Ten Years of Cisco Live – Community Matters Most of All

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Hey! I made the sign pic this year!

I’ve had a week to get over my Cisco Live hangover this year. I’ve been going to Cisco Live for ten years and been involved in the social community for five of them. And I couldn’t be prouder of what I’ve seen. As the picture above shows, the community is growing by leaps and bounds.

People Are What Matter

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I was asked many, many times about Tom’s Corner. What was it? Why was it important? Did you really start it? The real answer is that I’m a bit curious. I want to meet people. I want to talk to them and learn their stories. I want to understand what drives people to learn about networking or wireless or fax machines. Talking to a person is one of the best parts of my job, whether it be my Bruce Wayne day job or my Batman night job.

Social media helps us all stay in touch when we aren’t face-to-face, but meeting people in real life is as important too. You know who likes to hug. You find out who tells good stories. Little things matter like finding out how tall someone is in real life. You don’t get that unless you find a way to meet them in person.

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Hugging Denise Fishburne

Technology changes every day. We change from hardware to software and back again. Routers give way to switches. Fabrics rise. Analytics tell all. But all this technology still has people behind it. Those people make the difference. People learn and grow and change. They figure out how to make SDN work today after learning ISDN and Frame Relay yesterday. They have the power to expand beyond their station and be truly amazing.

Conferences Are Still King

Cisco Live is huge. Almost 30,000 attendees this year. The Mandalay Bay Convention Center was packed to the gills. The World of Solutions took up two entire halls this year. The number of folks coming to the event keeps going up every year. The networking world has turned this show into the biggest thing going on. Just like VMworld, it’s become synonymous with the industry.

People have a desire to learn. They want to know things. They want high quality introductions to content and deep dives into things they want to know inside and out. So long as those sessions are offered at conferences like Cisco Live and Interop people will continue to flock to them. For the shows that assemble content from the community this is an easy proposition. People are going to want to talk where others are willing to listen. For single sourced talks like Cisco Live, it’s very important to identify great speakers like Denise Fishburne (@DeniseFishburne) and Peter Jones (@PeterGJones) and find ways to get them involved. It’s also crucial to listen to feedback from attendees about what did work and what they want to see more of in the coming years.

Keeping The Community Growing

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One thing that I’m most proud of is seeing the community grow and grow. I love seeing new faces come in and join the group. This year had people from many different social circles taking part in the Cisco Live community. Reddit’s /r/networking group was there. Kilted Monday happened. Engineering Deathmatches happened. Everywhere you looked, communities were doing great things.

As great as it was to see so many people coming together, it’s just as important to understand that we have to keep the momentum going. Networking doesn’t keep rolling along without new ideas and new people expressing them. Four years ago I could never have guessed the impact that Matt Oswalt (@Mierdin) and Jason Edelman (@JEdelman8) could have had on the networking community. They didn’t start out on top of the world. They fought their way up with new ideas and perspectives. The community adopted what they had to say and ran with it.

We need to keep that going. Not just at Cisco Live either. We need to identify the people doing great things and shining a spotlight on them. Thankfully, my day job affords me an opportunity to do just that. But the whole community needs to be doing it as well. If you can just find one person to tell the world about it’s a win for all of us. Convince a friend to write a blog post. Make a co-worker join Twitter. In the end every new voice is a chance for us all to learn something.


Tom’s Take

As Dennis Leary said in Demolition Man,

I’m no leader. I do what I have to do. Sometimes people come with me.

That’s what Cisco Live is to me. It’s not about a corner or a table or a suite at an event. It’s about people coming together to do things. People talking about work and having a good time. The last five years of Cisco Live have been some of the happiest of my life. More than any other event, I look forward to seeing the community and catching up with old friends. I am thankful to have a job that allows me to go to the event. I’m grateful for a community full of wonderful people that are some of the best and brightest at what they do. For me, Cisco Live is about each of you. The learning and access to Cisco is a huge benefit. But I would go for the people time and time and time again. Thanks for making the fifth year of this community something special to me.

The Complexity Conundrum

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Complexity is the enemy of understanding. Think about how much time you spend in your day trying to simplify things. Complexity is the reason why things like Reddit’s Explain Like I’m Five exist. We strive in our daily lives to find ways to simplify the way things are done. Well, except in networking.

