Mythbusters – Tech Field Day Edition

Minimalist Mythbusters - Image by Joey Vestal

On today’s episode of Mythbusters, we look at Tech Field Day.  The brainchild of Gestalt IT and Stephen Foskett, Tech Field Day gathers technical bloggers from all over the world and puts them in front of vendors for 2-4 hours at a time.  Far from a normal presentation, the delegate bloggers get to ask tough questions and hear real answers about capabilities and concerns.  In this episode, we will look at three myths commonly heard about Tech Field Day to see if they hold water.  Remember, we don’t just tell the myths.  We put them to the test.

Myth 1 – Tech Field Day Delegates Are Paid Vendor Shills

The number one most-repeated myth about Tech Field Day (TFD) by far.  There are many that believe that the TFD delegates are simply brought to a vendor’s office and told what to write.  The delegates are merely supposed to regurgitate the party line and “kiss up” to those providing funding for the trip.  Supposedly, delegate’s posts must be approved by company PR before going up and being advertised to death to reinforce vendor PR.

Let’s look at this one.  Firstly, the delegates aren’t paid.  Yes, we have our travel and lodging costs taken care of by the vendors by way of Gestalt IT.  But we don’t get a dime to come.  In fact, some delegates must use vacation or personal days to attend.  We get a good meal or a nice hotel bed, not a paycheck from Vendor X.  It’s not all that uncommon for vendors to do this kind of thing for PR people and other types of bloggers.  Would it make a difference if the delegates all paid their own way?  Probably not.  That’s because we aren’t shilling for the vendors.  Delegates attending TFD are under no obligation to write only good things about the presenting sponsor companies.  In fact, we’re under no obligation to write about anyone at all.  I never wrote a post about Embrane, the embargoed presenter from Network Field Day 2.  Why?  Because I didn’t understand the technology well enough to do it justice.  Just because they provided a portion of our meals and hotel room didn’t make me an indentured servant required to regurgitate platitudes about them.  They do have a great product that has generated a lot of buzz in the industry.  But I doubt I’ll get around to writing that post any time soon.  You don’t even need to be a blogger to attend.  There are delegates that have attended without any blog to their name. It just happens that the majority are known in the industry by their blogs.  I’ve talked about my independence feelings before.  You know that I have no compunction about telling things like I see them.  My Infoblox review from TFD 5 was all that glowing.  My Cisco review from Wireless Field Day 1 was critical.  Coming from a CCIE, you figure that if I was going to shill for anyone, it’d be Cisco.  But I don’t.  And neither does anyone else as far as I know.  There are plenty of firms out there that will write whatever they are told for far less than it costs to fly people to San Jose (or wherever).  TFD delegates tell the truth about what they see and feel.  That’s no myth.

Myth 1 – BUSTED

Myth 2 – TFD Delegates Only Come To Get Free Stuff

TFD delegates supposedly show up with hat in hand to get vendor handouts and other free stuff.  They expect to get free items from every vendor and only write good things about those they give them the best stuff.

Um, what?  Really?  I started hearing this after Wireless Field Day 1.  Why?  Because a couple of the wireless vendors went out of their way and gave us evaluation units to test with.  I was especially called out because I won an AirCheck unit from Fluke Networks.  By the way, I gave that very same AirCheck away at the delegate dinner during Wireless Field Day 2.  I hope Matthew Norwood (@matthewnorwood) gets more use from it that I did, and I trust that he won’t write nice things about me simply because I gave him something.  Yes, it’s a fact that vendors at both Wireless Field Day events have given away products to the delegates.  Yes, some vendors in the past have given away discounts codes or products.  Guess what?  That’s not the reason I go to Tech Field Day every chance I get.  Sure, it’s nice to get your hands on equipment and put it through its paces.  What about all the other companies that never give us anything other than a pen and notepad?  Did they deserve a bad review for being cheapskates?  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Wireless companies are a bit of a deviation from the norm, since their equipment is all small and easily transported in a carry-on bag.  It’s also fairly inexpensive (overall) for them to give away a $100 access point in order to let us review them and generate good blog posts about the equipment.  How exactly would I transport a Nexus 7k switch?  Would I have to check a Palo Alto firewall or could I put it in the over head bin?  Some companies don’t lend themselves to having easy-to-provide evaluation equipment.  But even if they did, giveaways are not a requirement of Tech Field Day.  In fact, most of the time they happen without the knowledge of the event coordinators.  But in the end, you should ask yourself a question about the delegates receiving evaluation equipment.  Would you rather we not get anything to test out and put through its paces and then write about it?  Or would you rather see us trying out best to break something and really give it a good evaluation before talking about it?

Myth 2 – BUSTED

Myth #3 – The Same People Go To Tech Field Day Each Time

You have to be one of the “cool kids” to get to go to Tech Field Day.  The list isn’t really chosen democratically but instead the delegates are all just friends that get invited over and over again.  The organizers are afraid to hear new voices and inherently distrust those that offer opinions different than the party line.

I’m going to use strong language this one time – this is a bunch of bullshit.  There is no magical list of people that are “friends” and get to go every time.  And remember, that statement is coming from someone that has been to four out of the last six Tech Field Day events.  Every delegate is evaluated on their own merits and voted upon by the Tech Field Day community.  Why?  Because we evaluate technical ability as well as interaction capacity.  There are people in this world that are insanely smart and afraid to ask questions.  There are wonderfully social people that don’t have a lick of technical sense (these people tend to end up in management).  Tech Field Day is about bringing in people that can comprehend Matthew Gast from Aerohive or Victor Shtrom from Ruckus when they start talking about a deep wireless rabbit hole.  Those same people also need to be able to take what they’ve learned and put it down for everyone to see.  That’s why we called the Tech Field Day attendees “delegates”.  We stand as representatives for those in the technical community.  We take questions from interested parties and forward them on to those that can answer them.  We don’t shy away from being tough.  Ask yourself a question: How many blogs do you read?  Then ask yourself how often you read blogs from new bloggers.  Once a week?  Once every six months?  Never?  Blogging isn’t for everyone.  Blogs get abandoned every day.  People get busy and don’t post.  They lose their passion for the subject.  They just give up because they have no readers.  So the people that do the most blogging and stick around tend to get the majority of the attention. People like Ivan Pepelnjak or Greg Ferro or Brad Casemore.  You don’t have to agree with everything they say but you do have to admit that these folks have staying power.  So, when it comes time for the vendors to start talking to people, naturally they want to talk to the people that the industry reads.  That’s why it seems the same people get asked to come back to Tech Field Day each time.  We try to add new blood all the time.  People like Blake Krone and Derick Winkworth.  But, the vendors also get a say in things.  They feel uncomfortable when they see a delegate that no one has heard of before.  Would take a chance on being judged by someone that you don’t know?  It’s one thing to go into a TFD event knowing that I’m snarky.  It’s something else entirely to find out that one of the delegates has a pathological hatred of your product and will never be convinced otherwise.  Vendors don’t like taking those kinds of chances.  The regular delegates at TFD events represent a kind of “known quantity” for vendors.  They can predict how we think and what our reaction will be to things.  It’s a reflection of our influence.

