The Long And Winding Network Road

How do you see your network? Odds are good it looks like a big collection of devices and protocols that you use to connect everything. It doesn’t matter what those devices are. They’re just another source of packets that you have to deal with. Sometimes those devices are more needy than others. Maybe it’s a phone server that needs QoS. Or a storage device that needs a dedicated transport to guarantee that nothing is lost.

But what does the network look like to those developers?

Work Is A Highway

When is the last time you thought about how the network looks to people? Here’s a thought exercise for you:

Think about a highway. Think about all the engineering that goes into building a highway. How many companies are involved in building it. How many resources are required. Now, think of that every time you want to go to the store.

It’s a bit overwhelming. There are dozens, if not hundreds, of companies that are dedicated to building highways and other surface streets. Perhaps they are architects or construction crews or even just maintenance workers. But all of them have a function. All for the sake of letting us drive on roads to get places. To us, the road isn’t the primary thing. It’s just a way to go somewhere that we want to be. In fact, the only time we really notice the road is when it is in disrepair or under construction. We only see the road when it impacts our ability to do the things it enables.

Now, think about the network. Networking professionals spend their entire careers building bigger, faster networks. We take weeks to decide how best to handle routing decisions or agonize over which routing protocols are necessary to make things work the way we want. We make it our mission to build something that will stand the test of time and be the Eighth Wonder of the World. At least until it’s time to refresh it again for slightly faster hardware.

The difference between these two examples is the way that the creators approach their creation. Highway workers may be proud of their creation but they don’t spend hours each day extolling the virtues of the asphalt they used or the creative way they routed a particular curve. They don’t demand respect from drivers every time someone jumps on the highway to go to the department store.

Networking people have a visibility problem. They’re too close to their creation to have the vision to understand that it’s just another road to developers. Developers spend all their time worrying about memory allocation and UI design. They don’t care if the network actually works at 10GbE or 100 GbE. They want a service that transports packets back and forth to their destination.

The Old New Network

We’ve had discussion in the last few years about everything under the sun that is designed to make networking easier. VXLAN, NFV, Service Mesh, Analytics, ZTP, and on and on. But these things don’t make networking easier for users. They make networking easier for networking professionals. All of these constructs are really just designed to help us do our jobs a little faster and make things work just a little bit better than they did before.

Imagine all the work that goes into electrical power generation. Imagine the level of automation and monitoring necessary to make sure that power gets from the generation point to your house. It’s impressive. And yet, you don’t know anything about it. It’s all hidden away somewhere unimpressive. You don’t need to describe the operation of a transformer to be able to plug in a toaster. And no matter how much that technology changes it doesn’t impact your life until the power goes out.

Networking needs to be a utility. It needs to move away from the old methods of worrying about how we create VLANs and routing protocols and instead needs to focus on disappearing just like the power grid. We should be proud of what we build. But we shouldn’t make our pride the focus of hubris about what we do. Networking professionals are like highway workers or electrical company employees. We work hard behind the scenes to provide transport for services. The cloud has changed the way we look at the destination for those services. And it’s high time we examine our role in things as well.


Tom’s Take

Telco workers. COBOL programmers. Data entry specialists. All of these people used to be the kings and queens of their field. They were the people with the respect of hundreds. They were the gatekeepers because their technology and job roles were critical. Until they weren’t any more. Networking is getting there quickly. We’ve been so focused on making our job easy to do that we’ve missed the point. We need to be invisible. Just like a well built road or a functioning electrical grid. We are not the goal of infrastructure. We’re just a part of it. And the sooner we realize that and get out of our own way, we’re going to find that the world is a much better place for everyone involved in IT, from developers to users.

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Networking Grows To Invisibility

Cat5

Networking is done. The way you have done things before is finished. The writing has been on the wall for quite a while now. But it’s going to be a good thing.

The Old Standard

Networking purchase models look much different today than they have in the past. Enterprises no longer buy a switch or a router. Instead, they buy solution packages. The minimum purchase unit is a networking pod or rack. Perhaps your proof-of-concept minimum is a leaf-spine of no less than 3 switches. Firewalls are purchased in pairs. Nowhere in networking is something simple any longer.

With the advent of software, even the deployment of these devices is different. Automation and orchestration systems provide provisioning as the devices are brought online. Network Monitoring Systems ensure the devices are operating correctly via API call instead of relying on SNMP. Analytics and telemetry systems can pull statistics on the fly and create datasets that give you insight into all manner of network traffic. The intelligence built into the platform supporting the hardware is more apparent than ever before.

