Cisco and Viptela – The Price of Development Debt

Cisco finally pulled themselves into the SD-WAN market by acquiring Viptela on Monday. Viptela was considered to be one of, if not the leading SD-WAN vendor in the market. That Cisco decided to pick them as an acquisition target isn’t completely surprising. But one might wonder why?

IWANna New Debt

Cisco’s premier strategy for SD-WAN up until last week was IWAN. This is their catch-all solution designed to take the various component pieces being offered by SD-WAN solutions and replicate them on Cisco hardware. IWAN has served as a vehicle for Cisco to push things like the APIC-EM solution, Cisco ONE licensing, and a variety of other enhanced technologies like NBAR and PfR.

Cisco has packaged these technologies together because they have spent a couple of decades building these protocols up to be the best at what they do in the industry. NBAR was the key to application QoS years ago. PfR and OER were the genesis of Cisco having the ability to intelligently route packets to destinations. These protocols have formed the cornerstone of their platform for many, many years.

So why is IWAN such a mess? If you have the best of breed technology built into a router that makes the packets fly across the Internet at lightning speeds how is it that companies like Viptela were eating Cisco’s lunch in the SD-WAN space? It’s because those same best-of-breed protocols are to blame for the jigsaw puzzle of IWAN.

If you are the product manager for a protocol like NBAR or PfR, you want it to be adopted by as many people as possible. Wide adoption guarantees you’re going to have a job tomorrow or even next year. The people working on EIGRP and OSPF are safe. But if you get left behind technologically, you’re in for rough seas. Just ask the folks that managed LANE. But if you can attach yourself to a movement that’s got some steam, you’re in the drivers seat.

At the same time, you want your protocol or product to be the best at what it does. And sometimes being the best means you don’t compromise. That’s great when you are the only thing running on the system. But when you’re trying to get protocols to work together to create something bigger, you often find that compromises are not just a good idea, they’re necessary. But how do you handle it when the product manager for NBAR and the product manager for IP SLA get into a screaming match over who is going to blink first?

Using existing protocols and products is a great idea because it means you don’t have to reinvent the wheel every time you design something. But, with that wheel comes the technical debt of development. Given the chance to reuse something that thousands, if not millions, of dollars of R&D has gone into, companies like Cisco will jump at the chance to get some more longevity out of a protocol.

Not Pokey, But Gumby

Now, lets look at a scrappy startup like Viptela. They have to build their protocols from the ground up. Maybe they have the opportunity of leveraging some open source projects or some basic protocol implementations to get off the ground. That means that they are starting from essentially square one. It also means they are starting off with very little technical and development debt.

When Viptela builds their application monitoring stack or their IPSec VPN stack, they aren’t trying to build the best protocol for every possible situation that could ever be encountered by a wide variety of customers. They are just trying to build a protocol that works. And not just a protocol that works on its own. They want a protocol that works with everything else they are building.

When you’re forced to do everything from scratch, you find that you avoid making some of the same choices that you were forced to make years ago. The lack of technical and development debt also means you can take a new direction with things. Don’t want to support pre-shared key IPSec VPNs? Don’t build it into the protocol. Don’t care to have some of the quirks of PfR? Build something different that meets your needs. You have complete control.

Flexibility is why SD-WAN vendors were able to dominate the market for the past two years. They were able to adapt and change quickly because they didn’t need to keep trying to make systems integrate on top the tech and dev debt they incurred during the product lifecycle. That lets them concentrate on features that customers want, not on trying to integrate features that management has decreed must be included because the product manager was convincing in the last QBR.


Tom’s Take

In the end, the acquisition of Viptela by Cisco was as much about reduction of technical and development debt in their SD-WAN offerings as it was trying to get ahead in the game. They needed something that could be used as-is without the need to rely on any internal development processes. I alluded to this during our Network Collective Off-The-Cuff show. Without the spin-out model available any longer, Cisco is going to have to start making tough decisions to get things like this done. Either those decisions are made via reduction of business units without integration or through larger dollar signs to acquire solutions to provide the cohesion they need.