Myth 3 – BUSTED

Tom’s Take

For my own part in this, I can kind of explain my attendance at so many events.  I’m a rock star at a very small VAR.  I have to spend a lot of my time learning every technology.  So while I don’t know MPLS as well as Ivan or wireless as well as Andrew von Nagy, I can hold my own in discussions about routing, switching, wireless, security, storage, voice, virtualization, video, or even comic books.  As such, I can fill in pretty much anywhere.  I fill many roles.  I’ll never be the Michael Jordan of any one discipline, but I can be the (somewhat) quiet guy that plays a couple of roles and gets the job done.  At Tech Field Day, I can play the network outside among wireless folks or I can be the firewall guy at a security event.  This speaks to the heart of what Tech Field Day is all about.  When you get different disciplines together to discuss things, you wind up with fun things like Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE).  I was even having discussions at WFD2 about routing protocols.  I went from being the utility player to being the expert in short order.  I never want to displace someone from going to Tech Field Day who might be more qualified than me, but I also welcome the chance to see how deep the rabbit hole of these technologies can go and I love the interaction with a great group of people.  I won’t get to go to every Tech Field Day.  The logistics don’t work out and there are great people that will go in front of me to events like Virtualization Field Day and Storage Field Day.  But whenever the folks at Tech Field Day ask me to come, I can’t very well say no.  I owe it to the people that read my blog to learn all I can and dispel as many myths as I can.

Disclaimer

This post has absolutely nothing to do with the Mythbusters televison program.  I watch it and respect the talents and knowledge of the hosts.  And those that get to meet them in person in the VIP section (I hate you Rocky Gregory).

IT Archetypes and Tech Field Day Delegates

Thanks to Ivan Pepelnjak’s weekly link post, I found myself reading a very interesting piece this weekend entitled The Rosetta Stone of IT Industry Analysts.  Brian Sommer took a humorous look at the types of people that he sees all the time in the analyst field.  From the grouchy old Curmudgeon to the prissy-pants Egoist, I had a very good laugh since I could identify with many of those caricatures.  Then I spent a little more time thinking about what that means to me and to those affiliated with Tech Field Day.

Obviously, many of these are oversimplifications and written for the sake of laughs.  However, I also found myself going through each of them and realizing that I’ve been that person many times in the past.  Whether it be the Fish Out of Water when people start talking about advanced fibre channel configurations or or the Snark when I have a chance to make a joke about something, I find myself floating in and out of these roles.  On the other hand, I do see that there are a couple that are great for those that are interested in Tech Field Day, as well as a couple that need to be avoided.

In the article, Brian specifically calls out the Rifleman as his preferred archetype for an analyst.  The Rifleman holds vendors to their word and cuts through the hype with a straight razor.  Their words are usually carefully chosen to ensure that the balloon of overpromises is deflated with a quick poke, usually followed by others jumping in to assist in the takedown.  For the Tech Field Day hopefuls (and delegates as well), this is the way to approach interactions with vendors.  If you can quickly understand where they are coming from and eliminate hype, you can gain the advantage and ensure that the audience, whether it be viewers on video or readers of you blog, can understand what makes a technology so great and grasp concepts with ease.

The Rifleman does run the risk of becoming the Curmudgeon or the Assassin without careful consideration.  It’s very easy to lose sight of the goals of being a skeptic when it comes to vendor presentations and begin thrashing presenters simply because it’s fun to be the bad guy.  In the IT analyst world, this is very simliar to the Dark/Light sides of the Force in Star Wars.  The slippery slope of beating people up gives way to becoming the grump that never likes anything and is more than likely just going to verbally abuse you whether you’re selling data center switches or air fresheners.  The key to avoid slipping down the dark path is to constantly ask yourself why you are being so sharp toward the vendors: Is it for your audience?  Or for your own glory?  I’ve been hard on some vendors before during Tech Field Day because I think they can do a better job of delivering their message or because they can make a better product.  I want to make sure the vendors understand where the audience is coming from.  I always try to put myself in the shoes of the people that will read my posts to be sure my motives are pure when I take someone to task.

I also do my best to avoid falling into the roles of the Ryan Secrest vendor cheerleader or the stoic Unmovable Object.  If I only spend my time giving useless platitudes to presenters and vendors my opinion isn’t worth much.  At the same time, never changing my mind or critically thinking about information being given to me is just as bad.  Without opening my mind to new ideas I become a liability in a setting like Tech Field Day where keeping up to date with people bring fresh ideas and products to market is a requirement.


Tom’s Take

The key to being a good Tech Field Day delegate is to be somewhat outgoing.  I’ve done my best to ensure I don’t spend my time at the back of the room sitting quietly and learning very little.  At the same time, I also understand that I need to be sure that my questions and commentary are carefully chosen to enhance the event and the participants rather than merely cutting them down for the sake of making a few look good.  With this list of IT analyst archetypes, I can do a much better job of identifying when I’m slipping too close to the undesirable attitudes that no one likes.  Instead, I can refocus myself on being more effective and ensuring that everyone involved, both participant and audience, gets the most they can out of the event.