Building On Shifting Sands

Networking hasn’t always been a super complex thing. Back when bridges tied together two sections of Ethernet, networking was fairly simple. We’ve spent years trying to make the network do bigger and better things faster with less input. Routing protocols have become more complicated. Network topologies grow and become harder to understand. Protocols do magical things with very little documentation beyond “Pure Freaking Magic”.

Part of this comes from applications. I’ve made my feelings on application development clear. Ivan Pepelnjak had some great comments on this post as well from Steve Chalmers and Derick Winkworth (@CloudToad). I especially like this one:

Derick is right. The application developers have forced us to make networking do more and more faster with less requirement for humans to do the work to meet crazy continuous improvement and continuous development goalposts. Networking, when built properly, is a static object like the electrical grid or a plumbing system. Application developers want it to move and change and breathe with their needs when they need to spin up 10,000 containers for three minutes to run a test or increase bandwidth 100x to support a rollout of a video streaming app or a sticker-based IM program designed to run during a sports championship.

We’ve risen to meet this challenge with what we’ve had to work with. In part, it’s because we don’t like being the scapegoat for every problem in the data center. We tire of sitting next to the storage admins and complaining about the breakneck pace of IT changes. We have embraced software enhancements and tried to find ways to automate, orchestrate, and accelerate. Which is great in theory. But in reality, we’re just covering over the problem.

Abstract Complexity

The solution to our software networking issues seems simple on the surface. Want to automate? Add a layer to abstract away the complexity. Want to build an orchestration system on top of that? Easy to do with another layer of abstraction to tie automation systems together. Want to make it all go faster? Abstract away!

“All problems in computer science can be solved with another layer of indirection.”

This is a quote from Butler Lampson often attributed to David Wheeler. It’s absolutely true. Developers, engineers, and systems builders keep adding layers of abstraction and indirection on top of complex system and proclaiming that everything is now easier because it looks simple. But what happens why the abstraction breaks down?

Automobiles are perfect example of this. Not too many years ago, automobiles were relatively simple things. Sure, internal combustion engines aren’t toys. But most mechanics could disassemble the engine and fix most issues with a wrench and some knowledge. Today’s cars have computers, diagnostics systems, and require lots of lots of dedicated tools to even diagnose the problem, let alone fix it. We’ve traded simplicity and ease of repairability the appearance of “simple” which conceals a huge amount of complexity under the surface.

To refer back to the Lampson/Wheeler quote, the completion of it is, “Except, of course, for the problem of too many indirections.” Even forty years ago it was understood that too many layers of abstraction would eventually lead to problems. We are quickly reaching this point in networking today. With all the reliance on complex tools providing an overwhelming amount of data about every point of the network, we find ourselves forced to use dashboards and data lakes to keep up with the rapid pace of changes dictated to the network by systems integrations being driven by developer desires and not sound network systems thinking.

Networking professionals can’t keep up. Just as other systems now must be maintained by algorithms to keep pace, so too does the network find itself being run by software instead of augmented by it. Even if people wanted to make a change they would be unable to do so because validating those changes manually would cause issues or interactions that could create havoc later on.

Simple Solutions

So how do we fix the issues? Can we just scrap it all and start over? Sadly, the answer here is a resounding “no”. We have to keep moving the network forward to match pace with the rest of IT. But we can do our part to cut down on the amount of complexity and abstraction being created in the process. Documentation is as critical as ever. Engineers and architects need to make sure to write down all the changes they make as well as their proposed designs for adding services and creating new features. Developers writing for the network need to document their APIs and their programs liberally so that troubleshooting and extension are easily accomplished instead of just guessing about what something is or isn’t supposed to be doing.

When the time comes to build something new, instead of trying to plaster over it with an abstraction, we need to break things down into their basic components and understand what we’re trying to accomplish. We need to augment existing systems instead of building new ones on top of the old to make things look easy. When we can extend existing ideas or augment them in such as way as to coexist then we can worry less about hiding problems and more about solving them.