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The Future Of SDN Is Up In The Air

The announcement this week that Riverbed is buying Xirrus was a huge sign that the user-facing edge of the network is the new battleground for SDN and SD-WAN adoption. Riverbed is coming off a number of recent acquisitions in the SDN space, including Ocedo just over a year ago. So, why then, would Riverbed chase down a wireless company when they’re so focused on the wiring behind the walls?

The New User Experience

When SDN was a pile of buzzwords attached to an idea that had just come out of Stanford, a lot of people were trying to figure out just what exactly SDN could offer them in terms of their network. Things like network slicing were the first big pieces to be put up before things like orchestration, programmability, and APIs were really brought to the fore. People were trying to figure out how to make this hot new thing work for them. Well, almost everyone.

Wireless professionals are a bit jaded when it comes to SDN. That’s because they’ve seen it already in the form of controller-based solutions. The idea that a central device can issue commands to remote access devices and control configurations easily? Airespace was doing that over a decade ago before they got bought by Cisco. Programmability is a moot point to people that can import thousands of access points into a device and automatically have new SSIDs being broadcast on them all in a matter of seconds. Even the new crop of “controllerless” wireless systems on the market still have a central control infrastructure that sends commands to the APs. Much like we’ve found in recent years with SDN, removing the control plane from the data plane path has significant advantages.

So, what would it take to excite wireless pros about SDN? Well, as it turns out, the issue comes down to the user side of the equation. Wireless networks work very well in today’s enterprise. They form the backbone of user connectivity. Companies like Aruba are experimenting with all-wireless offices. The concept is crazy at first glance. How will users communicate without phones? As it turns out, most of them have been using instant messengers and soft phone programs for years. Their communications infrastructure has changed significantly since I learned how to install phone systems years ago. But what hasn’t changed is the need to get these applications to play nicely with each other.

Application behavior and analysis is a huge selling point for SDN and, by extension, SD-WAN. Being able to classify application traffic running on a desktop and treat it differently based on criteria like voice traffic versus web browsing traffic is huge for network professionals. This means the complicated configurations of QoS back in the day can be abstracted out of the network devices and handled by more intelligent systems further up the stack. The hard work can be done where it should be done – by systems with unencumbered CPUs making intelligent decisions rather than by devices that are processing packets as quickly as possible. These decisions can only be made if the traffic is correctly marked and identified as close to the point of origin as possible. That’s where Riverbed and Xirrus come into play.

Extending Your Brains To Your Fingers

By purchasing a company like Xirrus, Riverbed can build on their plans for SDN and SD-WAN by incorporating their software technology into the wireless edge. By classifying the applications where they live, the wireless APs can provide the right information to the SDN processes to ensure traffic is dealt with properly as it flies through the network. With SD-WAN technologies, that can mean making sure the web browsing traffic is sent through local internet links when traffic meant for main sites, like communications or enterprise applications, can be sent via encrypted tunnels and monitored for SLA performance.

Network professionals can utilize SDN and SD-WAN to make things run much more smoothly for remote users without the need to install cumbersome appliances at the edge to do the classification. Instead, the remote APs now become the devices needed to make this happen. It’s brilliant when you realize how much more effective it can be to deploy a larger number of connectivity devices that contain software for application analysis than it is to drop a huge server into a branch office where it’s not needed.

With the deployment of these remote devices, Riverbed can continue to build on the software side of technology by increasing the capabilities of these devices while not requiring new hardware every time a change comes out. You may need to upgrade your APs when a new technology shift happens in hardware, like when 802.11ax is finally released, but that shouldn’t happen for years. Instead, you can enjoy the benefits of using SDN and SD-WAN to accelerate your user’s applications.


Tom’s Take

Fortinet bought Meru. HPE bought Aruba. Now, Riverbed is buying Xirrus. The consolidation of the wireless market is about more than just finding a solution to augment your campus networking. It’s about building a platform that uses wireless networking as a delivery mechanism to provide additional value to users. The spectrum part of wireless is always going to be hard to do properly. Now, the additional benefit of turning those devices into SDN sensors is a huge value point for enterprise networking professionals as well. What better way to magically deploy SDN in your network than to flip a switch and have it everywhere all at once?

