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.

Failure Is Fine, Learning Is Mandatory

“Failure is a harsh teacher because it gives the test first and the lesson afterward.” — Vernon Law

I’m seeing a thread going around on Twitter today that is encouraging people to share their stories of failure in their career. Maybe it was a time they created a security hole in a huge application. Perhaps it was creating a routing loop in a global corporation. Or maybe it was something as simple as getting confused about two mailboxes and deleting the wrong one and realizing your mail platform doesn’t have undelete functionality.

We fail all the time. We try our hardest and whatever happens isn’t what we want. Some of those that fail just give up and assume that juggling isn’t for them or that they can never do a handstand. Others keep persevering through the pain and challenge and eventually succeed because they learn what they need to know in order to complete their tasks. Failure is common.

What is different is how we process the learning. Some people repeat the same mistakes over and over again because they never learn from them. In a professional setting, toggling the wrong switch when you create someone’s new account has a very low learning potential because it doesn’t affect you down the road. If you accidentally check a box that requires them to change their password every week you’re not going to care because it’s not on your account. However, if the person you do that to has some kind of power to make you switch it back or if the option puts your job in jeopardy you’re going to learn very quickly to change your behavior.

Object Failure

Here’s a quick one that illustrates how the motivation to learn from failure sometimes needs to be more than just “oops, I screwed up”. I’ll make it a bullet point list to save time:

  • Installed new phone system for school district
  • Used MGCP as the control protocol
  • Need to solve a PRI caller ID issue at the middle school
  • Gateway is at the high school
  • Need to see all the call in the system
  • Type debug mgcp packet detail in a telnet session
  • A. Telnet. Session.
  • Router locks up tight and crashes
  • Hear receptionist from the other room say, “Did you just hang up on me?”
  • Panic
  • Panic some more
  • Jump in my car and break a couple of laws getting across town to restart router that I’m locked out of
  • Panic a lot in the five minutes it takes to reboot and reassociate with CallManager
  • Swear I will never do that again

Yes, I did the noob CCIE thing of debugging packets on a processing device in production because I underestimated the power of phone calls as well as my own stupidity. I got better!

But I promise that if I’d have done this and it would have shut down one phone call or caused an issue for one small remote site I wouldn’t have leaned a lesson. I might even still be doing that today to look at issues. The key here is that I shut down call processing for the entire school district for 20 minutes at the end of the school day. You have no idea how many elementary school parents call the front office at the end of the day. I know now.

Lessons have more impact with stress. It’s something we see in a lot of situations where we train people about how to behavior in high pressure situations. I once witnessed a car accident right in front of me on a busy highway and it took my brain almost ten seconds to process that I needed to call emergency services (911 in the US) even though I had spent the last four years programming that dial peer into phone systems and dialing it for Calling Line ID verification. I’d practiced calling 911 for years and when I had to do it for real I almost forgot what to do. We have to know how people are going to react under stress. Or at least anticipate how people are going to behave. Which is why I always configured 9.911 as a dial peer.

Lessons Learned

The other important thing about failure is that you have to take stock of what you learn in the post-mortem. Even if it’s just an exercise you do for yourself. As soon as you realize you made a mistake you need to figure out how to learn from it and prevent that problem again. And don’t just say to yourself, “I’m never doing that again!” You need to think about what caused the issue and how you can ingrain the learning process into your brain.

Maybe it’s something simple like creating a command alias to prevent you from making the wrong typo again and deleting a file system. Maybe it’s forcing yourself to read popup dialog boxes as you click through the system to make sure you’re deleting the right file or formatting the right disk. Someone I used to work with would write down the name of the thing he was deleting and hold it up to the screen before he committed the command to be sure they matched. I never asked what brought that about but I’m sure it was a ton of stress.

Tom’s Take

I screw up. More often than even I realize. I try to learn as much as I can when I’m sifting through the ashes. Maybe it’s figuring out how I went wrong. Perhaps it’s learning why the thing I wanted to do didn’t work the way I wanted it to. It could even be as simple as writing down the steps I took to know where I went wrong and sharing that info with a bunch of strangers on the Internet to keep me from making the same mistake again. As long as you learn something you haven’t failed completely. And if you manage to avoid making the exact same mistake again then you haven’t failed at all.

Eventually Secure?

I have a Disney+ account. I have kids and I like Star Wars, so it made sense. I got it all set up the day it came out and started binge watching the Mandalorian. However, in my haste to get things up and running I reused an old password instead of practicing good hygiene. As the titular character might scold me, “This is not the way.” I didn’t think anything about it until I got a notification that someone from New Jersey logged into my account.

I panicked and reset my password like a good security person should have done in the first place. I waited for the usual complaints that people had been logged out of the app and prepared to log everyone in again and figure out how to remove my New Jersey interloper. Imagine my surprise when no one came to ask me to turn Phineas and Ferb back on. Imagine my further surprise when I looked in the app and on the Disney+ website and couldn’t find a way to see which devices were logged in to this account. Nor could I find a way to disconnect a rogue device as I could with Netflix or Hulu.

I later found out that this functionality exists but you have to call the Disney+ support team to make it happen. I also have no doubts that the functionality will eventually come to the app as more and more people are sharing account information so they can binge watch Clone Wars. However, this eventual security planning has me a bit concerned. And that concern extends beyond Mice and Mandalorians.

Minimum Secure Product

If you’re figuring out how to secure your newest application or a new building or even just a new user, you first have to figure out what “secure” looks like. If you have trouble figuring that out, all you need to do is look at your closest competitor. They will usually have a good baseline of the security and accessibility features you should have.