Tom’s Take

Abstraction has a place, just like NAT. It’s when things spiral out of control and hide the very problems we’re trying to fix that it becomes an abomination. Rather than piling things on the top of the issue and trying to hide it away until the inevitable day when everything comes crashing down, we should instead do the opposite. Don’t hide it, expose it instead. Understand the complexity and solve the problem with simplicity. Yes, the solution itself may require some hard thinking and some pretty elegant programming. But in the end that means that you will really understand things and solve the complexity conundrum.

The 25GbE Datacenter Pipeline

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SDN may have made networking more exciting thanks to making hardware less important than it has been in the past, but that’s not to say that hardware isn’t important at all. The certainty with which new hardware will come out and make things a little bit faster than before is right there with death and taxes. One of the big announcements yesterday from Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) during HPE Discover was support for a new 25GbE / 100GbE switch architecture built around the FlexFabric 5950 and 12900 products. This may be the tipping point for things.

The Speeds of the Many

I haven’t always been high on 25GbE. Almost two years ago I couldn’t see the point. Things haven’t gotten much different in the last 24 months from a speed perspective. So why the change now? What make this 25GbE offering any different than things from the nascent ideas presented by Arista?

First and foremost, the 25GbE released by HPE this week is based on the Broadcom Tomahawk chipset. When 25GbE was first presented, it was a collection of vendors trying to convince you to upgrade to their slightly faster Ethernet. But in the past two years, most of the merchant offerings on the market have coalesced around using Broadcom as the primary chipset. That means that odds are good your favorite switching platform is running Trident 2 or Trident 2+ under the hood.

With Broadcom backing the silicon, that means wider adoption of the specification. Why would anyone buy 25GbE from Brocade or Dell or HPE if the only vendor supporting it was that vendor of choice? If you can’t ever be certain that you’ll have support for the hardware in three or five years time, making an investment today seems silly. Broadcom’s backing means that eventually everyone will be adopting 25GbE.

Likewise, one of my other impediments to adoption was the lack of server NICs to ramp hosts to 25GbE. Having fast access ports means nothing if the severs can’t take advantage of them. HPE addressed this with the release of FlexFabric networking adapters that can run 25GbE Ethernet. More importantly, those adapters (and switches) can run at 10GbE as well. This means that adoption of higher bandwidth is no longer an all-or-nothing proposition. You don’t have to abandon your existing investment to get to 25GbE right away. You don’t have to build a lab pod to test things and then sneak it into production. You can just buy a 5950 today and clock the ports down to 10GbE while you await the availability and purchasing cycle to buy 25GbE NICs. Then you can flip some switches in the next maintenance window and be running at 25GbE speeds. And you can leave some ports enabled at 10GbE to ensure that there is maximum backwards compatibility.

The Needs of the Few

Odds are good that 25GbE isn’t going to be right for you today. HPE is even telling people that 25GbE only really makes sense in a few deployment scenarios, among which are large container-based hosts running thousands of virtual apps, flash storage arrays that use Ethernet as a backplane, or specialized high-performance computing (HPC) tricks with RDMA and such. That means the odds are good that you won’t need 25GbE first thing tomorrow morning.

However, the need for 25GbE is going to be there. As applications grow more bandwidth hungry and data centers keep shrinking in footprint, the network hardware you do have left needs to work harder and faster to accomplish more with less. If the network really is destined to become a faceless underlay that serves as a utility for applications, it needs to run flat out fast to ensure that developers can’t start blaming their utility company for problems. Multi-core server architectures and flash storage have solved two of the three legs of this problem. 25GbE host connectivity and the 100GbE backbone connectivity tied to it, solve the other side of the equation so everything balances properly.

Don’t look at 25GbE as an immediate panacea for your problems. Instead, put it on a timeline with your other server needs and see what the adoption rate looks like going forward. If server NICs are bought in large quantities, that will drive manufactures to push the technology onto the server boards. If there is enough need for connectivity at these speeds the switch vendors will start larger adoption of Tomahawk chipsets. That cycle will push things forward much faster than the 10GbE / 40GbE marathon that’s been going on for the past six years.


