The Myth of The Greenest Field

A fun anecdote: I had to upgrade my home landline (I know, I know) from circuit switched to packet switched last week. I called the number I was told to call and I followed the upgrade procedure. I told them exactly what I wanted – the bare minimum necessary to move the phone circuit. No more. No less.

When the technician arrived to do the upgrade, he didn’t seem to know what was going on. Instead of giving me the replacement modem I asked for, he tried to give me their “upgraded, Cadillac model” home media gateway router. I told him that I didn’t need it. I had a perfectly good router/firewall. I had wireless in my house. I didn’t need this huge monstrosity. Yet, he persisted. No amount of explanation from me could make him understand I neither wanted or needed what he was trying to install.

Finally, I gave in. I let him finish his appointment and move on. Once he was gone, I disassembled the router and took it to the nearest cable company store. I walked in and explained exactly what I wanted and what I needed. It took the techs there less than five minutes to find my new device without the wireless or media gateway functionality. They provisioned it through their system and gave it to me. I plugged it in at home and everything worked just the way that it had before. No fuss.

The Field Isn’t Always Greener

Why is this story important? Because it should inform us at networking and systems professionals that there is no such thing as a truly greenfield deployment. Even the greenest field is just a covering for the brown dirt below. If you’re thinking to yourself, “But what about those really green installs with new sites or new organizations?” you obviously aren’t thinking about the total impact of what makes an install non-greenfield.

We tend to think of technology as the limiting factor in a deployment. How do we make the New Awesome System work with the Old Busted Stuff? How can we integrate the automated, orchestrated, programmable thingy with the old punchcard system that still requires people to manually touch things to work? When we try to decide how to make it all work together, our challenge is totally focused on the old tech.

But what if the tech isn’t the limiting factor? What if there are a whole host of other things that make this field of green a little harder to work with? What if it’s a completely new site but still requires a modem connection to process credit cards? What if the branch office computers have a mandate to run an anti-virus program and the branch bought all OS X or Linux machines? What if the completely new company wants you to setup a new office but only has $1000 budgeted for networking gear?

What Can Brown Do For You?

The key to a proper installation at a so-called “brownfield” site is to do your homework. You have to know before you ever walk in the door what is waiting for you. You have to have someone do a site evaluation. You need to know what tech is waiting for you and how it all works together. If the organization that you are doing the installation for can’t produce that information, you either need to sell them a service to do it for them or be prepared to walk away.

At the same time, you also need to account for all the other non-technical things that can crop up. You need to get buy in from management and IT for the project you’re doing. If not, you’re going to find that management and IT are going to use you as a scapegoat for every problem that has ever cropped up in the network. You’ll be a pariah before you ever flip a switch or plug in a cable. Ensuring that you have buy in at all levels is the key to ensuring that everyone is on the same page.

You also need to make sure that you’re setting proper expectations. What are people expecting from this installation? Are their assumptions about the outcome reasonable? Are you going to get stuck holding the bag when the New Awesome Thing fails to live up to the lofty goals it was sold on? Note that this isn’t always the “us vs. them” mentality of sales and engineering either. Sometimes a customer has it in their head that something is going to do a thing or act a certain way and there’s nothing you can do to dissuade the customer. You need to know what they are expecting before you ever try to install or configure a device.


Tom’s Take

Greenfield sites are the unicorn that is both mythical and alluring to us all. We want to believe that will one day not have to work under constraints and be free to set things up in a way that we want. Sadly, much like that unicorn, we all know that true greenfield sites will never truly exist. You’re always going to be working under some kind of constraint. Some kind of restriction. It’s not always technically in nature either. But proper planning and communication will prevent your brown grass deployment from becoming a quagmire of quicksand.