Maybe it’s basic device and user controls like the Disney+ example above. Maybe it’s encryption of your traffic end-to-end, as Zoom learned a couple of weeks ago. Or maybe it’s something as simple as ensuring that you don’t have a hard-coded backdoor password for SSH, like Fortinet remembered earlier this year. The real point is that you can survey the landscape and figure out what you need to do to make your product or app meet a minimum standard.

On the extremely off-chance that you’re developing something new and unique and never-before-seen in the world, you have a different problem. For one, you need to chill on the marketing. Maybe you’re using something in a novel and different way. But unless you’ve developed psychic powers or anti-gravity boosters or maybe teleportation you haven’t come up with anything completely unique. Secondly, you still have some references to draw on. You can look for similar things and use similar security controls.

If your teleport requires a login by a qualified person to operate you should look at login security for other industries that are similar to determine what is appropriate. Maybe it’s like a medical facility where you have two-factor authentication (2FA) with smart cards or tokens as well as passwords or biometrics. Maybe it’s a lockout system with two operators required to engage the mechanism so someone’s arm doesn’t actually get teleported away without the rest of them. Even if your teleport produces massive amounts of logs you should keep them lest someone show up on the other pad with a different color hair than when they left. Those logs may be different from anything ever seen before, but even Airbus knows how to store the flight data from every A380 flight.

Security isn’t a hard problem. It’s a series of challenges that must be overcome. All of them are rooted in common sense and discovery. Sure, you may not know all the problems right now. But you know what they look like in general and you also know what the outcome should look like. Common sense comes into play when you start thinking like a bad actor. If I were able to get into this app, what would I want to do? Maybe I want to sign up for the all-inclusive package and not get a confirmation sent to an account. So put a control in place that makes you confirm that. Sure, it reduces the likelihood that someone is going to sign up for something without realizing what they’ve done. But the side effect is that you also have happier customers because they were stopped from doing something they may not have wanted to do. Your security controls served a double purpose.

Tom’s Take

Ultimately, security should be about preventing bad or unwanted outcomes. Theft, destruction, and impersonation are all undesired outcomes of something. If your platform doesn’t protect against those you are not secure. If your process requires intervention to make those outcomes happen you’re not there yet. Disney+ could have launched with device reports and the ability to force logoff after password change. But the developers were focused on other things. It’s time for developers to learn how to examine what the minimum requirements are to be secure and ensure they’re included in the process along the way. We shouldn’t have to hope that we might one day become eventually secure.

Creating Conspicuously Compelling Content

It’s funny how little things change in the middle of big, world changing experiences. I’ve noticed that my daily blog viewership has gone down, as have many other folks I’ve talked to. The number of people reading has been reduced for some reason. However the number of video views of content on other platforms like Youtube has gone up dramatically. It’s almost like the people that were reading because they wanted to get a quick digest now have the free time to watch a whole video on a topic.

I got on the bandwagon too, recently publishing my first episode of Tomversations this week. I’ve also talked to several friends that are either starting or restarting a podcast. The gold mine for content creation has opened for business. However, I still hear the same refrains about content that I’ve heard for years when I talk about writing:

  • “I don’t have anything to say!”
  • “It’s hard to write things down!”
  • “Isn’t it easier to just talk about stuff?”

These are all valid questions, no matter what medium you’re developing for. But let me give you a roadmap to take those objections, turn them on their heads, and be able to create any kind of content you want to produce. And yes, because you’re reading this instead of watching it, be prepared to write just a little. I promise it will pay off.

Writer’s Clearinghouse

You can’t create without ideas, right? You need some way to jot down all the things you think about. Photographers have a saying that the best camera is the one you have with you. I would say that the best note taking device you own is the one you have with you that you use. I know a lot of people that carry pens and little notebooks, like my favorite ones from Field Notes. They think that having a few pieces of paper in their pocket is enough to get their ideas to spring forth from their forehead like an ethereal Athena. Sadly, that’s not the case. If you don’t use your note taking device often you won’t build a habit of using it when you get an idea.

For example, I take notes in a variety of places. One of them is a program called Drafts. I’ve recently started using it to corral all my random ideas. Thoughts about posts. Story outlines. Scripts for videos. You name it. If it think it, it goes in a draft somewhere. It’s like my digital version of The Jones Grail Diary. It’s not organized, but it doesn’t have to be. Just enough reference for me to remember what I was talking about and the main idea. Sometimes I’ll pull out my phone during conversations to take notes. Those drafts are then synced back to my laptop for perusal and consolidation. Whatever tool your using, make sure you use it as soon as you get the idea. If that poor thought escapes into the nether realm of your brain it’s no good to anyone.

And don’t be afraid to jot down the craziest things. No idea is wasted if it’s on paper somewhere. You never know when you’ll create BGP on napkins. Just make sure you have all those papers or drafts in a place where you check them. If not writing something down is bad, writing it down and forgetting to check in on it is just a little bit better, but still bad.

Outline Everything

People think that when they start a conversation or join a podcast recording that magic is just going to happen. The ideas are going to flow and we’re going to have compelling content. The real world couldn’t get any further from the truth. Ideas spring from nowhere, but they grow very slowly. In order to really build around them, you need to nurture then along with some help. And that help usually takes the form of an outline.

Outlines help you plan out your ideas and support them. Remember how we were all taught to write paragraphs in elementary school? Main ideas followed by two or three supporting sentences. It’s basically and reads like formula written by a fourth grader. Guess what? That’s a perfect outline. When I started writing this post in my head, I started with the main ideas and then wrote down supporting ideas. Now that you’re out of high school grammar class you can build around your paragraphs with more than just a detail or two. You can add anecdotes or data or even pictures. And that makes your content nice and supported.