Wireless Field Day 2 – Nerds Without Wires

Wouldn’t you know it?  I’m headed back for round two of Wireless Field Day.  I was fortunate enough to be invited to the first assemblage of the preeminent wireless minds in the industry today.  Now it appears an encore is in order.  January 25th through the 27th I’ll be joining some August company for 3 days of immersion in the hottest technology driving business and personal computing today:

Not bad, eh? These people represent the brightest minds in wireless networking and having so many back from the first Wireless Field Day makes this event a very good opportunity for me to interact and learn from the best.  Of course, I’ll be sure to pass my learning on to each and every one of you with a multitude of blog posts and discussion at the event.

Getting Involved with Tech Field Day

With this being my fourth Tech Field Day event, I’ve had a lot of experience with the people around Tech Field Day.  They are always looking for thought leaders to join in the fun and impart knowledge while they absorb a large amount of knowledge from the best and brightest in the industry.  There are a couple of ways for you to get involved:

1.  Read the TFD FAQ and the Becoming a Field Day Delegate pages first and foremost.  Indicate your desire to become a delegate.  You can’t go if you don’t tell someone you want to be there.  Filling out the delegate form submits a lot of pertinent information to Tech Field Day that helps in the selection process.

2.  Realize that the selection process is voted upon by past delegates and has selection criteria.  In order to be the best possible delegate for a Tech Field Day, you have to be an open-minded blogger willing to listen to the presentations and think about them critically.  There’s no sense in bringing in delegates that will refuse to listen to a presentation from Meru because all they’ve ever used is Aruba and they won’t accept Meru having good technology.  If you want to learn more about all the products and vendors out in the IT ecosystem, TFD is the place for you.

3.  Write about what you’ve learned.  One of the hardest things for me after Tech Field Day was consolidating what I had learned into a series of blog posts.  TFD is a fire hose of information, and there is little time to process it as it happens.  Copious notes are a must.  As is having the video feeds to look at later to remember what your notes meant.  But it is important to get those notes down and put them up for everyone else to see.  Because while your audience may have been watching the same video stream you were watching live, they may not have the same opinion of things.  Tech Field Day isn’t just about fun and good times.  Occasionally, the delegates must look at things with a critical eye and make sure they let everyone know where they stand.


Be sure to follow the Tech Field Day account on Twitter (@TechFieldDay) for information and updates about Wireless Field Day 2 as the date gets closer.  There will also be live streaming video of each presentation on-site, and the videos will be uploaded shortly after the presentation.  If you want to participate in the fun, you can use the Twitter hashtags #TechFieldDay or #WFD2 to make comments or ask questions during the presentations.  I will have a Twitter client open during the presentations and will be happy to relay your questions or comments to the presenters and delegates (if no one else beats me to it, that is).  I’m going to tag all my event-related tweets with those hashtags, so if you are being overwhelmed with the volume coming from the event, feel free to filter those tags or unfollow me for the duration of the event.  There’s usually so much to talk about that I get carried away sometimes, so I won’t see it as an affront, I promise.

Tech Field Day Sponsor Disclaimer

Tech Field Day is made possible first and foremost by the sponsors.  Each of them is responsible for a portion of the travel and lodging costs.  In addition, the sponsors also chip in to pay for the after-event gatherings each day.  However, the sponsors also understand that their underwriting of Tech Field Day in no way guarantees them any consideration during the analysis and writing of any blog posts or reviews.  That independence allows the delegates to give honest and direct feedback and opinions of the technology and the companies that present it.

Declaration of Independence

Independence Hall, Philadelphia PA

Blogging is a very fun way to get your ideas out in the open and generate discussion about them.  It’s a great way to show people how your mind works and how you can apply critical thinking skills to problems.  It’s also a wonderful way to sneak movie references into long form prose.  But what happens when the words coming out of your mouth aren’t necessarily yours?

This blog is the sole creation of myself.  I take ideas from all over the place and write about them.  Some people stoke the fires of my creative mind.  Others say things that get me going off on a tangent.  Ultimately though, the words that spill out on this page are mine.  They represent my thoughts and feelings.  Though inspired by many sources, in the end the posts and comments I make belong to me.  I don’t consult anyone before posting.  Only rarely do I inform anyone about a pending post, and even then it is simply to ensure I’m not revealing privileged information or breaking the law.  Sometimes I’ve been contacted about material I’ve written and questioned about my feelings on the matter.  While I do reserve the right to change my mind in relation to a subject, I do take umbrage at being told to change my mind against my wishes.

It’s no secret that some people out there are simply regurgitating information being fed to them.  Public relations people come up with creative ways to write about things that look very humble and interesting at first, only to find later on that you’ve been led into a sales pitch by the nose.  I don’t like this method of tricking me into forming an opinion.  At the same time, I also realize how easy it can be to fall into the same trap when I am the content creator in question.  I’ve always tried my hardest to stay independent when it comes to the opinions and information disseminated on this blog.  I’ve done this because I owe it to my readers to ensure my impartiality and disconnection from things.  I want people to know who *I* am, not who someone or something thinks I should be.  Due to my involvement with Tech Field Day and my related posts, some in the community have accused me of being a vendor shill.  I regurgitate information I’ve been told to post without regard for accuracy.  In return, I receive some unknown benefit or use my influence to gain an army of acolytes to stroke my ever-growing ego.

I hope you all know by now nothing could be further from the truth.

When I talk to vendors or companies about my blog, I make it very clear from the start that I am independent.  What does that mean?  It means I write with three tenants in mind:

I Write What I Want – You can show me presentation after presentation and speak to me for hours on end about your product or cool new widget.  I may whittle this down to a 3 paragraph post.  That’s my prerogative as a blogger.  I tend to cut the fat away from things when I post them as a courtesy to my readers.  If I think something you have is cool, I may focus on it.  I also reserve the right to talk about your presentation and delivery methods.  The point is that I choose the topic.  I’ve been sent “suggested topic” emails in the past from companies.  I trashed them as soon as I read the subject line.  These are my words, and I’ll be the one to choose them, thank you very much.

