Chip Shortages Aren’t Sweet for Networking

Have you tried to order networking gear recently? You’re probably cursing because the lead times on most everything are getting long. It’s not uncommon to see lead times on wireless access points or switch gear reaching 180 days or more. Reports from the Internet say that some people are still waiting to get things they ordered this spring. The prospect of rapid delivery of equipment is fading like the summer sun.

Why are we here? What happened? And can we do anything about it?

Fewer Chips, More Air

The pandemic has obviously had the biggest impact for a number of reasons. When a fabrication facility shuts down it doesn’t just ramp back up. Even when all the workers are healthy and the city where it is located is open for business it takes weeks to bring everything back online to full capacity. Just like any manufacturing facility you can’t just snap your fingers and get back to churning out the widgets.

The pandemic has also strained supply chains around the world. Even if the fabs had stayed open this entire time you’d be looking at a shortage of materials to make the equipment. Global supply chains were running extremely lean in 2019 and exposing one aspect of them has created a cascade effect that has caused stress everywhere. The lack of toilet paper or lunchmeat in your grocery store shows that. Even when the supply is available the ability to deliver it is impacted.

The supply chain problem also belies the issue on the other side of the shipping container. Even if the fabs had enough chips to sell to anyone that wanted them it’s hard to get those parts delivered to the companies that make things. If this were simply an issue of a company not getting the materials it needed to make a widget in a reasonable time there wouldn’t be as much issue. But because these companies make things that other companies use to make things the hiccups in the chain are exacerbated. If TSMC is delayed by a month getting a run of chips out, that month-long delay only increases for those down the line.

We’ve got issues getting facilities back online. We’ve got supply chains causing problems all over the place. Simple economics says we should just build more facilities, right? The opportunity costs of not having enough production around means we have ample space to make more of the things we need and profit. You’re right. Companies like Intel are bringing new fabs online as fast as they can. Sadly, that is a process that is measured in months or even years. The capacity we need to offset the disruption to the chip market should have been built two years ago if we wanted it ready now.

All of these factors are mixed into one simple truth. Without the materials, manufacturing, or supply chain to deliver the equipment we’re going to be left out in the cold if we want something delivered today. Just in Time inventory is about to become Somewhere in Time inventory. We’re powerless to change the supply chain. Does that means we’re powerless to prevent disruption to our planning process?

Proactive Processes

We may not be able to assemble networking gear ourselves to speed up the process but we are far from helpless. The process and the planning around gear acquisition and deployment has to change to reflect the current state of the world. We can have an impact provided we’re ready to lead by example.

  • Procure NOW: Purchasing departments are notorious for waiting until the last minute to buy things. Part of that reasoning is that expenditures are worth less in the future than right now because those assets are more valuable today gaining interest or something. You need to go to the purchasing department and educate them about how things are working right now. Instead of them sitting on the project for another few months you need to tell them that the parts have to be ordered right now in order for them to be delivered in six or seven months. They’re going to fight you and tell you that they can just wait. However, we all know this isn’t going to clear up any time soon. If they persist in trying to tell you that you need to wait just have them try to go car shopping to illustrate the issue. If you want stuff by the end of Q1 2022, you need to get that order in NOW.
  • Preconfigure Things However You Can: If you’re stuck waiting six months to get switches and access points, are you going to be stuck waiting another month after they come in to configure them? I hope that answer is a resounding “NO”. There are resources available to make sure you can get things configured now so you’re not waiting when the equipment is sitting on a loading dock somewhere. You need to reach out to your VAR or your vendor and get some time on lab gear in the interim. If you ordered a wireless controller or a data center switch you can probably get some rack time on a very similar device or even the exact same one in a lab somewhere. That means you can work on a basic configuration or even provision things like VLANs or SSIDs so you’re not recreating the wheel when things come in. Even if all you have is a skeleton config you’re hours ahead of where you would be otherwise. And if the VAR or vendor gives you a hard time about lab gear you can always remind them that there are other options available for the next product refresh.
  • Minimum Viable Functionality: All this advice is great for a new pod or an addition to an existing network that isn’t critical. What if the gear you ordered is needed right now? What if this project can’t wait? How can you make things work today with nothing in hand? This is a bit trickier because it will require duplicate work. If you need to get things operational today you need to work with what you have today. That means you may have to salvage an old lab switch or pull something out of production and reduce available ports until the gear can arrive. It also means you’re going to have to backup the old configs, erase them completely (don’t forget about the VLAN database and VTP server configurations), and then put on the new info. When the new equipment comes in you’re going to have to do it all over again in reverse. It’s more work but it leads to things being operational today instead of constantly telling someone that it’s going to be a while. If you’re a VAR that’s doing this for a customer, you’d better make it very clear this is temporary and just a loan. Otherwise you might find your equipment being a permanent addition even after everything comes in.

Tom’s Take

The chip shortage is one of those things that’s going to linger under the best of circumstances. We’re going to be pressed to get gear in well into 2022. That means delayed projects and lots of arguing about what’s critical and what’s not. We can’t fix the semiconductor sector of the market but we can work to make sure that the impact felt there is the only one that impacts us right now. The more we do ahead of time to make things smooth the better it will be when it’s finally time to make things happen. Don’t let the lack of planning on the part of the supply chain sour your outlook on doing your role in networking.