Outlines also help the thinking process. When I record podcasts I have an outline. The Gestalt IT Rundown happens because Rich researches the stories that we riff on. I can make jokes because I know the stories ahead of time. We work on where to put stories because some are better fodder for jokes than others. That’s the outline process. Podcasts are no different no matter how many guests you have. Maybe it’s a one-on-one episode. There’s an outline of the flow of the episode. It may be very detailed to hit all the points. If it’s a community show or discussion, there may be a loose outline designed to give some guardrails to the content. Even a one-sentence main idea for the topic can be and outline if you keep referring your discussion and arguments back to it.

Savage Writing

I know far too many people that treat their first draft like some kind of sacred relic. This is the best thing I’ve ever produced and it can never change from this form. I will pour my effort into it and that’s all I need.

That’s crap.

First drafts are one step removed from outlines and notes. They’re tying things together. Treat them like sketches and not paintings. Don’t be afraid to rearrange, delete, or outright destroy them. There have been many drafts that have been deleted or radically changed by the time I got to the end of the last paragraph. Likewise, there are times when I realize halfway through a conversation that we need to take things in a different direction. The value of being able to change your mind is that you do it when you need to.

Drafts should be massaged and built up to get to a final product. But don’t be afraid to put them on the shelf and let them sit until the time is right. I have dozens of drafts in my archives waiting for more attention, more research, or better timing to be effective. The ideas are sound. The outlines are good. They just need more than I can give right now. Or maybe the topic isn’t quite ready to be discussed at length. What’s important is that the work I’ve done is already waiting for me when I want to come back to it.

Coming back to your work after the fact is an important thing to try if you feel stuck. I’ve been known to walk away from a draft post or script because I need to get my head out of the wagon rut thinking I was in. Forcing myself to do something else or talk to someone to change my way of thinking has done wonders. Coming back to something with fresh eyes and brain cells often makes a huge difference. You can catch little mistakes or realize there’s a better way to state your argument. The time it takes to change your mind for a few minutes probably would have been wasted on doing nothing anyway.

Just Record.

Okay, you’ve jotted down ideas, built your outline, and written a script or a first draft. What do you do now? Well, like my other famous advice, you need to record your thoughts. Just. Record.

Don’t get caught up in things like perfect lighting or audio balance. Don’t freak out if you stammer or someone drives a garbage truck past your recording studio. Just get the thoughts down. Get a feel for how the flow works. Often, you’ll find that you think of changes on the fly. New ways to word things. New supporting ideas that work better for your discussion. I’ve been known to come up with some really great analogies halfway through an explanation that I would never have been able to think of otherwise. You have to get the content down somewhere.

You can always record again. You can always edit mistakes. You can record the intro last and the ending first. You can fix just about anything in post-production after you get the hang of it. The key is that you’re capturing content. Just like writing or outlining or note taking. It’s happening and the content is being created.

Tom’s Take

Content may not be perfect the first time, but neither was the electric light bulb. It’s only through the process of forming things that we can refine them to something that works. Every creative endeavor is rough around the edges. As time goes on, the wear is less apparent as you focus on the good instead of the bad. The errors are less conspicuous than the content you want to share.

BGP Hell Is Other People

If you configure a newsreader to alert you every time someone hijacks a BGP autonomous system (AS), it will probably go off at least once a week. The most recent one was on the first of April courtesy of Rostelecom. But they’re not the only one. They’re just the latest. The incidences of people redirecting BGP, either by accident or by design, are becoming more and more frequent. And as we rely more and more on things like cloud computing and online applications to do our daily work and live our lives, the impact of these hijacks is becoming more and more critical.

Professional-Grade Protocol

BGP isn’t the oldest thing on the Internet. RFC 1105 is the initial draft of Border Gateway Protocol. The version that we use today, BGP4, is documented in RFC 4271. It’s a protocol that has enjoyed a long history of revisions and a reviled history of making networking engineers’ lives difficult. But why is that? How can a routing protocol be so critical and yet obtuse?

My friend Marko Milivojevic famously stated in his CCIE training career that, “BGP isn’t a routing protocol. It’s a policy engine.” When you look at the decisions of BGP in this light it makes a lot more sense. BGP isn’t necessarily concerns with the minutia of figuring out exactly how to get somewhere. Sure, it has a table of prefixes that it uses to make decisions about where to forward packets. Almost every protocol does this. But BGP is different because it’s so customizable.

Have you ever tried to influence a route in RIP or OSPF? It’s not exactly easy. RIP is almost impossible to manipulate outside of things like route poisoning or just turning off interfaces. Sometimes the simplest things are the most hardened. OSPF gives us a lot more knobs to play with, like interface bandwidth and link delay. We can tweak and twerk those values to our heart’s content to make packets flow a certain direction. But we don’t have a lot of influence outside of a specific area for those values. If you’ve ever had to memorize the minutia of OSPF not-so-stubby-areas, ASBRs, and the different between Type 5 and Type 7 LSAs you know that these topics were all but created for certification exams.

But what about BGP? How can you influence routes in BGP? Oh, man! How much time do you have??? We can manipulate things all sorts of ways!

  • Weight the routes to prefer one over another
  • Set LOCAL_PREFERENCE to pick which route to use in a multiple exit system
  • Configure multi-exit discriminator (MED) values
  • AS Path Prepending to reduce the likelihood of a path being chosen
  • Manipulate the underlying routing protocol to make certain routes look more preferred
  • Just change the router ID to something crazy low to break all the other ties in the system

That’s a lot of knobs! Why on earth would you do that to someone? Because professionals need options.