I Write When I Want – As a rule, I respect product embargoes.  If you have a big PR campaign that is firing up next month and you give me a product briefing, I’ll respect the street date for your information.  However, don’t expect me to churn out a post timed to be out on the day of launch.  I choose when to post my information.  I do this to avoid traps like a company asking me to hold any negative opinions until months after launch to ensure the hype machine is operating at full efficiency.  Or worse yet, asking me to post the day before a competitor’s new product comes out in an attempt to steal their thunder.  I time my posts so that I don’t overload people with information.  If I need to put off talking about something for a day or two, that is my choice.  Having a pushy PR person breathing down my neck to contribute to the hype machine before launch day tends to get on my nerves.

I Write If I Want – Obligation is a funny thing.  Once you’ve been locked in by it, you have effectively lost your free will.  Tech Field Day works like this: I write if I want to.  Sure, the companies involved with Tech Field Day usually see me as a way to generate some press about them.  However, it is never expected that I am required to write about a presenting company.  I write about you because *I* want to, not because you want me to.  Requiring me to make a post about your widget is a great way to make me not do it.  Imagine if Walter Cronkite was told he must write about the president’s new social security plan if he ever wanted a one-on-one interview again. Crazy, right?  Journalists choose their topics ahead of time and do research.  The topics they don’t think will be important get shelved.  Much is the same with me.  Rather than flood your RSS feeds with useless garbage, I try to bring entertainment and information.  Inviting me to a product briefing in Rome and then telling me I have to write five posts about it to “pay” for my trip will get you a kind “no thank you”.  Persistence will be met with less kind words.

Keeping those things in mind every time I sit down to write helps me ensure that my opinion is independent and accurate.  If my opinion is bought and paid for, it serves no purpose for anyone.  If I become a mouthpiece, my mind is no longer of use to the community.

What about you?  What about the bloggers that are just starting out?  How can you remain independent?  Sometimes the choices aren’t as easy as black and white.  PR people get paid to influence opinion.  At best, they are a useful tool to help a company’s image.  At worst, they aren’t much better than con men.  The shady ones can trick you into doing what the want quite subtly.  They will give you suggested posts or offer to help you have a more effective message.  They’ll ask you for editorial control over your writing.  They may even write your message for you over the course of communication.

The key to remaining independent is to remember: When the words coming out of your mouth aren’t yours, you are no longer independent.  If you find yourself being coached by a vendor in what they want you to post, you’re now an unpaid employee of their PR department.  Don’t give in.  Make sure your terms are clear up front.  Ensure that the vendors and manufacturers know your feelings.  Don’t start down the slippery slope of letting someone else choose your words for you.  It’s okay to ask for advice so long as you keep in mind where the advice is coming from.

I do want to make it clear that there are some vendor-employed bloggers that I consider to be independent.  Christofer Hoff and Brad Hedlund immediately come to mind.  These guys might be employed by a vendor, but they aren’t shills.  They give their thoughts freely without reservation and make sure to define themselves outside their day jobs.  I try to do much the same.  While I do work for a Value Added Reseller (VAR), I consider my blogging activities to be a totally different aspect of my career.  I refuse to kowtow to a vendor or manufacturer for preferential treatment.  I’m nice to those that have earned my respect.  I’m frosty to those that have earned a cold shoulder.  I’m consistent because there is nothing coloring my opinion beyond my own thoughts (and the occasional glass of bourbon).

Tom’s Take

I hold these blogging truths to be self evident: All bloggers have the rights to life, liberty, and the pursuit of blogging happiness.  At the same time, they have the responsibility to be sure their voice is the one being heard, not someone else.  Bloggers are powerful tools in the new media because we are independent voices that express opinion without reservation.  Some won’t care what I have to say about the newest Acme Widget, but others most certainly will.  I won’t influence a product success or failure, but I can swing a few people one way or the other.  So I must be sure that my thoughts and words are carefully chosen to reflect what I feel.  I also need to be sure that no one else writes my words for me, either by overt action or shady inaction.  To let me readers be subjected to marketing fluff or untrue opinions that I didn’t write would be a great injustice in my mind.  To that I pledge my blogging honor.

Dell Force 10 – Network Field Day 2

The final presentation of Network Field Day 2 came from Force 10.  Now, Force 10 is a part of the larger Dell Networking umbrella.  This includes their campus PowerConnect switching line as well as the datacenter-focused equipment from Force 10.  We arrived at the old Force 10 headquarters and noticed a couple of changes since last year.  Mainly lots of new round, four letter logos everywhere.  As well, the office seemed slightly rearranged.  We walked back to a large common area where tables and chairs were assembled for the presentation.

To say Dell Force 10 brought the big guns is an understatement.  I counted no less that 15 people in the room that were a part of Force 10, from engineers to marketing to executive.  They all turned out to see the traveling circus sideshow we put on.  Although we didn’t get the same zero-slide whiteboard-only affair from last year, Dell Force 10 took the time to ask each one of us what we would like to hear from them during the presentation.  That little touch helped put us at ease and allowed us to tell them up front what we were hoping to see.  I specifically asked about the branding of Dell Force 10 alongside the PowerConnect line.

Dell kept the slides somewhat short and did manage to address many topics that we put on the whiteboard before we started.  I was happy to learn that while Force 10 equipment would stay primarily in the data center realm, the Force10OS (FTOS) that is so beloved by many would be finding its way into the PowerConnect line at some point in the coming months.  One of my many gripes about the PowerConnect line is the horr^H^H^H^Hdifficult OS.  In fact, I was the only person in the office that knew CTRL+H was Backspace.  Whether or not the underlying packet flinging mechanism is superior, having a CLI coded by monkeys doesn’t really help me get my job accomplished.  Now that I can look forward to getting FTOS on all of Dell’s equipment, my ire may go down a little.

After the positioning talk, Dell Force 10 jumped into talking about some of its hardware, specifically the Z9000.  The specs are pretty impressive.  It can run all 128 ports at line rate 10GBE or use 40GBE modules in 32 ports at line rate.  The power draw for a fully loaded box is a svelte 800 watts (6.25 watts per port) which did generate some healthy discussion about the power consumption of a 10GBE SR fiber module.  I tend to err on the side that there is a little more power draw that 7 watts, but if Dell can produce numbers to support their claim I’ll be a believer.  Dell Force 10 also says that there is support for TRILL in the Z9000 which will help it create a spine-leaf node fabric, their term for the core and aggregation layers of switching in a data center.  I think the Z9000 has some interesting applications and am curious to see how it fares with the offerings put forth by Cisco and Juniper.


