There Are No More Green Fields

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

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

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

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

What Can Brown Do For Me

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

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

Building Blocks

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

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

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

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

Tom’s Take

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

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.