A Matter of Perspective

Have you ever taken the opportunity to think about something from a completely different perspective? Or seen someone experience something you have seen through new eyes? It’s not easy for sure. But it is a very enlightening experience that can help you understand why people sometimes see things entirely differently even when presented with the same information.

Overcast Networking

The first time I saw this in action was with Aviatrix Systems. I first got to see them at Cisco Live 2018. They did a 1-hour presentation about their solution and gave everyone an overview of what it could do. For the networking people in the room it was pretty straightforward. Aviatrix did a lot of the things that networking should do. It was just in the cloud instead of in a data center. It’s not that Aviatrix wasn’t impressive. It’s the networking people have a very clear idea of what a networking platform should do.

Fast forward two months to Cloud Field Day 4. Aviatrix presents again, only this time to a group of cloud professionals. The message was a little more refined from their first presentation. They included some different topics to appeal more to a cloud audience, such as AWS encryption or egress security. The reception from the delegates was the differencue between night and day. Rather than just be satisfied with the message that Aviatrix put forward, the Cloud Field Day delegates were completely blown away! They loved everything that Aviatrix had to say. They loved the way that Aviatrix approached a problem they had seen and couldn’t quite understand. How to extend networking into the cloud and take control of it.

Did Aviatrix do something different? Why was the reaction between the two groups so stark? How did it happen this way? I think it is in part because networking people talk to a networking company and see networking. They find the things they expect to find and don’t look any deeper. But when the same company presents to an audience that doesn’t have networking on the brain for the entirety of their career it’s something entirely different. While a networking audience may understand the technology a cloud audience may understand how to make it work better for their needs because they can see the advantages. Perspective matters in this case because people exposed to new ideas find ways to make them work in ways that can only be seen with fresh eyes.

Letting Go of Wires

The second time I saw an example of perspective at play was at Mobility Field Day 3 with Arista Networks. Arista is a powerhouse in the data center networking space. They have gone up against Cisco and taken them head-to-head in a lot of deals. They have been gaining marketshare from Cisco in a narrow range of products focused on the data center. But they’re also now moving into campus switching as well as wireless with the acquisition of Mojo Networks.

When Arista stepped up to present at Mobility Field Day 3, the audience wasn’t a group of networking people that wanted to hear about CloudVision or 400GbE or even EOS. The audience of wireless and mobility professionals wanted to hear how Arista is going to integrate the Mojo product line into their existing infrastructure. The audience was waiting for a message that everything would work together and the way forward would be clear. I don’t know that they heard that message, but it wasn’t because of anything that Arista did on purpose.

Arista is very much trying to understand how they’re going to integrate Mojo Networks into what they do. They’re also very focused on the management and control plane of the access points. These are solved problems in the wireless world right now. When you talk to a wireless professional about centralized management of the device or a survivable control plane that can keep running if the management system is offline they’ll probably laugh. They’ve been able to experience this for the past several years so far. They know what SDN should look like because it’s the way that CAPWAP controllers have always operated. Wireless pros can tell you the flaws behind backhauling all your traffic through a controller and why there are much better options to keep from overwhelming the device.

Wireless pros have a different perspective from networking people right now. Things that networking pros are just now learning about are the past to wireless people. Wireless pros are focused more on the radio side of the equation than the routing and switching side. That perspective gives the wireless crowd a very narrow focus on solving some very hard problems but it does make them miss the point that their expertise can be invaluable to helping both networking pros and networking companies see how to take the best elements of wireless networking control mechanisms and implement them in such a way as to benefit everyone.


Tom’s Take

For me, the difficulty in seeing things differently doesn’t come from having an open mind. Instead, it comes from the fact that most people don’t have a conception of anything outside their frame of reference. We can’t really comprehend things we can’t conceive of. What you need to do to really understand what it feels like to be in someone else’s shoes is have someone show you what it looks like to be in them. Observe people learning something for the first time. Or see how they react to a topic you know well. Odds are good you might just find that you will know it better because they helped you understand it better.

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The Cargo Cult of Google Tools

You should definitely watch this amazing video from Ben Sigelman of LightStep that was recorded at Cloud Field Day 4. The good stuff comes right up front.

In less than five minutes, he takes apart crazy notions that we have in the world today. I like the observation that you can’t build a system more than three or four orders of magnitude. Yes, you really shouldn’t be using Hadoop for simple things. And Machine Learning is not a magic wand that fixes every problem.