Tom’s Take

No one was more surprised than me that Dell bought Force 10 instead of Brocade.  But, after reflection it did make sense.  Now we get to see the fruit of that acquisition.  Dell has positioned Force 10 directly into the data center and it has allowed them to build a top to bottom strategy in the data center, which they lacked before.  Their hardware is fairly impressive from the information we were given and the familiarity of FTOS means that we aren’t going to spend days relearning things.  I wonder if Dell is going to use Force10 in a niche market alongside large server deployments or if they hope that Force10 will catch fire in existing data centers and start replacing legacy gear.  One can only hope for the former, as the latter won’t leave a lot of room for Dell to recoup their investment.


Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Dell Force10 was a sponsor of Network Field Day 2, as as such was responsible for paying a portion of my travel and lodging fees. They also provided us with a pint glass with the Dell Networking logo, a Dell sticker, and a USB drive containing presentations and markting collateral. At no time did Dell Force10 ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the drafting of this review. The analysis and opinions herein are mine and mine alone.

Brocade – Network Field Day 2

Brocade was the second vendor up on day 2 of Network Field Day 2. We arrived at the resplendant Brocade offices and were immediately ushered in for lunch. A side note here: Brocade had the best lunch ever. No sandwiches and chips. Chicken Parmesan, salad, and pasta were the meal du jour. After feeding us, Brocade then proceeded to whet our appetite by hinting that there would be some time later for a competition.

Once we got underway, we got a quick intro from <<MARKETING PERSON>> followed by a great short presentation from Jon Hudson, also known as @the_socalist. He went into a quick overview of the Brocade line of products, touching on everything from wiring closet switches to massive fibre channel encryption boxes. He kept it short and light by playing to our strengths. As it has been noted before, presenting to Tech Field Day delegates is a very unique experience. Jon peppered his presentation with pictures of unicorns (the mascot of Networking Field Day) and talk of long-distance vMotion issues that could one day lead to roving packs of VM clusters vMotioning across the world and even into space. Good laughs were had all around. Overall, Brocade has some good products that they aim into the middle of the switching pack, but their real capability is their extensive fibre channel knowledge and how to integrate that in your environment. Their VCS take on fabric is equally interesting.

Afterwards, we were informed that we were going to have a lab. Not a demo, not a video. A hands-on configuration lab. We were broken up into teams and given the task of configuring a pair of Brocade 6720s into a fabric configuration. We had the disposal of the assembled Brocade engineers for assitance with configuration, as well as for escort to the data center down the hall where we had to (GASP!) plug in our own fiber jumpers. Just before the lab kicked off, the moderator Marcus Thordal informed us that they usually saw some sabotage occuring after a team completed their configuration tasks. Once we started, Jeff Fry  and I teamed up to start building fabric. As Jeff prepped the fiber cables, I quickly assigned a management address to the switch. My previous familiarty with the Brocade CLI came in handy, and I finally got to show off my Brocade Certified Network Engineer (BCNE) skills. Jeff commented that the CLI seemed very IOS-like, which I’m almost certain is no coincidence.

When it came time to go back to the data center and start cabling, the competition really started to heat up. Tony Mattke and Greg Ferro sat next to us in a team, and as we plugged our fiber jumpers in to cross-connect switches and fire up servers, Tony slipped in behind us to do the same. When I got back to the terminal to verifiy the fabric connections, the VMware host wasn’t pingable. I did some quick troubleshooting and found that it had simply disappeared. When I looked over, Tony was giggling like a schoolgirl, which told me he decided to play dirty. I walked back to the data center and checked our cables. I quickly discovered that the server fiber jumper was slightly unplugged, just enough to break the connection but not enough to be dangling there and give away the treachery. When I got back, I glared at Tony and Greg, sure that I would find a way to repay them in kind. As soon as I sat down, Tony and Greg both jumped up to repatch cables in the data center, sure I had sabotaged them. I decided to play different game, so I used the basic configuration given to the delegates and figured out the switch IP for Tony and Greg. I then telnetted in and used the default password to log on, at which point I rebooted the switch. The 6720s took a few minutes to come back up, at which point I could configure in peace. Greg and Tony came back as Jeff and I were vMotioning our host across the fabric to test resiliency. Greg took a minute to figure out that his switch wasn’t at the CLI prompt, but was instead running ASIC checks. He looked over at me, but my smile was just too hard to contain. As he plotted more revenge, Jeff turned it up a notch by suggesting I change the login info for Team Five’s switch and reboot once again. While they were distracted, I changed the ADMIN user password to “gregisatosser” and rebooted after saving the config. As the switch was coming back up, the Brocade engineers in the back were having a great time with our efforts to sabotage each other. I took special delight in telling Greg the new password to his switch.

Once we finished our configuration lab, the Brocade people used the remaining time to answer Q&A about their product and direction in areas like TRILL and FCoE. I was especially impressed by Jon Hudson as he was able to spar with Ivan Pepelnjak about many different TRILL ideas, while at the same time withering an assualt from Ivan and Tony Bourke about fiber channel. He recalled many things off the top of his head, but he was also not afraid to say “I don’t know” when faced with a unique take on a problem. That always impresses me when a presenter is willing to go under the gun on Q&A and ever more so when they admit that they don’t know something. As I overhead him say afterwards, Jon remarked, “There’s no sense in lying. If I don’t know, I don’t know. Lying about it never leads to anything good.

Here’s a video of Jon’s introduction to Brocade:


Tom’s Take

I liked Brocade’s presentation. The slide deck was short and funny, but the real gem was the hands-on lab. While many a Tech Field Day presentation has been saved by a great demo, there’s just something about getting your hands dirty on real hardware. We learned how Brocade implemented things that we do in our everyday jobs, as well as a couple of things that are unique to them. I really helps us decide how worthwhile their equipment might be to our environment. In fact, I’d wager to say that they moved into some serious consideration among one or two delegates for ease of use and features simply because we had a chance to take it for a test drive. Future Tech Field Day presenters take note: getting the delegates involved is never a bad idea.


Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Brocade was a sponsor of Network Field Day 2, as as such was responsible for paying a portion of my travel and lodging fees. They also provided us with lunch and a takeaway bag containing a USB drive with the presentation, chocolate covered espresso beans, and a VCS T-shirt in 2XL. At no time did Brocade ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the drafting of this review. The analysis and opinions herein are mine and mine alone.

Juniper – Network Field Day 2

Day 2 of Network Field Day started out with a super-sized session at the Juniper headquarters.  We arrived a bit hungover from the night before at Murphy’s Law and sat down to a wonderful breakfast with Abner Germanow.  He brought coffee and oatmeal and all manner of delicious items, as well as Red Bull and Vitamin Water to help flush the evil of Guiness and Bailey’s Irish Cream from our systems.  Once we were settled, Abner gave us a brief overview of Juniper as a company.  He also talked about Juniper’s support of Network Field Day last year and this year and how much they enjoy having the delegates because we ask public questions and wish to obtain knowledge to make the world a better place for networkers despite any ridicule we might suffer at each other’s hands.

Dan Backman was next up to start things off with an overview of Junos.  Rather than digging into the gory details of the underlying operating system like Mike Bushong did last year, Dan instead wanted to focus on the extensibility of Junos via things like XML and API calls.  Because Junos was designed from the ground up as a transactional operating system, it has the ability to do some very interesting things in the area of scripting and automation.  Because changes made to a device running Junos aren’t actually made until they are committed to the running config, you can have things like error checking scripts running in the background monitoring for things like OSPF processes and BGP neighbor relationships.  If I stupidly try to turn off BGP for some reason, the script can stop me from committing my changes.  This would be a great way to keep the junior admins from dropping your BGP sessions or OSPF neighbors without thinking.  As we kept moving through the CLI of Junos, the delegates were becoming more and more impressed with the capabilities inherent therein.  Many times, someone would exclaim that Junos did something that would be very handy for them, such as taking down a branch router link if a keepalive script determined that the remote side had been brought down.  By the end of Dan’s presentation, he revealed that he was in fact not running this demo on a live router, but instead had configured everything in a virtual instance running in Junosphere.  I’ve written a little about Junosphere before and I think the concept of having a virtual instantiation of Junos that is easily configurable for many different types of network design.  Juniper is using Junosphere not just for education, but for customer proof-of-concept as well.  For large customers that need to ensure that network changes won’t cause major issues, they can copy the configuration from their existing devices and recreate everything in the cloud to break as they see fit.  Only when confirmed configs are generated from the topology will the customer then decide to put that config on their live devices.  All this lists for about $5/router per day from any Juniper partner.  However, Dan hit us with our Network Field Day “Oprah Moment”.  Dan would give us access to Junosphere!  All we have to do is email him and he’ll get everything setup.  Needless to say, I’m going to be giving him a shout in the near future.

Next up was Dave Ward, Juniper’s CTO of the Platform Divison.  A curious fact about Dave: he likes to present sans shoes.  This might be disconcerting to some, but having been through business communications class in college, I can honestly say it’s not the weirdest quirk I’ve ever seen.  Dave’s presentation focused around programmable network, which is Juniper’s approach to OpenFlow.  Dave has the credentials to really delve into the weeds of programmable networking, and to be honest some of what he had to say went right by me.  It’s like listening to Ivan turn the nerd meter up to 9 or 10.  I recommend you watch part one of the Juniper video and start about halfway through to see what Dave has to say about things.  His ideas behind using our new found knowledge of programmable networking to better engineer things like link utilization and steering traffic to specific locations is rather interesting.

Next up was Kevin with a discussion about vGW, which came for Altor Networks, and using Juniper devices to secure virtual flows between switches.  This is quickly become a point of contention with customers, especially in the compliance area.  If I can’t see the flows going between VMs, how can I certify my network for things like Payment Card Industry (PCI) compliance?  Worse yet, if someone nefarious compromises my virtual infrastructure and begins attacking VMs in the same vSwitch, if I can’t see the traffic I’ll never know what’s happening.  Juniper is using vGW to address all of these issues in an easy-to-use manner.  vGW allows you to do things like attach different security policies to each virtual NIC on a VM and then let the policy follow the VM around the network as it vMotions from here to eternity.  vGW can also reroute traffic to a number of different IDS devices to snoop on traffic flows and determine whether or not you’ve got someone in your network that isn’t supposed to be there.  There’s even a new antivirus module in the new 5.0 release that can provide AV services to VMs without the need to install a heavy AV client on the host OS and worry about things like updates and scanning.  I hope that this becomes the new model for AV security for VMs going forward, as I realize the need to run AV on systems but detest the fact that so many software licenses are required when there is a better solution out there that is quick and easy and lightweight.

The last presentation was over QFabric.  This new technology represents Juniper’s foray in the the fabric switching technology sweeping across the data center like wildfire right now.  I’ve discussed at length my thoughts on QFabric before.  I still see it as a proprietary solution that works really well for switching packets quickly among end nodes.  Of course, to me the real irony is that HP/Procurve spent many years focusing on their Edge-centric network view of the world and eventually bought 3COM/Huawei to compete in the data center core.  Juniper instead went to the edge-centric model and seems to be ready to bring it to the masses.  Irony indeed.  I do have to call out Juniper here for their expected slide about “The Problem”:

The Problem

The Problem - courtesy of Tony Bourke

To Juniper’s credit, once I pointed out that we may or may not have seen this slide before, the presenter quickly acknowledged it and moved on quickly to get to the good stuff about QFabric.  I didn’t necessarily learn any more about QFabric that I already knew from my own research, but it was a good talk overall.  If you want to delve more into QFabric, head over to Ivan’s site and read through his QFabric posts.

Our last treat from the super session was a tour of the Proof-of-Concept labs at the Juniper EBC.  They’ve got a lot of equipment in there and boy is it loud!  I did get to see how Juniper equipment plays well with others, though, as they had a traded-in CRS-1 floating around with a big “I Wish This Ran Junos” sticker.  Tony Mattke was even kind enough to take a picture of it.