Sorting Through SD-WAN

lightspeed

SD-WAN has finally arrived. We’re not longer talking about it in terms of whether or not it is a thing that’s going to happen, but a thing that will happen provided the budgets are right. But while the concept of SD-WAN is certain, one must start to wonder about what’s going to happen to the providers of SD-WAN services.

Any Which Way You Can

I’ve written a lot about SDN and SD-WAN. SD-WAN is the best example of how SDN should be marketed to people. Instead of talking about features like APIs, orchestration, and programmability, you need to focus on the right hook. Do you see a food processor by talking about how many attachments it has? Or do you sell a Swiss Army knife by talking about all the crazy screwdrivers it holds? Or do you simply boil it down to “This thing makes your life easier”?

The most successful companies have made the “easier” pitch the way forward. Throwing a kitchen sink at people doesn’t make them buy a whole kitchen. But showing them how easy and automated you can make installation and management will sell boxes by the truckload. You have to appeal the opposite nature that SD-WAN was created to solve. WANs are hard, SD-WANs make them easy.

But that only works if your SD-WAN solution is easy in the first place. The biggest, most obvious target is Cisco IWAN. I will be the first to argue that the reason that Cisco hasn’t captured the SD-WAN market is because IWAN isn’t SD-WAN. It’s a series of existing technologies that were brought together to try and make and SD-WAN competitor. IWAN has all the technical credibility of a laboratory full of parts of amazing machines. What it lacks is any kind of ability to tie all that together easily.

IWAN is a moving target. Which platform should I use? Do I need this software to make it run correctly? How do I do zero-touch deployments? Or traffic control? How do I plug a 4G/LTE modem into the router? The answers to each of these questions involves typing commands or buying additional software features. That’s not the way to attack the complexity of WANs. In fact, it feeds into that complexity even more.

Cisco needs to look at a true SD-WAN technology. That likely means acquisition. Sure, it’s going to be a huge pain to integrate an acquisition with other components like APIC-EM, but given the lead that other competitors have right now, it’s time for Cisco to come up with a solution that knocks the socks off their longtime customers. Or face the very real possibility of not having longtime customers any longer.

Every Which Way But Loose

The first-generation providers of SD-WAN bounced onto the scene to pick up the pieces from IWAN. Names like Viptela, VeloCloud, CloudGenix, Versa Networks, and more. But, aside from all managing to build roughly the same platform with very similar features, they’ve hit a might big wall. They need to start making money in order for these gambles to pay off. Some have customers. Others are managing the migration into other services, like catering their offerings toward service providers. Still others are ripe acquisition targets for companies that lack an SD-WAN strategy, like HPE or Dell. I expect to see some fallout from the first generation providers consolidating this year.

The second generation providers, like Riverbed and Silver Peak, all have something in common. They are building on a business they’ve already proven. It’s no coincidence that both Riverbed and Silver Peak are the most well-known names in WAN optimization. How well known? Even major Cisco partners will argue that they sell these two “best of breed” offerings over Cisco’s own WAAS solution. Riverbed and Silver Peak have a definite advantage because they have a lot of existing customers that rely on WAN optimization. That market alone is going to net them a significant number of customers over the next few years. They can easily sell SD-WAN as the perfect addition to make WAN optimization even easier.

The third category of SD-WAN providers is the late comers. I still can’t believe it, but I’ve been reading about providers that aren’t traditional companies trying to get into the space. Talk about being the ninth horse in an eight horse race. Honestly, at this point you’re better off plowing your investment money into something else, like Internet of Things or Virtual Reality. There’s precious little room among the existing first generation providers and the second generation stalwarts. At best, all you can hope for is a quick exit. At worst, your “novel” technology will be snapped up for pennies after you’re bankrupt and liquidating everything but the standing desks.


Tom’s Take

Why am I excited about the arrival of SD-WAN? Because now I can finally stop talking about it! In all seriousness, when the boardroom starts talking about things that means it’s past the point of being a hobby project and now has become a real debate. SD-WAN is going to change one of the most irritating aspects of networking technology for us. I can remember trying to study for my CCNP and cramming all the DSL and T1 knowledge a person could fit into a brain in my head. Now, it’s all point-and-click and done. IPSec VPNs, traffic analytics, and application identification are so easy it’s scary. That’s the power of SD-WAN to me. Easy to use and easy to extend. I think that the landscape of providers of SD-WAN technologies is going to look vastly different by the end of 2017. But SD-WAN is going to be here for the long haul.