Tom’s Take

I think HPE is taking a big leap with 25GbE. Until the Dell/EMC merger is completed they won’t find themselves in a position to adopt Tomahawk quickly in the Force10 line. That means the need to grab 25GbE server NICs won’t materialize if there’s nothing to connect them. Cisco won’t care either way so long as switches are purchased and all other networking vendors don’t sell servers. So that leaves HPE to either push this forward to fall off the edge of the cliff. Time will tell how this will all work out, but it would be nice to see HPE get a win here and make the network the least of application developer problems.

Disclaimer

I was a guest of Hewlett Packard Enterprise for HPE Discover 2016. They paid for my travel, hotel, and meals during the event. While I was briefed on the solution discussed here and many others, there was no expectation of coverage of the topics discussed. HPE did not ask for, nor were they guaranteed any consideration in the writing of this article. The conclusions and analysis contained herein are mine and mine alone.

Flash Needs a Highway

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Last week at Storage Field Day 10, I got a chance to see Pure Storage and their new FlashBlade product. Storage is an interesting creature, especially now that we’ve got flash memory technology changing the way we think about high performance. Flash transformed the industry from slow spinning gyroscopes of rust into a flat out drag race to see who could provide enough input/output operations per second (IOPS) to get to the moon and back.

Take a look at this video about the hardware architecture behind FlashBlade:

It’s pretty impressive. Very fast flash storage on blades that can outrun just about anything on the market. But this post isn’t really about storage. It’s about transport.

Life Is A Network Highway

Look at the backplane of the FlashBlade chassis. It’s not something custom or even typical for a unit like that. The key is when the presenter says that the architecture of the unit is more like a blade server chassis than a traditional SAN. In essence, Pure has taken the concept of a midplane and used it very effectively here. But their choice of midplane is interesting in this case.

Pure is using the Broadcom Trident II switch as their networking midplane for FlashBlade. That’s pretty telling from a hardware perspective. Trident II runs a large majority of switches in the market today that are merchant silicon based. They are essentially becoming the Intel of the switch market. They are supplying arms to everyone that wants to build something quickly at low cost without doing any kind of custom research and development of their own silicon manufacturing.

Using a Trident II in the backplane of the FlashBlade means that Pure evaluated all the alternatives and found that putting something merchant-based in the midplane is cost effective and provides the performance profile necessary to meet the needs of flash storage. Saturating backplanes with IOPS can be accomplished. But as we learned from Coho Data, it takes a lot of CPU horsepower to create a flash storage system that can saturate 10Gig Ethernet links.

I Am Speed

Using Trident II as a midplane or backplane for devices like this has huge implications. First and foremost, networking technology has a proven track record. If Trident II wasn’t a stable and reliable platform, no one would have used it in their products. And given that almost everyone in the networking space has a Trident platform for sale, it speaks volumes about reliability.

Second, Trident II is available. Broadcom is throwing these units off the assembly line as fast as they can. That means that there’s no worry about silicon shortages or plant shutdowns or any one of a number of things that can affect custom manufacturing. Even if a company wants to look at a custom fabrication, it could take months or even years to bring things online. By going with a reference design like Trident II, you can have your software engineers doing the hard work of building a system to support your hardware. That speeds time to market.

Third, Trident is a modular platform. That part can’t be understated even though I think it wasn’t called out very much in the presentation from Pure. By having a midplane that is built as a removable module, it’s very easy to replace it should problems arise. That’s the point of field replaceable units (FRUs). But in today’s market, it’s just as easy to create a system that can run multiple different platforms as well. The blade chassis idea extends equally to both blades and mid or backplanes.

Imagine being able to order a Tomahawk-based controller unit for FlashBlade that only requires you to swap the units at the back of the system. Now, that investment in 10Gig blade connectivity with 40Gig uplinks just became 25Gig blade connectivity with 100Gig uplinks to the network. All for the cost of two network controller blades. There may be some software that needs to be written to make the transition smooth for the consumers in the system, but the hardware is more than capable of supporting a change like that.


Tom’s Take

I was thrilled to see Pure Storage building a storage platform that tightly integrates with networking the way that FlashBlade does. This is how the networking stack is going to be completely integrated with storage and compute. We should still look at things through the lens of APIs and programmability, but making networking and consistent transport layer for all things in the datacenter is a good start.

The funny thing about making something a consistent transport layer is that by design it has to be extensible. That means more and more folks are going to be driving those pieces into the network. Software can be created on top of this common transport to differentiate, much like we’re seeing with network operating systems right now. Even Pure was able to create a different kind of transport protocol to do the heavy lifting at low latency.