Here are the videos: Part 1 – Introduction to Junos

Part 2 – Open Flow Deep Dive

Part 3 – A Dive Into Security

Part 4 – Network Design with QFabric


Tom’s Take

I’m coming around to Juniper.  The transaction-based model allows me to fat-finger things and catch them before I screw up royally.  Their equipment runs really well from what I’ve been told and their market share seems to be growing in the enterprise from all accounts.  I’ve pretty much consigned myself at this point to learning Junos as my second CLI language, and the access that Dan Backman is going to provide to Junosphere will help in that regard.  I can’t say how long it will take me to be a convert to the cause of Juniper, but if they ever introduce a phone system into the lineup, watch out!  I also consider the fine presentations that were put on in this four hour session to be the benchmark for all future Tech Field Day presenters.  Very little fluff, packed with good info and demonstrations is the way to go when you present to delegates at Tech Field Day.  Otherwise, the water bottles will start flying.


Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Juniper was a sponsor of Network Field Day 2, as as such was responsible for paying a portion of my travel and lodging fees. They also provided us with breakfast and a USB drive containing the Day One Juniper guides and markting collateral. At no time did Juniper ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the drafting of this review. The analysis and opinions herein are mine and mine alone.

Gigamon – Network Field Day 2

The third presenter for the first day of Network Field Day 2 was Gigamon. I’d seen them before at a couple of trade shows, so I was somewhat aware of what their product was capable of. When we arrived at their offices, we grabbed a quick lunch as the Gigamon people setup for their presentation. They wheeled a rack of equipment over to the side of the room, all of it painted in bright orange. We started off with Jim Berkman, Director of Worldwide Channel Marketing giving us a little overview of who Gigamon was and what they could do.

Gigamon is a company that specializes in creating devices to assist in monitoring your network. They don’t make Network Management Systems (NMS) like Solarwinds or HP, though. What they do make is a box capable of being inserted into a packet stream and redirecting traffic flows to appropriate tools. If anyone has ever configured a SPAN port on a switch, you know what kind of a pain that can be, especially if you need to extend that SPAN port across multiple devices. Gigamon gives you the ability to drop their equipment in-line with your existing infrastructure and move the packets to the appropriate tools at wire speed. Yes, even at 10GBE. This would allow you to relocate devices in your data center to more convenient locations and worry less about having your NMS or Intrusion Prevention System (IPS) located right next to your SPANned devices.

Gigamon delved into the capabilities of their lineup, from a lowly unit designed for small deployments all the way to a chassis-based solution that will take anything you throw at it. We also got to hear from a field engineer about his latest deployment with a European mobile provider that was using their product for redirecting all their 3G data traffic to packet analyzers and filters, which set off the Big Brother vibe with a couple of delegates. As Gigamon later said, “We just provide capability to send packets somewhere. Where you send them is your business.” Still, the possiblities behind being able to shunt packets to tools at wire speed for very large flows is interesing to say the least. Gigamon also told us about their ability to strip packet headers for things like MPLS and VN-Tag. This got the attention of the delegates, as now we can monitor and manage MPLS flows without worrying about how to strip off the vairable-length headers that can be attached to them. Ivan Pepelnjak asked about support for VXLAN header stripping, but the answer wasn’t really clear. That’s mostly likely because the implementation ideas around VXLAN are still up in the air for most people.

We didn’t get a demo from Gigamon (as there really wouldn’t be much to see) but we did get a good Q&A session as well as a tour of their facilities. All the assembly and testing of their units happens on-site, so it was very interesting to see the development areas as well as the burn-in lab where these boxes are tested for a week straight before shipping. A quick anecdote: when previously asked by someone what happens when a Gigamon unit is Dead on Arrival (DOA), Gigamon replied they weren’t sure, as they’ve never had a DOA box in their 6-year existence.

Tom’s Take

As Kurt Bales put it, “Gigamon is the greatest thing I never knew I needed!” The use-case for their equipment is very compelling, as the monitoring of high speed traffic flows is becoming harder and harder to manage as the amount of packets flying through the data center increases. Gigamon gives you the ability to direct that traffic wherever it is needed, whether it be NMS or filter. They can also do it without slowing down your carefully designed infrastructure. I would highly recommend taking a look at their products if you find yourself in need of creating a lot of SPAN ports to service packet flows to various different tools.

Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Gigamon was a sponsor of Network Field Day 2, as as such was responsible for paying a portion of my travel and lodging fees. They also provided us with lunch and a Gigamon folio pad, as well as a USB drive containing presentations and markting collateral. At no time did Gigamon ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the drafting of this review. The analysis and opinions herein are mine and mine alone.

NEC – Network Field Day 2

The second presenter on day one of Network Field Day 2 was NEC.  I didn’t know a whole lot about their networking initiatives going into the presentation, even though I knew they were a manufacturer of VoIP systems among a variety of other things.  What I saw really impressed me.

After a quick company overview by John Wise, we dove right into what NEC is bringing to market in the OpenFlow arena.  I’ve posted some links to OpenFlow overviews already, so it was nice to see how NEC had built the technology into their ProgrammableFlow product line.  NEC has a shipping ProgrammableFlow Controller (PFC) as well as ProgrammableFlow switches.  This was a very interesting change of pace, as most vendors I’ve heard from recently have announced support for OpenFlow, but no plans for shipping any equipment that runs it right now.

The PFC is a Linux-based system that supports OpenFlow v1.0.  It allows you to deploy multi-tenant networks on the same physical infrastructure as well as providing location independence.  The PFC can be located anywhere and isn’t restricted to being deployed next to the switches that it supports.  The PFC allows you to do topology discovery via LLDP to find devices as well as more advanced features like fault detection and even self repair.  This is a great boon to network rock stars that can use the controller to fix problems as they occur without the need to leave their chair and start recabling their data center on the fly.  The PFC also supports graphic network creation, with the interface being as simple as creating a Visio drawing.  Except this Visio is a real network.

The ProgrammableFlow switch is a 48-port gigabit switch with 4 SFP+ uplinks capable of 10GBE.  It functions as a hybrid switch, allowing OpenFlow networks to be connected to a traditional L2/L3 environment.  This a wonderful for those that want to try out OpenFlow without wrecking their existing infrastructure.  A great idea going forward, as OpenFlow is designed to be overlaid without disturbing your current setup.  By providing a real shipping product to customers, NEC can begin to leverage the power of the coming OpenFlow storm to capitalize on a growing market.