Is The Rise Of SD-WAN Thanks To Ethernet?

Ethernet

SD-WAN has exploded in the market. Everywhere I turn, I see companies touting their new strategy for reducing WAN complexity, encrypting data in flight, and even doing analytics on traffic to help build QoS policies and traffic shaping for critical links. The first demo I ever watched for SDN was a WAN routing demo that chose best paths based on cost and time-of-day. It was simple then, but that kind of thinking has exploded in the last 5 years. And it’s all thanks to our lovable old friend, Ethernet.

Those Old Serials

When I started in networking, my knowledge was pretty limited to switches and other layer 2 devices. I plugged in the cables, and the things all worked. As I expanded up the OSI model, I started understanding how routers worked. I knew about moving packets between different layer 3 areas and how they controlled broadcast storms. This was also around the time when layer 3 switching was becoming a big thing in the campus. How was I supposed to figure out the difference between when I should be using a big router with 2-3 interfaces versus a switch that had lots of interfaces and could route just as well?

The key for me was media types. Layer 3 switching worked very well as long as you were only connecting Ethernet cables to the device. Switches were purpose built for UTP cable connectivity. That works really well for campus networks with Cat 5/5e/6 cabling. Switched Virtual Interfaces (SVIs) can handle a large amount of the routing traffic.

For WAN connectivity, routers were a must. Because only routers were modular in a way that accepted cards for different media types. When I started my journey on WAN connectivity, I was setting up T1 lines. Sometimes they had an old-fashioned serial connector like this:

s-l300

Those connected to external CSU/DSU modules. Those were a pain to configure and had multiple points of failure. Eventually, we moved up in the world to integrated CSU/DSU modules that looked like this:

ehwic-2-ports-t-1-e-1

Those are really awesome because all the configuration is done on the interface. They also take regular UTP cables instead of those crazy V.35 monsters.

cisco_v35_old_large

But those UTP cables weren’t Ethernet. Those were still designed to be used as serial connections.

It wasn’t until the rise of MPLS circuits and Transparent LAN services that Ethernet became the dominant force in WAN connectivity. I can still remember turning up my first managed circuit and thinking, “You mean I can use both FastEthernet interfaces? No cards? Wow!”.

Today, Ethernet dominates the landscape of connectivity. Serial WAN interfaces are relegated to backwater areas where you can’t get “real WAN connectivity”. And in most of those cases, the desire to use an old, slow serial circuit can be superseded by a 4G/LTE USB modem that can be purchased from almost any carrier. It would appear that serial has joined the same Heap of History as token ring, ARCnet, and other venerable connectivity options.

Rise, Ethernet

The ubiquity of Ethernet is a huge boon to SD-WAN vendors. They no longer have to create custom connectivity options for their appliances. They can provide 3-4 Ethernet interfaces and 2-3 USB slots and cover a wide range of options. This also allows them to simplify their board designs. No more modular chassis. No crazy requirements for WIC slots, NM slots, or any other crazy terminology that Cisco WAN engineers are all too familiar with.

Ethernet makes sense for SD-WAN vendors because they aren’t concerned with media types. All their intelligence resides in the software running on the box. They’d rather focus on creating automatic certificate-based IPsec VPNs than figuring out the clock rate on a T1 line. Hardware is not their end goal. It is much easier to order a reference board from Intel and plug it into a box than trying to configure a serial connector and make a custom integration.

Even SD-WAN vendors that are chasing after the service provider market are benefitting from Ethernet ubiquity. Service providers may still run serial connections in their networks, but management of those interfaces at the customer side is a huge pain. They require specialized technical abilities. It’s expensive to manage and difficult to troubleshoot remotely. Putting Ethernet handoffs at the CPE side makes life much easier. In addition, making those handoffs Ethernet makes it much easier to offer in-line service appliances, like those of SD-WAN vendors. It’s a good choice all around.