Optional Awfulness

BGP is one of those curious things that seems to be built without guardrails because it’s never used on accident. You’ve probably seen something similar in the real world whenever a person removes a safety feature or modifies a device to increase performance and remove an annoyance designed to slow them down. It could be anything from wrapping a bandana around a safety switch lockout to keep something running to pulling the trigger guard off a nail gun so you don’t keep hitting it with your fingers. Some professionals believe that safety features aren’t keeping them safe as much as they are slowing them down. Something as simple as removing the safety from a pellet gun can have dire consequences in the name of efficiency.

So, how does this apply to our new favorite policy engine that happens to route packets? Well, it applies quite a bit. There is no system of guardrails that keeps you from making dumb choices. Accidentally paste your own AS into the AS Path? That’s going to be a routing decision that is considered. Make a typo for an AS that doesn’t exist in the routing table? That’s going into the formula, too. Announcing to the entire world you have the best path to an AS somewhere on the other side of the world? BGP is happy to send traffic your way.

BGP assumes that professionals are programming it. Which means it’s not going to try and stop you from shooting off your own foot. And because the number of knobs that are exposed by the engine are large and varied you can spend a lot of time trying to troubleshoot just how half of a cloud provider’s traffic came barreling through your network for the last hour. CCIEs spend a lot of time memorizing BGP path selection because every step matters when trying to figure out why BGP is acting up. Likewise, knowing where the knobs are best utilized means knowing how to influence path selection. AS Path prepending is probably the best example of this. If you want to put that AS number in there a hundred times to influence path selection you go for it. Why? Because it’s something you can do. Or, more explicitly, something you aren’t prohibited from doing.

Which leads to the problem of route hijacking. BGP is going to do what you tell it to do because it assumes you’re not trying to do anything nefarious or stupid when you program it. Like an automation script, BGP is going to do whatever it is instructed to do by the policy engine as quickly as possible. Taking out normal propagation delays, BGP will sync things up within a matter of minutes. Maybe a few hours. Which means it’s not hard to watch a mistake cascade through the Internet. Or, in the case of people that are doing less-than-legal things, to watch the fruits of your labors succeed.

BGP isn’t inherently bad any more than claiming a catwalk without a handrail has an evil intent. Yes, the situation you find yourself in is less-than-ideal. Sure, something bad can happen if you screw up or do something you’re not supposed to. But blaming the protocol or the object or the situation is not going to fix the issue. We really only have two options at this point:

  • Better educate our users and engineers about how to use BGP and ensure that only qualified people are able to work on it
  • Create controls in BGP that limit the ability to use certain knobs and options in order to provide more security and reliability options.

Tom’s Take

I’m a proponent of both of those options. We need to ensure that people have the right training. However, we also need to ensure that nefarious actors are locked out and that we are protected from making dumb mistakes or that our errors aren’t propagated at light speed through the dark corners of the Internet. We can’t fix everything wrong with BGP but it’s the best option we have right now. Hellish though it may be, we have to find a way to make a better combination of the protocol and the people that use it.

SD-WAN and Technical Debt

Back during Networking Field Day 22, I was having a fun conversation with Phil Gervasi (@Network_Phil) and Carl Fugate (@CarlFugate) about SD-WAN and innovation. I mentioned that it was fascinating to see how SD-WAN companies kept innovating but that bigger, more established companies that had bought into SD-WAN seemed to be having issues catching up. As our conversation continued I realized that technical debt plays a huge role in startup culture in all factors, not just with SD-WAN. However, SD-WAN is a great example of technical debt to talk about here.

Any Color You Want In Black

Big companies have investments in supply chains. They have products that are designed in a certain way because it’s the least expensive way to develop the project or it involves using technology developed by the company that gives them a competitive advantage. Think about something like the Cisco Nexus 9000-series switches that launched with Cisco ACI. Every one of them came with the Insieme ASIC that was built to accelerate the policy component of ACI. Whether or not you wanted to use ACI or Insieme in your deployment, you were getting the ASIC in the switch.

Policies like this lead to unintentional constraints in development. Think back five years to Cisco’s IWAN solution. It was very much the precursor to SD-WAN. It was a collection of technologies like Performance Routing (PfR), Application Visibility Control (AVC), Policy Based Routing (PBR), and Network Based Application Recognition (NBAR). If that alphabet soup of acronyms makes you break in hives, you’re not alone. Cisco IWAN was a platform very much market by potential and complexity.

Let’s step back and ask ourselves an important question: “Why?” Why was IWAN so complicated? Why was IWAN hard to deploy? Why did IWAN fail to capture a lot of market share and ride the wave that eventually became SD-WAN? Looking back, a lot of the choices that were made that eventually doomed IWAN can come down to existing technical debt. Cisco is a company that makes design decisions based on what they’ve been doing for a while.

I’m sure that the design criteria for IWAN came down to two points:

  1. It needs to run on IOS.
  2. It needs to be an ISR router.

That doesn’t sound like much. But imagine the constraints you run into with just those two limitations. You have a hardware platform that may not be suited for the kind of work you want to do. Maybe you want to take advantage of x86 chipset acceleration. Too bad. You have to run what’s in the ISR. Which means it could be underpowered. Or incapable of doing things like crypto acceleration for VPNs, which is important for building a mesh of encrypted tunnels. Or maybe you need some flexibility to build a better detection platform for applications. Except you have to use IOS. Which uses NBAR. And anything you write to extend NBAR has to run on their platforms going forward. Which means you need to account for every possible permutation of hardware that IOS runs on. Which is problematic at best.

See how technical debt can creep in from the most simplistic of sources? All we wanted to do was build a platform to connect WANs together easily. Now we’re mired in a years-old hardware choice and an aging software platform that can’t help us do what needs to be done. Is it any wonder why IWAN didn’t succeed in the original form? Or why so many people involved with the first generation of SD-WAN startups were involved with IWAN, even if just tangentially?