It’s funny that it took a presentation from a storage company to make me see the value of the network as something agnostic. Perhaps I just needed some perspective from the other side of the fence.

Pushing Everyone’s Buttons In IT

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We have officially reached the point in our long and storied IT careers where we, as old fogies, have earned the right to complain about the next generation of users and professionals. Just as the gray beards before us complained about the way we did things, so too is it our turn to moan about the state of affairs. Today, I’d like to point out how driving IT to the point of pushing simple buttons is destroying the way we do things.

Easy Buttons

The fact that IT work has been able to be distilled into a series of simple button pushing exercises is very thrilling. We’ve spent a lot of time and effort building devices and frameworks that take the hard part out of building devices and frameworks. We no longer have to invent languages to build things or hardware to do things. Instead, we can refine our programming capabilities or use general purpose hardware in new combinations to provide environments for our users.

That’s one of the things that is driving people to the cloud. Cloud isn’t just about exciting hardware or keeping your data in other places. It is just as much about predictable, repeatable frameworks and workflows that let people accomplish tasks without much thought. Just like the assembly line of the eighties, we are take boring repetitive tasks away from people and giving them to machines that don’t get bored and love repetition. Doing that drives costs down and makes people more productive.

But what happens when those processes break down? What happens when the magic smoke is let out of the machine? That’s when the real issues start cropping up. Perhaps the framework developers are great at figuring out what exactly went wrong in their solution. However, they’re likely clueless about all of the things that their solution is built upon. Imagine if a mechanic couldn’t diagnose the engine or the various subsystems of your car? You’d have a fit, right?

The troubleshooting level of modern framework engineering only extends to the edge of their solution. Once you get into a problem with a service they’ve leveraged, such as AWS, then the buck is passed and the troubleshooting must move to a new team. The problem with having your teams building next-generation IT services on top of existing things is that they lose visibility into the things they didn’t build. It becomes a vicious cycle when those first-level services aren’t reliable enough to keep your solution running.

Push A Button, Push A Button!

As bad as things are for IT departments in a push-button world, it’s even crazier for users in the same boat. That’s because users understand two extremes of service delivery. Either the thing is working or it isn’t. There is no in between. In the old days of non-instant IT, users would just keep asking until a thing was done.

Today, things are much different. Automation and orchestration has allowed frameworks and platforms to be able to instantly create services. That means users have been able to create their own platform for building things. So anything that isn’t instant is broken. Take, for example, a recent discussion of bandwidth from the spring ONUG meeting. An IT professional was frustrated that it took the better part of a day to transfer 1 petabyte of information across the country. He wasn’t upset that it failed, mind you. He was mad because it didn’t happen in five minutes. Non-instant things are broken.

The story repeats itself over and over again. Networking resources that can’t be automatically provisioned are broken. Cloud services that need more than a few minutes to spin up aren’t working correctly. Mobile apps and sites that don’t instantly pop up on your phone must be working incorrectly. The patience level of a user isn’t even a tenth of the average IT professional. IT pros know why something is running slow. Users fall back on slow things being broken.


Tom’s Take

The problem is investment. Given an infinite amount of funding, everything can be fast. But people are trying to find ways to not pay for things in today’s IT world. Maybe they want to pay for AWS because it works. But OpenStack gives the promise of AWS for free. Except things like OpenStack and Ansible aren’t free. The currency you use to pay for them is time.

Time is just as precious a commodity as money. We don’t get refunds on time. We can’t ask for discounts on time. We can only invest and hope that there is a payoff down the road. The real outcome of this time investment looks very similar to the environment we have today. Things should just work and allow us to build new things on top of them. But that missing time investment is the key to the whole enterprise. If we don’t spend the time building and extending things, then we won’t have the expertise we need to fix things when they break. That time investment also helps everyone appreciate just how hard it is to build things in the first place. And that’s something no button will every duplicate.

The Death of TRILL

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Networking has come a long way in the last few years. We’ve realized that hardware and ASICs aren’t the constant that we could rely on to make decisions in the next three to five years. We’ve thrown in with software and the quick development cycles that allow us to iterate and roll out new features weekly or even daily. But the hardware versus software battle has played out a little differently than we all expected. And the primary casualty of that battle was TRILL.