However, my favorite thing was the quick mention of how emulating Google for the sake of using their tools for every solution is folly. Ben should know, because he is an ex-Googler. I think I can sum up this entire discussion in less than a minute of his talk here:

Google’s solutions were built for scale that basically doesn’t exist outside of a maybe a handful of companies with a trillion dollar valuation. It’s foolish to assume that their solutions are better. They’re just more scalable. But they are actually very feature-poor. There’s a tradeoff there. We should not be imitating what Google did without thinking about why they did it. Sometimes the “whys” will apply to us, sometimes they won’t.

Gee, where have I heard something like this before? Oh yeah. How about this post. Or maybe this one on OCP. If I had a microphone I would have handed it to Ben so he could drop it.

Building a Laser Moustrap

We’ve reached the point in networking and other IT disciplines where we have built cargo cults around Facebook and Google. We practically worship every tool they release into the wild and try to emulate that style in our own networks. And it’s not just the tools we use, either. We also keep trying to emulate the service provider style of Facebook and Google where they treated their primary users and consumers of services like your ISP treats you. That architectural style is being lauded by so many analysts and forward-thinking firms that you’re probably sick of hearing about it.

Guess what? You are not Google. Or Facebook. Or LinkedIn. You are not solving massive problems at the scale that they are solving them. Your 50-person office does not need Cassandra or Hadoop or TensorFlow. Why?

  • Google Has Massive Scale – Ben mentioned it in the video above. The published scale of Google is massive, and even it’s on the low side of the number. The real numbers could even be an order of magnitude higher than what we realize. When you have to start quoting throughput numbers in “Library of Congress” numbers to make sense to normal people, you’re in a class by yourself.
  • Google Builds Solutions For Their Problems – It’s all well and good that Google has built a ton of tools to solve their issues. It’s even nice of them to have shared those tools with the community through open source. But realistically speaking, when are you really going to use Cassandra to solve all but the most complicated and complex database issues? It’s like a guy that goes out to buy a pneumatic impact wrench to fix the training wheels on his daughter’s bike. Sure, it will get the job done. But it’s going to be way overpowered and cause more problems than it solves.
  • Google’s Tools Don’t Solve Your Problems – This is the crux of Ben’s argument above. Google’s tools aren’t designed to solve a small flow issue in an SME network. They’re designed to keep the lights on in an organization that maps the world and provides video content to billions of people. Google tools are purpose built. And they aren’t flexible outside that purpose. They are built to be scalable, not flexible.

Down To Earth

Since Google’s scale numbers are hard to comprehend, let’s look at a better example from days gone by. I’m talking about the Cisco Aironet-to-LWAPP Upgrade Tool:

I used this a lot back in the day to upgrade autonomous APs to LWAPP controller-based APs. It was a very simple tool. It did exactly what it said in the title. And it didn’t do much more than that. You fed it an image and pointed it at an AP and it did the rest. There was some magic on the backend of removing and installing certificates and other necessary things to pave the way for the upgrade, but it was essentially a batch TFTP server.

It was simple. It didn’t check that you had the right image for the AP. It didn’t throw out good error codes when you blew something up. It only ran on a maximum of 5 APs at a time. And you had to close the tool every three or four uses because it had a memory leak! But, it was a still a better choice than trying to upgrade those APs by hand through the CLI.

This tool is over ten years old at this point and is still available for download on Cisco’s site. Why? Because you may still need it. It doesn’t scale to 1,000 APs. It doesn’t give you any other functionality other than upgrading 5 Aironet APs at a time to LWAPP (or CAPWAP) images. That’s it. That’s the purpose of the tool. And it’s still useful.

Tools like this aren’t built to be the ultimate solution to every problem. They don’t try to pack in every possible feature to be a “single pane of glass” problem solver. Instead, they focus on one problem and solve it better than anything else. Now, imagine that tool running at a scale your mind can’t comprehend. And you’ll know now why Google builds their tools the way they do.


Tom’s Take

I have a constant discussion on Twitter about the phrase “begs the question”. Begging the question is a logical fallacy. Almost every time the speaker really means “raises the question”. Likewise, every time you think you need to use a Google tool to solve a problem, you’re almost always wrong. You’re not operating at the scale necessary to need that solution. Instead, the majority of people looking to implement Google solutions in their networks are like people that put chrome everything on a car. They’re looking to show off instead of get things done. It’s time to retire the Google Cargo Cult and instead ask ourselves what problems we’re really trying to solve, as Ben Sigelman mentions above. I think we’ll end up much happier in the long run and find our work lives much less complicated.