Debt-Free Development

Now, let’s look at a startup like CloudGenix, who was a presenter at Networking Field Day 22 and was recently acquired by Palo Alto Networks. They started off on a different path when they founded the startup. They knew what they wanted to accomplish. They had a vision for what would later be called SD-WAN. But instead of shoehorning it into an existing platform, they had the freedom to build what they wanted.

No need to keep the ISR platform? Great. That means you can build on x86 hardware to make your software more universally deployable on a variety of boxes. Speaking of boxes, using commercial off-the-shelf (COTS) equipment means you can buy some very small devices to run the software. You don’t need a system designed to use ATM modules or T1 connections. If all you little system is ever going to use is Ethernet there’s no reason to include expansion at all. Maybe USB for something like a 4G/LTE modem. But those USB ports are baked into the board already.

A little side note here that came from Olivier Huynh Van of Gluware. You know the USB capabilities on a Cisco ISR? Yeah, the ISR chipset didn’t support USB natively. And it’s almost impossible to find USB that isn’t baked into an x86 board today. So Cisco had to add it to the ISR in a way that wasn’t 100% spec-supported. It’s essentially emulated in the OS. Which is why not every USB drive works in an ISR. Take that for what’s it’s worth.

Back to CloudGenix. Okay, so you have a platform you can build on. And you can build software that can run on any x86 device with Ethernet ports and USB devices. That means your software doesn’t need to do complicated things. It also means there are a lot of methods already out there for programming network operating systems for x86 hardware, such as Intel’s Data Plane Development Kit (DPDK). However CloudGenix chose to build their OS, they didn’t need to build everything completely from scratch. Even if they chose to do it there are still a ton of resources out there to help them get started. Which means you don’t have to restart your development every time you need to add a feature.

Also, the focus on building the functions you want into an OS you can bend to your needs means you don’t need to rely on other teams to build pieces of it. You can build your own GUI. You can make it look however you want. You can also make it operate in a manner that is easiest for your customer base. You don’t need to include every knob or button or bell and whistle. You can expose or hide functions as you wish. Don’t want customers to have tons of control over VPN creation or certificate authentication? You don’t need to worry about the GUI team exposing it without your permission. Simple and easy.

One other benefit of developing on platforms without technical debt? It’s easy to port your software from physical to virtual. CloudGenix was already successful in porting their software to run from physical hardware to the cloud thanks to CloudBlades. Could you imagine trying to get the original Cisco IWAN running in a cloud package for AWS or Azure? If those hives aren’t going crazy right now I’m sure you must have nerves or steel.

Tom’s Take

Technical debt is no joke. Every decision you make has consequences. And they may not be apparent for this generation of products. People you may never meet may have to live with your decisions as they try to build their vision. Sometimes you can work with those constraints. But more often than not brilliant people are going to jump ship and do it on their own. Not everyone is going to succeed. But for those that have the vision and drive and turn out something that works the rewards are legion. And that’s more than enough to pay off any debts, technical or not.

The Bane of Backwards Compatibility

I’m a huge fan of video games. I love playing them, especially on my old consoles from my formative years. The original Nintendo consoles were my childhood friends as much as anything else. By the time I graduated from high school, everyone had started moving toward the Sony Playstation. I didn’t end up buying into that ecosystem as I started college. Instead, I just waited for my brother to pick up a new console and give me his old one.

This meant I was always behind the curve on getting to play the latest games. I was fine with that, since the games I wanted to play were on the old console. The new one didn’t have anything that interested me. And by the time the games that I wanted to play did come out it wouldn’t be long until my brother got a new one anyway. But one thing I kept hearing was that the Playstation was backwards compatible with the old generation of games. I could buy a current console and play most of the older games on it. I wondered how they managed to pull that off since Nintendo never did.

When I was older, I did some research into how they managed to build backwards compatibility into the old consoles. I always assumed it was some kind of translation engine or enhanced capabilities. Instead, I found out it was something much less complicated. For the PS2, the same controller chip from the PS1 was used, which ensured backwards compatibility. For the PS3, they essentially built the guts of a PS2 into the main board. It was about as elegant as you could get. However, later in the life of those consoles, system redesigns made them less compatible. Turns out that it isn’t easy to create backwards compatibility when you redesign things to remove the extra hardware you added.

Bringing It Back To The Old School

Cool story, but what does it have to do with enterprise technology? Well, the odds are good that you’re about to fight a backwards compatibility nightmare on two fronts. The first is with WPA3, the newest security protocol from the Wi-Fi Alliance. WPA3 fixes a lot of holes that were present in the ancient WPA2 and includes options to protect public traffic and secure systems from race conditions and key exchange exploits. You’d think it was designed to be more secure and would take a long time to break right? Well, you’d be wrong. That’s because WPA3 was exploited last year thanks to a vulnerability in the WPA3-Transition mode designed to enhance backwards compatibility.

WPA3-Transition Mode is designed to keep people from needing to upgrade their wireless cards and client software in one fell swoop. It can configure a WPA3 SSID with the ability for WPA2 clients to connect to it without all the new enhanced requirements. Practically, it means you don’t have to run two separate SSIDs for all your devices as you move from older to newer. But practical doesn’t cover the fact that security vulnerabilities exist in the transition mechanism. Enterprising attackers can exploit the weaknesses in the transition setup to crack your security.

It’s not unlike the old vulnerabilities in WPA when it used TKIP. TKIP was found to have a vulnerability that allowed for exploiting. People were advised to upgrade to WPA-AES as soon as possible to prevent this. But if you enabled older non-AES capable clients to connect to your SSIDs for compatibility reasons you invalidated all that extra security. Because AES had to operate in TKIP mode to connect the TKIP clients. And because the newer clients were happy to use TKIP over AES you were stuck using a vulnerable mode. The only real solution was to have a WPA-AES SSID to connect to for your newer secure clients and leave a WPA-TKIP SSID active for the clients that had to use it until they could be upgraded.