Serial connectivity isn’t going away any time soon. It fills an important purpose for high-speed connectivity where fiber isn’t an option. It’s also still a huge part of the install base for circuits, especially in rural areas or places where new WAN circuits aren’t easily run. Traditional routers with modular interfaces are still going to service a large number of customers. But Ethernet connectivity is quickly growing to levels where it will eclipse these legacy serial circuits soon. And the advantage for SD-WAN vendors can only grow with it.


Tom’s Take

Ethernet isn’t the only reason SD-WAN has succeeded. Ease of use, huge feature set, and flexibility are the real reasons when SD-WAN has moved past the concept stage and into deployment. WAN optimization now has SD-WAN components. Service providers are looking to offer it as a value added service. SD-WAN has won out on the merits of the technology. But the underlying hardware and connectivity was radically simplified in the last 5-7 years to allow SD-WAN architects and designers to focus on the software side of things instead of the difficulties of building complicated serial interfaces. SD-WAN may not owe it’s entire existence to Ethernet, but it got a huge push in the right direction for sure.

This WAN Is Your WAN, This WAN Is My WAN

Straw Bales on Hill Landscape, Tuscany, Italy

Straw Bales on Hill Landscape, Tuscany, Italy

Ideas coalesce all the time in every vertical. You don’t really notice it until you wake up one day and suddenly everything around you looks identical. Wireless becoming the new access layer. Flash storage taking hold of the high end performance crown. And in networking we have the dominance of all things software defined. One recent development has coming along much faster than anyone could have predicted: Software Defined Wide Area Networking (SD-WAN).

Automatic For The People

SD-WAN is a force in modern networking because people want simplicity. While Ivan does a great job of decoupling marketing from reality, people still believe that SD-WAN is the silver bullet that will fix all of their WAN woes. Even during the original discussions of SD-WAN technology at conferences like ONUG, the overriding idea wasn’t around tying sites together or driving down costs to the point of feasibility. It was all about making life easier.

How does SD-WAN manage to accomplish this? It’s all black box networking. Just like the fuel injector in your car. There’s no crying about interoperability or standards-based protocols. You just plug things in and it all works, even if you can’t exactly plug one vendor solution into a competitor. Lock in wins again.

The ideas behind SD-WAN aren’t exactly new. Cisco talked about SD-WAN quite a bit at Networking Field Day 10. Here’s Jeff Reed on it:

The rest of the two hour session details how Cisco is using their Intelligent WAN (IWAN) product to drive SD-WAN. The names of the components all sound very familiar to networkers: DMVPN, NBAR, PfR, and so on. That’s because SD-WAN uses a lot of tried-and-true techniques to tie the concept together. There’s nothing earth-shattering about SD-WAN under the hood. In fact, a fair number of people that work at the “pioneering” SD-WAN startups all seem to have their roots in one or more traditional networking companies.

Fables of Reconstruction

Look at the other presenters at Networking Field Day 10. Two of them announced SD-WAN solutions even though they aren’t really known for expertise in SD-WAN. One of them wasn’t even known as a branch office acceleration solution. So why the SD-WAN land rush all of the sudden? What’s behind the need to have a solution?

You probably wouldn’t be surprised to learn that a lot of investors are backing expansion into SD-WAN technologies. It’s a hot property. But why? As above, customers aren’t interested in the technical wizardry that goes into SD-WAN. They aren’t clamoring for it to supplant their current WAN solution and offer a Rosetta Stone of inter-vendor WAN cooperation. What’s behind the push?

It probably goes something like this:

  1. Technologist needs to implement WAN architecture. Is dismayed that things are so difficult.
  2. Technologist starts searching for solutions about WAN. They probably start asking friends about it.
  3. Analyst firm hears that technologists are asking about WAN solutions. Releases a questionnaire asking which technologies you’d like to learn more about.
  4. Responses to questionnaires are loaded into a graph or report that people buy because they don’t know who to talk to.
  5. Companies realize customers want WAN solutions. They break their necks to offer those solutions to keep up with demand.
  6. Investors see companies beginning to offer WAN solutions and think there’s a huge untapped market. They start funding anyone that mentions WAN in a meeting.

By the way, you can replace “WAN” with any technology above and it still works.