Networking is no longer about fast connectivity speed. Instead, networking is about stability. Providing a transport network that stays healthy instead of growing by leaps and bounds every few years. Organizations looking to model their IT departments after service providers and cloud providers care more about having a reliable system than the most cutting edge technology.

This is nothing new in IT. Both storage and virtualization have moved in this direction for a while. Hardware wizardry has been replaced by software intelligence. Custom hardware is now merchant-based and easy to replace and build. The expertise in deployment and operations has more to do with integration and architecture than in simple day-to-day setup.

The New Normal

Where does that leave networkers? Are we a dying breed, soon to join the Unix admins of the word and telco experts on a beach in retirement? The reality is that things aren’t as dire for us as one might believe.

It is true that we have shifted our thinking away from operations and more toward system building. Rather than worry if the switch ports have been provisioned, we instead look at creating resilient constructs that can survive outages and traffic spikes. Networks are becoming the utility service we’ve always hoped they would be.

This is not the end. It’s the beginning. As networks join storage and compute as utilities in the data center, the responsibilities for our sphere of wizardry are significantly reduced. Rather than spending our time solving crazy user or developer problems, we can instead focus on the key points of stability and availability.

This is going to be a huge shift for the consumers of IT as well. As cloud models have already shown us, people really want to get their IT on their schedules. They want to “buy” storage and networking when it’s needed without interruption. Creating a utility resource is the best way to accomplish that. No longer will the blame for delays be laid at the feet of IT.

But at the same time, the safety net of IT will be gone as well. Unlike Chief Engineer Scott, IT can’t save the day when a developer needs to solve a problem outside of their development environment. Things like First Hop Reachability Protocols (FHRP), multipathing, and even vMotion contribute to bad developer behavior. Without these being available in a utility IT setup, application writers are going to have to solve their own problems with their own tools. While the network team will end up being leaner and smarter, it’s going to make everything run much more smoothly.


Tom’s Take

I live for the day when networking is no different than the electrical grid. I would rather have a “dumb” network that provides connectivity rather than hoping against hope that my “smart” network has all the tricks it needs to solve everyone’s problem. When the simplicity of the network is the feature and we don’t solve problems outside the application stack, stability and reliability will rule the day.

Network Field Day 4

I am once again humbled and honored to accept an invitation to my favorite industry event – Network Field Day (now in its fourth iteration).  Network Field Day 4 (NFD4) will be coming to you from San Jose October 10-12th.  The delegate lineup has a bunch of new faces that I’m excited to catch up with and/or meet for the first time:

https://i0.wp.com/techfieldday.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/09/clintonswedding-wpcf_60x49.jpeg Anthony Burke @Pandom_
https://i1.wp.com/techfieldday.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Plankers-wpcf_60x60.jpg Bob Plankers @Plankers
https://i0.wp.com/techfieldday.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Casemore-wpcf_60x39.jpg Brad Casemore @BradCasemore
https://i0.wp.com/techfieldday.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/brent-salisbury1-wpcf_60x60.jpeg Brent Salisbury @NetworkStatic
https://i1.wp.com/techfieldday.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/cmcnamara-headshot-2011-color-scaled-wpcf_42x60.jpg Colin McNamara @ColinMcNamara
https://i1.wp.com/techfieldday.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Ferro-wpcf_60x39.jpg Greg Ferro @EtherealMind
https://i1.wp.com/techfieldday.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/mfMcNamara-60x60.jpeg Michael McNamara @mfMcNamara
https://i0.wp.com/techfieldday.com/wp-content/uploads/2012/08/Paul-Small.png Paul Stewart @PacketU

This is a great crew with a lot to say and I’m anxious to see them unleashed on our assembled sponsors:

 

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Brocade – I’m betting that VCS is going to be up on the block this time around.  We got a chance to play with it a while back and we had a blast.  With the annoucements that you’ve made around Brocade Tech Day, I’d like to hear more about the VCS strategy and how it will dovetail into your other product lines.  I’d also like to hear more about the ADX and how you plan on terminating VXLAN tunnels in hardware.  Please be sure that you can talk about these in decent depth.  Being told over and over again that something is NDA when it shouldn’t be a huge mystery is a bit disconcerting.  Also, if Jon Hudson isn’t presenting, at least have him show up for a few minutes to say hello.  We love that guy.During Wireless Field Day 3, Gregor Vučajnk (@GregorVucajnk) had a great blog post about attending that had something that I’m going to borrow for this NFD outing.  He called out each of the participating sponsors and gave them a short overview of what he wanted to see from each of them.  I loved the idea, as it gives a bit more direction to the people making the decisions about presentation content.