4Gs for the Price of 5

The second major area where we’re going see issues with backwards compatibility is with 5G networking. We’re hearing about the move to using 5G everywhere. We’ve no doubt heard by now that 5G is going to replace enterprise wireless or change the way we connect to things. Honestly, I’m not surprised someone has tried to make the claim that 5G can make waffles and coffee yet. But 5G is rife with the same backwards compatibility issues present in enterprise wireless too.

5G is an evolution of the 4G standards. Phones issued today are going to have 4G and 5G radios and the base stations are going to mix the radio types to ensure those phones can connect. Just like any new technology, they’re going to maximize the connectivity of the existing infrastructure and hope that it’s enough to keep things running as they build out the new setup. But by running devices with two radios or having a better connection from the older devices, you’re going to set yourself up to have your new protocol inherently insecure thanks to vulnerabilities in the old versions. It’s already projected that governments are going to take advantage of this for a variety of purposes.

We find ourselves in the same boat as we do with WPA3. Because we have to ensure maximum compatibility, we make sacrifices. We keep two different versions running at the same time, which increases complexity. We even mark a lot of necessary security upgrades as optional in order to keep people from refusing to implement them or fall behind because they don’t understand them1.

The biggest failing for me is that we’re pushing for backwards compatibility and performance over security. We’re not willing to make the hard choices to reduce functionality in order to save our privacy and security. We want things to be backwards compatible so we can buy one device today and have it work on everything. We’ll just make the next one more secure. Or the one after that. Until we realize that we’re still running old 802.11 data rates in our newest protocols because no one bothered to remove them. We have to make hard choices sometimes and sacrifice some compatibility in order to ensure that we’re safe and secure with the newer technology.

Tom’s Take

Backwards compatibility is like the worst kind of nostalgia. I want the old thing but I want it on a new thing that runs faster. I want the glowing warmth of my youth but with the convenience of modern technology. It’s like buying an old sports car. Sure, you get all the look and feel of an old powerful engine. You also lose the safety features of the new body along with the comforts you’ve become accustomed to. You have to make a hard choice. Do you keep the old car original and lose out on what you like to get what you want? Or do you create some kind of hybrid that has exactly what you want and need but isn’t what you started with? It’s a tough choice to make. In the world of technology, there’s no right answer. But we need to remember that every compromise we make for performance can lead to compromises in security.

  1. I’m looking at you, OWE ↩︎

Fast Friday Thoughts on Where We Are

It’s been a crazy week. I know the curse is “May you live in interesting times,” but I’m more than ready for things to be less interesting for a while. It’s going to take some time to adjust to things. From a networking perspective, I have a few things that have sprung up.

  • Video conferencing is now a big thing. Strangely, Cisco couldn’t make video the new phone. But when people are stuck at home now we need to do video again? I get that people have a need to see each other face-to-face. But having worked from home for almost seven years at this point I can tell you video isn’t a necessity. It’s a nice option, but you can get a lot accomplished with video calls and regular emails.
  • Along side this is the fact that the push to put more video out there is causing applications to reach their breaking points. Zoom, which is fairing the best out of all of them so far, had some issues on Thursday morning. Tripling the amount of traffic that’s going out and making it very sensitive to delay and jitter is going expose a lot of flaws in the system.
  • I applaud all of the companies in the last week that have chosen to step out and offer resources to help people work better from home. I also hope that employees and managers use them after this is over to help enable more remote work. Just remember that flexibility has a cost axis as well. Those VPNs and security services and CASBs aren’t going to be free forever. If it makes sense, use it. Otherwise, find something that does.
  • Remember that this is a stressful time for everyone. I work from home all the time. And this week I have been totally exhausted. Try to find a way to keep your sanity. Step outside for air. Take a short break. Look for ways to keep yourself healthy. It’s going to take time for people to adjust to this. It’s going to take time even if you know how to work remotely too.

Tom’s Take

I’m not sure where this is all headed. We’re all still figuring it out. Things won’t look the same six months from now no matter what. But keep working where you can and improving what you do. The value in this shift comes from empowering us to do what we can. If that means cutting back on Netflix during working hours or spending some extra time learning a new skill make it happen and grow as much as you can. We’re going to need that.

I Hate Excellent Questions

I was listening to a recent episode of the Packet Pushers Podcast about SD-WAN and some other stuff. At one point, my good friend Greg Ferro (@EtherealMind) asked the guest something, and the guest replied with, “That’s an excellent question!” Greg replied with, “Of course it was. I only ask excellent questions.” I was walking and laughed out loud harder than I’ve laughed in a long time.

This was also a common theme during Networking Field Day. Everyone was asking “great” or “excellent” questions. I chuckled and told the delegates that it was a canned response that most presenters give today. But then I wondered why all our questions are excellent. And why I hated that response so much.

Can You Define “Excellent”?

The first reason why I think people tend to counter with “excellent” praise is because they are stalling for an answer. It’s a time-honored tradition from spelling bees when you don’t know how to spell the word and you need a few more seconds to figure out if this is one of those “i before e” words or not. I get the purpose of defining something of non-native speaker origin. But defining a simple word? It’s such a recognizable trope that we incorporated some of the fun into a video we did a few years ago at Aruba Atmosphere:

Watching my friends “stall” while they’re trying to figure out how to spell a made up word still cracks me up.

More importantly, in technology this response is designed to help the engineer or tech person spend a few critical seconds formulating their response and matching it to the question that was asked. Even just a second of memorized, practiced response repetition means you can think about how to answer the question without leaving silence.