Thanks to customers needing a solution for something they can’t configure easily they are going to be inundated with SD-WAN options by the time they turn around. And the biggest concern no long becomes “Who has the easiest solution?” but instead, “Who is still going to be here in six months?”

Collapse Into Now

The reckoning is coming in the SD-WAN market. If a company doesn’t already have an SD-WAN solution in development or if their solution won’t see daylight for another nine months, they are going to exercise the second “B” of innovation and buy it. And they have a lot of prime targets to choose from.

Investors get cagey without an exit strategy. How are they going to win at this game? They either have to get paid with an IPO, with a later round of funding, or by having someone buy out the investment. If an investor thinks they can get their money back (plus a bit of interest) by having this little startup bought by a traditional networking vendor you can better believe they will be advising the startup to sell.

The customers are the real losers in the case of a buyout, or worse a bankruptcy. Those highly proprietary solutions become dead weight if there isn’t any support for them any longer. Black box networking falls apart when the little magical creatures inside the box go away. Which means customers will be skittish of supporting a solution that is likely to go away any time soon.

Who will you support? An established vendor slow to roll out a solution? Or an up-and-coming company with new ideas but at risk of being snapped up by a big bank account?


Tom’s Take

I loved seeing all the SD-WAN discussion at Networking Field Day 10. SD-WAN is no longer magic sauce that aggregates DSL and MPLS circuits with encryption. Nuage Networks showed off deploying Docker apps to remote sites. Riverbed talked about using their WAN optimization experience to deploy SaaS solutions through SD-WAN.

We’ve heard from SD-WAN companies in the past at Networking Field Day. It’s interesting to hear the comparisons between the upstarts and the old geezers. It’s clear there is a ton of money that is being invested in SD-WAN. The trick is to find out your needs and pick the best solution for you. Otherwise you may find yourself losing your SD-WAN religion.

 

SDN and the Trough Of Understanding

gartner_net_hype_2015

An article published this week referenced a recent Hype Cycle diagram (pictured above) from the oracle of IT – Gartner. While the lede talked a lot about the apparent “death” of Fibre Channel over Ethernet (FCoE), there was also a lot of time devoted to discussing SDN’s arrival at the Trough of Disillusionment. Quoting directly from the oracle:

Interest wanes as experiments and implementations fail to deliver. Producers of the technology shake out or fail. Investments continue only if the surviving providers improve their products to the satisfaction of early adopters.

As SDN approaches this dip in the Hype Cycle it would seem that the steam is finally being let out of the Software Defined Bubble. The Register article mentions how people are going to leave SDN by the wayside and jump on the next hype-filled networking idea, likely SD-WAN given the amount of discussion it has been getting recently. Do you know what this means for SDN? Nothing but good things.

Software Defined Hammers

Engineers have a chronic case of Software Defined Overload. SD-anything ranks right up there with Fat Free and New And Improved as the Most Overused Marketing Terms. Every solution release in the last two years has been software defined somehow. Why? Because that’s what marketing people think engineers want. Put Software Defined in the product and people will buy it hand over fist. Guess what Little Tommy Callahan has to say about that?

There isn’t any disillusionment in this little bump in the road. Quite the contrary. This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. This is where all the pretenders to the SDN crown find out that their solutions aren’t suited for mass production. Or that their much-vaunted hammer doesn’t have any nails to drive. Or that their hammer can’t drive a customer’s screws or rivets. And those pretenders will move on to the next hype bubble, leaving the real work to companies that have working solutions and real products that customers want.

This is no different than every other “hammer and nail” problem from the past few decades of networking. Whether it be ATM, MPLS, or any one of a dozen “game changing” technologies, the reality is that each of these solutions went from being the answer to every problem to being a specific solution for specific problems. Hopefully we’ve gotten SDN to this point before someone develops the software defined equivalent of LANE.

The Software Defined Road Ahead

Where does SD-technology go from here? Well, without marketing whipping everyone into a Software Defined Frenzy, the future is whatever developers want to make of it. Developers that come up with solutions. Developers that integrate SDN ideas into products and quietly sell them for specific needs. People that play the long game rather than hope that they can take over the world in a day.