Symbiotic Relationship

Transparent Interconnection of Lots of Links (TRILL) was proposed as a solution to the complexity of spanning tree. Radia Perlman realized that her bridging loop solution wouldn’t scale in modern networks. So she worked with the IEEE to solve the problem with TRILL. We also received Shortest Path Bridging (SPB) along the way as an alternative solution to the layer 2 issues with spanning tree. The motive was sound, but the industry has rejected the premise entirely.

Large layer 2 networks have all kinds of issues. ARP traffic, broadcast amplification, and many other numerous issues plague layer 2 when it tries to scale to multiple hundreds or a few thousand nodes. The general rule of thumb is that layer 2 broadcast networks should never get larger than 250-500 nodes lest problems start occurring. And in theory that works rather well. But in practice we have issues at the software level.

Applications are inherently complicated. Software written in the pre-Netflix era of public cloud adoption doesn’t like it when the underlay changes. So things like IP addresses and ARP entries were assumed to be static. If those data points change you have chaos in the software. That’s why we have vMotion.

At the core, vMotion is a way for software to mitigate hardware instability. As I outlined previously, we’ve been fixing hardware with software for a while now. vMotion could ensure that applications behaved properly when they needed to be moved to a different server or even a different data center. But they also required the network to be flat to overcome limitations in things like ARP or IP. And so we went on a merry journey of making data centers as flat as possible.

The problem came when we realized that data centers could only be so flat before they collapsed in on themselves. ARP and spanning tree limited the amount of traffic in layer 2 and those limits were impossible to overcome. Loops had to be prevented, yet the simplest solution disabled bandwidth needed to make things run smoothly. That caused IEEE and IETF to come up with their layer 2 solutions that used CLNS to solve loops. And it was a great idea in theory.

The Joining

In reality, hardware can’t be spun that fast. TRILL was used as a reference platform for proprietary protocols like FabricPath and VCS. All the important things were there but they were locked into hardware that couldn’t be easily integrated into other solutions. We found ourselves solving problem after problem in hardware.

Users became fed up. They started exploring other options. They finally decided that hardware wasn’t the answer. And so they looked to software. And that’s where we started seeing the emergence of overlay networking. Protocols like VXLAN and NV-GRE emerged to tunnel layer 2 packets over layer 3 networks. As Ivan Pepelnjak is fond of saying layer 3 transport solves all of the issues with scaling. And even the most unruly application behaves when it thinks everything is running on layer 2.

Protocols like VXLAN solved an immediate need. They removed limitations in hardware. Tunnels and fabrics used novel software approaches to solve insurmountable hardware problems. An elegant solution for a thorny problem. Now, instead of waiting for a new hardware spin to fix scaling issues, customers could deploy solutions to fix the issues inherent in hardware on their own schedule.

This is the moment where software defined networking (SDN) took hold of the market. Not when words like automation and orchestration started being thrown about. No, SDN became a real thing when it enabled customers to solve problems without buying more physical devices.


Tom’s Take

Looking back, we realize now that building large layer 2 networks wasn’t the best idea. We know that layer 3 scales much better. Given the number of providers and end users running BGP to top-of-rack (ToR) switches, it would seem that layer 3 scales much better. It took us too long to figure out that the best solution to a problem sometimes takes a bit of thought to implement.

Virtualization is always going to be limited by the infrastructure it’s running on. Applications are only as smart as the programmer. But we’ve reached the point where developers aren’t counting on having access to layer 2 protocols that solve stupid decision making. Instead, we have to understand that the most resilient way to fix problems is in the software. Whether that’s VXLAN, NV-GRE, or a real dev team not relying on the network to solve bad design decisions.

Is Interop Dead?

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I’m at Interop this week talking all things networking with a great group of people. There are quite a few members of the community here presenting, listening and discussing. There’s a great exchange of ideas flowing back and forth. Yet one thing I keep hearing in quiet corners of the room is a hushed discussion of the continued viability of Interop as a conference. Is it time to write the Interop obituary?