We live in a world today where silence is bad. We’re so used to hearing noise and other kinds of filler that anything regarded as contemplation or thinking is negative. Instead, we must always be talking and making an audible effort to answer things. Even if it means repeating the same phrases over and over again. It’s bad enough when it’s a pause word. It’s really bad when it’s the same word at the beginning of a sentence for almost an hour. “That’s an excellent question” is quickly becoming the response equivalent of “um” in the vocabulary.

High Praise, Indeed

The other reason why I think people are quick to praise “excellent” questions comes from a bit of social trickery. Sadly, too many sales opportunities descend into an antagonistic relationship where salespeople feel they have to use every trick in the book to separate people from their money. They use tactics designed to inflate egos and make people feel more important so they feel like their making a good decision.

Think about the suspect phrasing here. It’s not a “good” question. Or even a “great” question. It’s almost always an “excellent” question. And I’d argue that the more likely a person is to sell you something, the more likely that person is to remark that all your questions are excellent.

This kind of puffery can be infuriating to people. It’s not unlike the standard “have you lost weight?” opening when you see someone for the first time in a long time. It’s verbal garbage. You don’t believe it. They don’t believe it. It’s rare that people even acknowledge it. And yet, we find ourselves repeating it over and over again. “That’s an excellent question” is ego stroking at its finest.

And the worst part? You’re not praising the person! You’re praising their question. You’re really saying that the words they used were good enough to merit praise. It’s not even that you are praising the person as much as their output. If you really, really, really feel the need to do this, think about doing it in a way that calls out the person asking the question instead:

  • Wow, you’re really paying attention here!
  • Did you read ahead?
  • You’re really getting this.
  • I’m very impressed with your grasp of this topic.

See how each of these responses is designed to work with the person in mind and not just the question? Sure, there s a bit more ego stroking here than with a simple “excellent” question. But if you’re just trying to flatter the person and you don’t even care about the quality of the question why not just sell out all the way? If the point of the response is to make a person feel good about themselves then just go all out.

Tom’s Take

I’m not likely to change the world overnight. Lord knows I’ve lost the battle against GIF and on-premises enough already and those are grammatically correct. The “excellent” question thing is a quirk of speech that isn’t going to just disappear because we bring it to light. People are still going to stall or try to boost the questioner’s ego. They’re still going to fill silence or make people full of themselves. Instead of falling back on the tropes of bygone eras, be a different person next time. Instead of the knee-jerk reaction of excellence, take a moment to think and praise the person asking the question. Then give a solid answer that they need to hear. You’ll find it a lot more effective. In fact, I’d venture to say it’s an excellent strategy.

There Are No More Green Fields

I’ve looked at quite a few pieces of technology in the past few years. Some have addressed massive issues that I had when I was a practicing network engineer. Others have shown me new ways to do things I never thought possible. But one category of technology still baffles me to this day: The technology that assumes greenfield deployment.

For those not familiar, “greenfield” is a term that refers to a project that is built on a site completely from scratch. It originally comes from a day when the project in question was a factory or other capital improvement that was literally being built in a field with green grass growing on top. The alternative to that project was one where something was being built in a location where there was existing infrastructure or other form of site pollution. And, of course because everyone in humanity never gets older than twelve, this is called a “brownfield” site.

Getting back to the technology side of things, let’s talk about greenfield deployments. When was the last time you walked into a building and found zero technology of any kind? Odds are good that’s not the case. Sure, there are some SMBs that have minimal technology. There are a lot of organizations that have just the basics. But the days of walking into a completely empty building and rolling out new PCs, phones, and software loads are gone. So too are the days of zero wireless coverage, no existing networking equipment, and no server hardware.

No matter how big your organization is right now, there is some solution that can get you connected quickly. The number of times that I’ve heard of the office “IT Person” going to a big box store and buying a consumer-grade router to get a couple of MacBooks on the Internet is more than you might think. The need for office phone systems has been supplanted with mobile phones thanks to unlimited minutes and apps that run just about everything now. The infrastructure in the office is now just a wireless router and a subscription to an application suite. If you’re really enterprising you might even have a server or two running in AWS.

What Can Brown Do For Me

The world is brown now. There are no green fields left. Technology has invaded every part of our life. 45% of the world’s population carries a smartphone in their pocket and the number is climbing quickly. Everyone has access to some form of computing device that runs software, whether it’s a phone, PC, laptop, or device in a public place like a library. The Internet is ubiquitous with mobile device data plans and free Wi-Fi springing up in every coffee shop and retail location you can see.

Why then would a company assume there are greenfield deployment opportunities left out there? If you know that companies are going to have some kind of existing infrastructure why would you build a product that assumes otherwise? I understand that when you’re building something that no one has ever seen before that the likelihood of having to replace existing technology is low. But you are still going to need to integrate that exciting new tech with something else, aren’t you?

Building Blocks

Organizations have a mentality of building in phases. We need new capacity in this location so we build it out. Maybe it’s a rack or a pod or a building. The basic idea is the same. We need to add a component so we add it on like it was a Lego brick component. That kind of mentality is helped along by systems that can be deployed quickly in a turnkey fashion. It’s how technology operates today.

But that same turnkey system can become a pariah of technology if it doesn’t interoperate well with the other technology on-site. Build a network fabric that doesn’t play well with others? Your pod deployment is probably going to be a one-off. Build a storage solution that doesn’t interface well with virtual servers? Might not be an additions to that storage unit. Build a backup tool that doesn’t work with cloud storage or volumes? Guess what won’t be getting backed up any time soon?

