicious or even petty. It’s usually what had to happen and now we have to live with it. Instead of looking at technical debt as a crushing weight we need to decide how to best fix it when necessary. Like the NANP changes we can modify things to make them work better. However, we also need to examine how much work we’re doing to perpetuate something that needs to be rewritten and why we choose do it the way we do. Phone numbers are something that are going to persist for along time. IP addresses aren’t. Let’s fix the problem the right way instead of the comfortable way.