Next we got a quick overview of the OpenNetworking Foundation and NEC’s participation in it.  What is of note here is that the board members are all consumers of technology, not the producers.  The producers are members, but not the steering committee.  In my mind, this ensures that OpenFlow will always reflect what the users want from it and not what the vendors want it to become.  NEC has provided us with a physical switch and controller to leverage OpenFlow and has even committed to providing support for a virtualized Hyper-V vSwitch in Windows 8.  This means that NEC will hit the ground running when Microsoft starts using the tools built into Windows 8 to virtualize large numbers of servers.  Whether or not this will be enough to unseat the VMware monster is anyone’s guess, but it never hurts to get in on the ground level.

I missed out on most of the demo of the ProgrammableFlow system in the second half of the presentation due to reality intruding on my serene Network Field Day world, but the video was interesting.  I’m going to spend a little time in the coming weeks doing some more investigation into what ProgrammableFlow has to offer.

<<EDIT>>

I want video! Part 1: NEC Introduction

Part 2: ProgrammableFlow Architecture and Use Cases

Part 3: ProgrammableFlow Demonstration


Tom’s Take

Okay, show of hands: who knew NEC made switches?  They rarely get mentioned in the same breath with Cisco, Juniper, or HP.  When it seems that the market has left you behind the best way to catch up is to move markets.  NEC has really embraced the concept of OpenFlow and I think it’s going to pay off handsomely for them.  By having one of the first shipping devices for OpenFlow integration and making it widely known to the networking consumer, NEC can reap the benefits of interesting in OpenFlow while other vendors ramp up to enter the market.  There’s something to be said for getting there first, and NEC has surely done that.  Now the trick will be taking that advantage and reaping what they have sown.


Tech Field Day Disclaimer

NEC was a sponsor of Network Field Day 2, as as such was responsible for paying a portion of my travel and lodging fees.  They also provided us with a USB drive containing marketing information and the presentation we were given.  We also received an NEC coffee mug and a set of children’s building blocks with NEC logos and slogans screenprinted on them.  At no time did NEC ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the drafting of this review. The analysis and opinions herein are mine and mine alone.

Cisco Data Center – Network Field Day 2

Our first presenters up on the block for day 1 of Network Field Day 2 were from the Cisco Data Center team. We arrived at Building Seven at the mothership and walked into the Cisco Cloud Innovation Center (CCIC). We were greeted by Omar Sultan and found our seats in the briefing center. Omar gave us a brief introduction, followed by Ron Fuller, Cisco’s TME for Nexus switching. In fact, he may have written a book about it.  Ron gave us an overview of the Nexus line, as well as some recent additions in the form of line cards and OS updates. His slides seemed somewhat familiar by now, but having Ron explain them was great for us as we could ask questions about reference designs and capabilities. There were even hints about things like PONG, a layer 2 traceroute across the fabric. I am very interested to hear a little more about this particular little enhancement.

Next up were representatives from two of Cisco’s recent acquisitions related to cloud-based services, Linesider and NewScale (Cisco Cloud Portal). They started out their presentations similarly, reminding us of “The Problem”:

The Probelm

The Problem - courtesy of Tony Bourke

You might want to bookmark this picture, I’m going to be referring to it a lot. The cloud guys were the first example of a familiar theme from day 1 – Defining the Problem. It seems that all cloud service providers feel the need to spend the beginning of the presentation telling us what’s wrong. As I tweeted the next day, I’m pretty sick of seeing that same old drawing over and over again. By now, I think we have managed to identify the problem down to the DNA level. There is very little we don’t know about the desire to automate provisioning of services in the cloud so customers in a multi-tenancy environment can seamlessly click their way into building application infrastructure. That being said, with the brain trust represented by the Network Field Day 2 delegates, it should be assumed that we already know the problem. What needs to happen is that the presenters need to show us how they plan to address it. In fact, over the course of Network Field Day, we found that the vendors have identified the problem to death, but their methods of approaching the solution are all quite different. I don’t mean to pick on Cisco here, but they were first up and did get “The Problem” ball rolling, so I wanted to set the stage for later discussion. Once we got to the Cisco IT Elastic Infrastructure Services (CITEIS) demo, however, the ability to quickly create a backend application infrastructure was rather impressive. I’m sure for providers in a multitenancy environment that will be a huge help going forward to reduce the need to have staff sitting around just to spin up new resource pools. If this whole process can truly be automated as outlined by Cisco, the factor by which we can scale infrastructure will greatly increase.

After the cloud discussion, Cisco brought Prashant Ghandi from the Nexus 1000V virtual switching line to talk to us. Ivan Pepelnjak and Greg Ferro perked up and started asking some really good questions during the discussion of the capabilities of the 1000V and what kinds of things were going to be considered in the future. We ended up running a bit long on the presentation which set the whole day back a bit, but the ability to ask questions of key people involved in virtual switching infrastructure is a rare treat that shoud be taken advantage of whenever possible.

<<EDIT>>

Now with video goodness! Part 1: Nexus

Part 2: Cloud Orchestration and Automation

Part 3: Nexus 1000V


Tom’s Take

I must say that Cisco didn’t really bring us much more than what we’ve already seen. Maybe that’s a big credit to Cisco for putting so much information out there for everyone to digest when it comes to data center networking. Much like their presentation at Wireless Field Day, Cisco spends the beginning and end of the presentation reviewing things with us that we’re familiar with allowing for Q&A time with the key engineers. The middle is reserved for new technology discussion that may not be immediately relevant but represents product direction for what Cisco sees as important in the coming months. It’s a good formula, but when it comes to Tech Field Day, I would rather Cisco take a chance to let us poke around on new gear or let us ask the really good questions about what kind of things Cisco sees coming down the road.


Tech Field Day Disclaimer

Cisco was a sponsor of Network Field Day 2, as as such was responsible for paying a portion of my travel and lodging fees. At no time did Cisco ask for, nor where they promised any kind of consideration in the drafting of this review. The analysis and opinions herein are mine and mine alone.