Developing in a vacuum speeds time to market for sure. But it also tells your customers that you don’t really have much of a plan aside from “we hope you only buy our gear”. Imagine if there was a tire company that released a tire that could only work on a couple of new cars that were just released and not on any other cars on the market. Unless those tires were $2,500 each that company would like go out of business very quickly. Sure, it’s easy to build a high performance tire that only works with those two cars. But what if the people that own those two cars don’t want that tire? Or they don’t want to pay that price for it?

The alternative is to take the extra time and effort to realize that brownfield deployments are the norm now. You can’t hope to build something and not realize people are going to integrate it into their existing infrastructure. It’s reasonable to assume that an enterprise solution is going to replace consumer-grade equipment. It’s also fair to think that a complete solution may or may not replace an existing competing solution. But don’t assume that your technology is going to be deployed somewhere that doesn’t have any technology. Learn how those devices work and figure out how to interface with them. Make it easy for people to manage both the solutions or you may find yourself missing out on a sale.

Tom’s Take

Tom Watson is famous for having said, “There’s a world market for maybe 5 computers.” Of course, he said that almost 80 years ago when computers were in their infancy and the size of a garage. Today, we have computers everywhere. Yet we still see companies that think there’s a market for something that they built that isn’t completely revolutionary. Even with cutting edge technology like AR/VR or ultra mobile computers you still see existing technology as an interface point. It’s time to stop thinking that the world is a verdant field of green just waiting for the right solution to come along. Instead, think of the world as a pile of Lego houses waiting for your solution to be placed right beside it.

Denial of Services as a Service

Hacking isn’t new. If you follow the 2600 Magazine culture of know the name Mitnick or Draper you know that hacking has been a part of systems as long as their have been systems. What has changed in recent years is the malicious aspect of what’s going on in the acts themselves. The pioneers of hacking culture were focused on short term gains or personal exploitation. It was more about proving you could break into a system and getting the side benefit of free phone calls or an untraceable mobile device. Today’s hacking cultures are driven by massive amounts of theft and exploitation of resources to a degree that would make any traditional hacker blush.

It’s much like the difference between petty street crime and “organized” crime. With a patron and a purpose, the organizers of the individual members can coordinate to accomplish a bigger goal than was ever thought possible by the person on the street. Just like a wolf pack or jackals, you can take down a much bigger target with come coordination. I talked a little bit about how the targets were going to start changing almost seven years ago and how we needed to start figuring out how to protect soft targets like critical infrastructure. What I didn’t count on was how effectively people would create systems that can cripple us without total destruction.

Deny, Deny, Deny

During RSA Conference this year, I had a chance to speak briefly with Tom Kellerman of Carbon Black. He’s a great guy and I loved the chance to chat with him about some of the crazy stuff that Carbon Black has been seeing in the wild. He gave me a peek at their 2020 Cybersecurity Report and some of the new findings they’ve been seeing. A couple of things jumped out at me during our discussion though.

The first is that the bad actors that have started pushing attacks toward critical infrastructure have realized that denying that infrastructure to users is just as good as destroying it. Why should I take the time to craft a beautiful and elegant piece of malware like Stuxnet to deny a key piece of SCADA systems when I can just use a cyptolocker to infect all the control boxes for a tenth of the cost? And, if the target does pay up to get things unlocked, just leave them there in a state of shutdown!

A recent episode of the Risky Business podcast highlights this to great effect. A natural gas processing plant system was infected and needed to be cleaned. However, when gas is flowing through the pipelines you can’t just shut off one site to have it cleaned. You have to do a full system shutdown! That meant knocking the entire facility offline for two days to restore one site’s systems. That’s just the tip of the iceberg.

Imagine if you could manage to shut down a hospital like the accidental spanning tree meltdown at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in 2002. Now, imagine a cyptolocker or a wiper that could shut down all the hospitals in California during a virus outbreak. Or maybe one that could infected and wipe out the control systems for all the dams providing power for the Tennessee Valley Authority. Getting worried yet? Because the kinds of people that are targeting these installations don’t care about $5,000 worth of Bitcoin to unlock stuff. They care about causing damage. They want stuff knocked offline. Or someone that organizes them does. And the end goal is the same: chaos. It doesn’t matter if the system is out because of the malware or down for days or weeks to clean it. The people looking to benefit from the chaos win no matter what.

Money, Money, Money

The biggest key to this kind of attack is the same as it always has been. If you want to know where the problems are coming from, follow the money. In the past, it was following the money to the people that are getting paid to do the attacks. Today, it’s more about following the money to the people that make the money from these kinds of attacks. It’s not enough to get Bitcoin or some other amount of peanuts in an untraceable wallet. If you can do something that manipulates global futures markets or causes fluctuations in commodity prices on the order of hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars you suddenly don’t care about whether or not some company’s insurance is going to pay out to unlock their HR files.

Think about it in the most simple terms. If I could pay someone to shut down half the refineries in the US for a month to spike oil prices for my own ends would that be worth paying a few thousand dollars to a hacking team to pull off? Better yet, if that same hacking team was now under my “protection” from retaliation from the target, do you think they’d continue to work for me to ensure that they couldn’t be caught in the future? Sure, go ahead and freelance when you want. Just don’t attack my targets and be on-call when I need something big done. It’s not unlike all those crazy spy movies where a government agency keeps a Rolodex full of assassins on tap just in case.

Tom’s Take

The thought of what would happen in a modern unrestricted war scares me. Even 4-5 years from now would be a massive problem. We don’t secure things from the kind of determined attackers that can cause mass chaos. Let’s just shut down all the autonomous cars or connected vehicles in NY and CA. Let’s crash all the hospital MRI machines or shut down all the power plants in the US for a day or four. That’s the kind of coordination that can really upset the balance of power in a conflict. And we’re already starting to see that kind of impact with freelance groups. You don’t need a war to deny access to a service. Sometimes you just need to hire it out to the right people for the right price.