Cisco Borderless – Please, please, oh please tell me what Borderless really means.  Even if it’s just “everything but data center and collaboration”.  I really want to know how you’re pulling all these product lines together to create synergy.  Otherwise, it’s still just going to be the routing BU, switching BU, and so on.  We had a great time listening to the last presentation about ASA CX and Wireshark on the Cat 4500.  More of that good stuff, even if it means you have to shave your presentation down a bit to accommodate.  Remember, we ask lots of questions.

Juniper – Firstly, I want a bit of talk about Ivan’s post exploring all the gooey details around QFabric.  I understand that in this case it may be a bit like the magician telling how the trick is done, but this is the kind of thing that fascinates me.  I’m also sure there’s going to be discussion around SDN and the Juniper approach to it.  The presentation at NFD2 was so great I want to see you keeping up the good work.

OpenGear – Hello there.  I know nothing about you beyond the cursory Google search.  It looks like you’ve got some interesting technology that could be of great use to network professionals.  Case studies and anecdotes about using a 3G console failover to prevent global chaos would be awesome.  Also, allowing us the opportunity to poke around on a box for a few minutes would rock.  I want to think about how I can use your product to make my life less miserable when it comes to offline console access.

Spirent – Hello again to you.  I didn’t know anything about Spirent last time, but now I see them everywhere I look.  Spirent is like the Good Housekeeping seal for network gear.  Lets dive deeper into things.  I know you’re squeamish about showing off GUIs and things like that, but we nerd out on those things.  Also, I want to talk about how you plan on building testing rigs to handle all the coming 100GigE traffic.  Show me how Spirent is going to keep up the Ginger Rogers mystique that I’ve associated with it.

Statseeker – Network Performance Management and monitoring can be a bit of a dry subject, but doing it with an accent from the Land Down Under could be a bit of a treat.  After your recent Packet Pushers episode, I want to drill down more into how you go about keeping all the monitoring data.  I’ve seen what overwhelming an NMS with data can do, and while it was a pretty light show, I want to prevent it from happening again.  I don’t expect you to bring one of your famous Minis to give away to the delegates, but don’t underestimate the power of bribery via Tim Tam.

Tech Field Day – Audience Participation

For those of you that like to follow along with the Tech Field Day delegates from the comfort of your office chair or recliner, you are more than welcome.  I’ve even seen people talking about taking the day off from work or making sure they aren’t on a remote site.  We will be streaming each of the presentations live at http://techfieldday.com.  Note that this stream does use uStream, so we aren’t optimized for mobile devices just yet.  We’re working on it, though.  We will also be spending a lot of time on Twitter discussing the presentations and questions about them.  Just make sure to use the hashtag #NFD4 and you can be a part of the discussion.  I love seeing discussion and commentary from all the people watching online.  I always make sure to keep my Twitter client at the forefront so I can ask questions from the home audience when they arise.  That way, I’m truly a delegate representing people and giving them a say in what shapes the events.

If you’d like to learn a little more about Tech Field Day, you can head over to http://techfieldday.com and read up on things.  You can also apply to be a delegate at this link.  I look forward to seeing you online and hearing from you at this Tech Field Day event.

Standard Tech Field Day Sponsor Disclaimer

Tech Field Day is a massive undertaking that involves the coordination of many moving parts.  It’s not unlike trying to herd cats with a helicopter.  One of the most important pieces is the sponsors.  Each of the presenting companies is responsible for paying a portion of the travel and lodging costs for the delegates.  This means they have some skin in the game.  What this does NOT mean is that they get to have a say in what we do.  No Tech Field Day delegate is every forced to write about the event due to sponsor demands. If a delegate chooses to write about anything they see at Tech Field Day, there are no restrictions about what can be said.  Sometimes this does lead to negative discussion.  That is entirely up to the delegate.  Independence means no restrictions.  At times, some Tech Field Day sponsors have provided no-cost evaluation equipment to the delegates.  This is provided solely at the discretion of the sponsor and is never a requirement.  This evaluation equipment is also not a contingency of writing a review, be it positive or negative.