If you live in the United States(and probably Canada) and happen to watch even a small amount of television, you have probably seen those fantastic beer commercials from Dos Equis(XX) about the most interesting man in the world. They say pretty funny things like: “When he goes to the museum he is allowed to touch the art.” Essentially, he is the most interesting man in the world. Everyone wants to be him and they listen to what he says. At least that’s the impression you are left with.
In our Western society, we tend to elevate our doctors to that level. I can’t speak for other cultures, but I am willing to bet it is similar. Doctors are viewed as the most successful people due to the sheer amount of stuff they have to know to do their jobs. They go to school for many years and then spend several years after that prowling the floors of hospitals gaining on the job experience. Then, they can go out on their own and make a bajillion dollars in private practice. Ever been to a party or gathering and ran into a doctor? They become the “Most Interesting Man(or Woman)” in the room. Heaven forbid they are an emergency room doctor. A real life episode of ER, Chicago Hope, Trapper John MD, Scrubs, House, or whatever else medical show you watch on TV emerges.
My brother is a fire fighter in San Antonio, and recently came off an extended tour as a paramedic in that fine city. He has all sorts of stories that can gross you out or make you glad you chose the cubicle for the career path. Medicine isn’t for everyone. The other night my 4 year old daughter knocked her head on something pointy and started bleeding on her scalp. Like any over protective suburban dweller, the wife and I were in full panic mode and so I called my brother up. In a scene that many in the networking industry are familiar with, the “troubleshooting” ensued. “How big is the cut?” Is it still bleeding? Are there any other symptoms like dizziness, vomiting, or general disorientation associated with this injury?” I sent him a picture via my smart phone(Yay cellular network!) and he was able to ascertain that she was fine. Put some Neosporin on it and secure that with a band-aid and problem solved. At that moment, my brother was the most interesting man in the room, or at least within the PSTN. 🙂
As I write this, I am sitting on a plane flying home from another network upgrade. I didn’t see my comfy hotel room much, and I had very little time to see the sights of a city I love(San Antonio, Texas). However, a routine network upgrade was anything but routine. I had to bang away on CLI all night to get it done. Think about some of the problems you have tackled. Think about the troubleshooting that just flows forth from your mouth like the voice at the end of those car commercials that talks really, really fast. Some things are just natural because you have done them so many times. Go ask a brand new route/switch CCIE(someone with a number) how to configure multi-area OSPF and they should spew forth a barrage of CLI kung-fu. Why? They’ve done it a bunch of times. It just comes natural.
When I try and explain to people what I do for a living, I sometimes use the emergency room analogy. Like a doctor analyzing a traumatized patient, I have to assess network problems and fix them before the people who sign my pay check figure out I am faking this whole IT thing.
In a previous post, I tried to enumerate many of the things your standard enterprise network engineer has to know. If you are a consultant, that list might be even longer based on how many vendor product sets you push….I mean offer. You have to know the differences in all the products to design the proper solution. It doesn’t just encompass triage and treatment like an emergency room doctor. There’s the consult in which you go over options. There’s the post-trauma care in which you look at ways to prevent the problem from occurring again. There’s the favorite part of the vendor which is the dispensation of new hardware/software(ie drugs) that goes hand in hand with the post-trauma care.
The medical field has their specialists. So do network people. You’re an oncologist? Congratulations. We have wireless engineers. If you think tumor removal is hard, try planning an enterprise wide wireless roll out using multiple controllers, location services, voice capabilities, logically isolated guest access, 802.1x, and a wide array of antennas from patch, to omni-directional, to Yagi, to parabolic. Now you may take issue with my comparing a cancer doctor with a network engineer. Is that because you don’t think a network has any power over life or death? Maybe 20 years ago I would agree, but not today. Having worked at a company that owned a ton of hospitals I could tell you stories that would say otherwise, but that’s for another time and another blog post. 🙂
In a world that uses career choices to dictate who the most interesting people are in the room, it’s time for networking professionals to rise up and claim their place as the center of the conversation. We shouldn’t rest until people are coming up to us and begging us to tell them about our latest network escapades. Let them come and sit in front of us like a cult member would to their cult leader and be fully attentive to our tales of lore. May we spew forth tales of nights spent troubleshooting broadcast storms and routing loops. Let them focus on us intently as we tell them why using static routing is from the devil and why Robert Metcalfe gave us a gift greater than the Polio vaccine(Sorry Jonas Salk. It’s tongue and cheek.). May they run off to their spouses, co-workers, significant others and re-tell the amazing things they have heard.
In all seriousness, I can’t think of many other career fields besides networking/IT in which the learning is never done and the education never ends. Well, not for those who want to be successful in this crazy world of the Internet, clouds, and other over used marketing terms.
The next time you are hanging out with a doctor and they start yammering about how they performed surgery on someone and saved their life with a scalpel and a pack of gauze, ask them if they know the difference between a type 5 and a type 3 LSA. If not, call them a loser and declare yourself the most interesting man/woman in the room! Stay thirsty my friends.