Look at IPv6. It solves so many problems we have with today’s Internet. Not just IP exhaustion issues either. It solves issues with security, availability, and reachability. Yet we are just now starting to deploy it widely thanks to the panic of the IPocalypse. IPv6 did get a fair amount of hype twenty years ago when it was unveiled as the solution to every IP problem. After years of mediocrity and being derided as unnecessary, IPv6 is poised to finally assume its role.

SDN isn’t going to take nearly as long as IPv6 to come into play. What is going to happen is a transition away from Software Defined as the selling point. Even today we’re starting to see companies move away from SD labeling and instead use more specific terms to help customers understand what’s important about the solution and how it will help customers. That’s what is needed to clarify the confusion and reduce fatigue.

 

Hypermyopia In The World Of Networking

myopia

The more debate I hear over protocols and product positioning in the networking market today, the more I realize that networking has a very big problem with myopia when it comes to building products. Sometimes that’s good. But when you can’t even see the trees for the bark, let alone the forest, then it’s time to reassess what’s going on.

Way Too Close

Sit down in a bar in Silicon Valley and you’ll hear all kinds of debates about which protocols you should be using in your startup’s project. OpenFlow has its favorite backers. Others say things like Stateless Transport Tunneling (STT) are the way to go. Still others have backed a new favorite draft protocol that’s being fast-tracked at the IETF meetings. The debates go on and on. It ends up looking a lot like this famous video.

But what does this have to do with the product? In the end, do the users really care which transport protocol you used? Is the forward table population mechanism of critical importance to them? Or are they more concerned with how the system works? How easy it is to install? How effective it is at letting them do their jobs?

The hypermyopia problem makes the architecture and engineering people on these projects focus on the wrong set of issues. They think that an elegant and perfect solution to a simple technical problem will be the magical panacea that will sell their product by the truckload. They focus on such minute sets of challenges that they often block out the real problems that their product is going to face.

Think back to IBM in the early days of the Internet. Does anyone remember Blue Lightning? How about the even older MCA Bus? I bet if I said OS/2 I’d get someone’s attention. These were all products that IBM put out that were superior to their counterparts in many ways. Faster speeds, better software architecture, and even revolutionary ideas about peripheral connection. And yet all of them failed miserably in one way or another. Was it because they weren’t technically complete? Or was it because IBM had a notorious problem with marketing and execution when it came to non-mainframe computing?

Take A Step Back

Every writer in technology uses Apple as a comparison company at some point. In this case, you should take a look at their simplicity. What protocol does FaceTime use? Is it SIP? Or H.264? Does it even matter? FaceTime works. Users like that it works. They don’t want to worry about traversing firewalls or having supernodes available. They don’t want to fiddle with settings and tweak timers to make a video call work.

Enterprise customers are very similar. Think about WAN technologies for a moment. Entire careers have been built around finding easy ways to connect multiple sites together. We debate Frame Relay versus ATM. Should we use MPLS? What routing protocol should we use? The debates go on and on. Yet the customer wants connectivity, plain and simple.

At the recent Networking Field Day 9, two companies that specialize in software defined WAN (SD-WAN) had a chance to present. Velocloud and CloudGenix both showcased their methods for creating WANs with very little need for user configuration. The delegates were impressed that the respective company’s technologies “just worked”. No tuning timers. No titanic arguments about MPLS. Just simple wizards and easy configuration.

That’s what enterprise technology should be. It shouldn’t involve a need to get so close to the technology that you lose the big picture. It shouldn’t be a series of debates about which small technology choice to make. It should just work. Users that spend less time implementing technology spend more time using it. They spend more time happy with it. And they’re more likely to buy from you again.


Tom’s Take

If I hear one more person arguing the merits of their technology favorite again, I may throw up. Every time someone comes to me and tells me that I should bet on their horse in the race because it is better or faster or more elegant, I want to grab them by the shoulders and shake some sense into them. People don’t buy complicated things. People hate elegant but overly difficult systems. They just want things to work at the end of the day. They want to put as little thought into a system as they can to maximize the return they get from it. If product managers spent the next iteration of design focusing on ease-of-use instead of picking the perfect tunneling protocol, I think they would see a huge return on their investment in the long run. And that’s something you can see no matter how close you are.