Only Mostly Dead

Some of the arguments are as old as tech itself. People claim that getting vendors to interoperate today is an afterthought thanks to protocols like OSPF. All of the important bits in a network are standardized now. Use of APIs and other open technologies are driving vendors to play nice with each other. The need to show up in a faraway place and do the work has long passed.

There’s also the discussion around the bigger conferences out in the world. Vendor conferences like Cisco Live and VMworld draw tens of thousands. New product announcements are dropping left and right during these events. People also want to fracture into tool-specific events like OpenStack Summit or DockerCon. Or the various analyst events or company days that happen every month. Why have a conference like Interop when others do it bigger?

Lastly, there’s the argument that the idea of an expo floor is long gone. Why should we get a booth on the show floor to show off our solution? Why not just approach people directly? Why spend money to be there like everyone else. Companies that stand out get noticed. Companies that leverage social media and SEO get the business. Not companies that buy space on a floor somewhere.

Exaggerated Rumors

Let’s jump on these one at a time.

First, claiming that all vendors play nice today thanks to standard protocols is misguided at best and downright silly at worst. Just because OSPF is standard doesn’t mean that people aren’t going to bend it to their own needs. Remember totally stubby areas? Those were very Cisco-specific for a long time. And throwing APIs into the discussion muddies the waters even further. Just because you have an API attached to your software doesn’t mean you can interoperate. How well is your API documented? Do I need to buy SDK access to get into it? Is my code portable? Do you do something silly like not supporting Python but loving things like Java and Perl?

Interoperability is a problem that hasn’t been solved completely. Even if everything works on paper and in Powerpoint slides, there’s still an acid test when you plug it all in for real and make it work. That moment of relief when two different vendor’s devices come up with the same protocols and everything talks is a magical time. You can’t replicate that in documentation. There’s still a huge need to have companies show up and physically prove that things work in a neutral setting versus a heavily slanted bakeoff lab somewhere.

Secondly, let’s look at those other conferences. Sure, Cisco Live has 20,000 people. That all want to talk about Cisco. There isn’t a whole lot of room for Juniper, Brocade, or HPE to be there. Differing opinions aren’t welcome. At best they are discussed in hushed tones in the corners of the room (sound familiar?). Mindshare is important, but so are honest discussions. As for smaller conferences focused on specific tools like OpenStack Summit, you quickly see the limits of things when you start talking to attendees about other things like pieces of the stack not addressed by the solution. There’s importance in being able to talk about all the parts without being overly myopic on one part.

The other piece of the other conferences refers back to a conversation that happened on Twitter last month about community content in large vendor conferences. There was talk from a number of people about how vendor conferences freeze out community content because people pay big bucks to come here a Technical Marketing Engineer read slides about configuring a feature. It’s a far cry from the deep discussion and analysis that you get in other places. How do you work around bugs in code? What happens when a feature is missing? Communities solve problems. Big conferences do a bad job of getting community involvement outside of expo floor crawls and keynotes. If they didn’t, we wouldn’t need the amazing work of vBrownBag and Security BSides. Community matters to people.

Thirdly, the expo floor discussion. I’ll admit that I find expo floors to be personally challenging, but to eschew them in favor of a completely social strategy or relying on SEO to pop up on people’s radar is a recipe for disaster. Being able to physically talk to a person is still a valuable part of the process. How do you feel about their approach? Are they happy with the technology? Does it work in the physical demo? Do you get the sense that they are pushing too hard or trying to close you on a sale without giving you what you need. That’s an experience you don’t get via email or DM on Twitter. Whether or not my personal feelings matter, the truth is that the expo does still matter.


Tom’s Take

I’m biased. I’ve loved Interop for a number of years even before I got involved in the programming of it. The idea that people show up to prove definitively that their stuff works with all the other stuff is a gut check like no other. In the last couple of years the planners of the conference have worked hard to make sure that the programming has reflected the kinds of things that people need to be aware of on the horizon and what they need to be learning. Less focus on vendor sales pitches and more on independent content. Lean and mean and ready to fight the rest of the conference world to prove that content is still king.

As long as I’m involved, I can promise that any rumors of Interop’s impending death with stay just that – talk and rumor. There’s still a lot of life left in this grand event to make it matter to people that should matter.