Remember when the network field wasn’t so complicated? Think back to the early 1990’s. Wireless for enterprise users was in its infancy. Firewalls seemed to be a bit easier to administer. Virtualization was limited to the mainframe community. A T-1/E-1 cost a billion dollars a month and could provide Internet connectivity for thousands of users. Voice was still confined to its own cable plant and the PBX was humming along using TDM. RIPv1 was still pretty popular. Hubs made packet captures easy to obtain, but broadcast storms constantly took down segments of the network. Storage involved connecting an external disk array to a server via a SCSI cable. ISDN was what the rich people used at home for Internet access. You know. The good old days.
Well it seems that a lot has changed since then. While I have no desire to go back to those days, I do miss the simplicity. Or at least what seems simplistic compared to today. Let’s take a look at what your typical enterprise network person has on their plate. Keep in mind that in some environments, these people also have systems related duties such as Active Directory administration, Linux/Unix administration, e-mail, database, etc.
Routing – Static, OSPF, EIGRP, and BGP
Switching – STP and its variants(RST, MST, PVST), Link aggregation(port channels/etherchannels)
Wireless – AP’s(antenna types), controllers, extras(location services, management), 802.11a/b/g/n
Circuits/WAN – T-1’s, DS-3’s/T-3’s, OC-3/12/48(SONET), Metro Ethernet, ISDN(Yes, it’s still out there), FrameRelay(Yep. That one too.), MPLS
Voice – call routing, phone(station) administration, voice mail, conferencing(audio and video), PRI’s, DID’s, signaling, codecs, voice gateways
Other Services – Multicast, load balancing, firewall, IPS, VPN, WAN optimization, content filters(web,e-mail), network management platforms, QoS, packet capture analysis(ie Wireshark,tcpdump), storage networking
Does that about sum it up? Yes, some of those things were being done back in the 90’s and in some cases, even earlier. However, a lot of them are relatively new things. Maybe you don’t have to touch all of those things. Maybe you do. For some of the service provider type things (MPLS, SONET), you may not ever have to administer that end, but if you’re buying those services, you better be familiar with them. Perhaps your organization is large enough to break out the security side of things or the voice side of things. Maybe you have a dedicated storage group that handles the storage network side. If you are lucky, you may even have a dedicated wireless engineer or two depending on the size of your wireless deployment.
It is a monumental task to become proficient in all of those areas, but wait; there’s more. For many people in the network space, they also have to become data center/facility engineers focusing on the following things:
Monitoring – temperature, humidity, water leak, smoke, power load levels
Cooling – BTU calculations, hot/cold aisle design, airflow on hardware
Power – Circuit requirements, UPS requirements, generator requirements
Cabling – Sub-floor, above the rack, CAT-5/6/7 differences, patch panel choices/locations, SM and MM fiber differences
Space Requirements – Rack deployments, 2 post, 4 post, full height, half height
Think that’s all? Well, the past few years have added some additional requirements, and more are coming. Things such as:
Virtualization – It has been around for at least 5 years now in enterprise environments. It’s not going away and without using newer hardware/software from networking vendors, you can’t see what’s going on inside the server farm.
The Return to Layer 2 in the DC – TRILL and every vendor’s particular flavor of it aim to resolve the ineffiencies of Spanning Tree and turn your network switches into an intelligent fabric. This will be similar to what storage networks have today via Fiber Channel.
Consolidation of Storage and Data/Voice Traffic – It happened to voice about 10 years ago. Now it is happening to storage. Everything will be on 1 wire in a matter of years.
Traditional Endpoint Death – No longer will the phone, desktop, and laptop rule the network. Cellular phones, tablets, and other similar compact devices will show up on the wireless networks in even greater numbers than they are today. Congratulations corporate wireless person. You just become a Google, Apple, Microsoft, Blackberry, HP, Cisco, and Avaya engineer for their mobile product set.
IPv6 – And you thought planning IPv4 deployments were interesting? The migrations to IPv6 are going to be interesting. Using NAT and 6to4/4to6 tunnels will become commonplace until the IPv4 is gone. I realize this is already happening/happened in many other parts of the world. However, in the US, there’s still a LOT of work to be done.
Now I realize that nobody is going to be an expert in all of these areas. I also know that many employers are not going to require you to even be familiar with all of these things. With things like hosted data centers, you may not ever have to deal with data center build out. Power and cooling may never be an issue for you. I also know that there are plenty of good consultants out there that specialize in one or more of these areas. Of course, nobody stays at the same company forever, so what you do at company X today doesn’t mean you won’t do a bunch of other things at company Z tomorrow. I guess the point I am trying to make is that our jobs are only going to become more complex in the years to come. The amount of hardware we use may decrease, but the functions within that hardware will increase. I can see a day in which something like WAN optimization is built into the router itself, and I don’t mean via a service module. I mean built into the processors or ASIC’s themselves. Of course, that’s assuming we’re still using TCP at that time. I don’t even want to contemplate what wireless will be like after 802.11n because it makes my head hurt just trying to understand how 802.11n works today with multiple antennas.
Start looking at the blueprint for something like a Cisco CCIE Route/Switch(Insert any other track as well) or Juniper JNCIE exam and you’ll find that it only covers a portion of what you need to know in this day and age. Anyone who has been involved in that process from start to finish knows how much information you have to know to pass. For those who don’t know, it is a TON. Yikes! Still want the job? Maybe becoming a specialist isn’t such a bad idea after all.
***Please note that these are my own thoughts and not those of my employer.
First and foremost, I have to credit Jimmy Ray Purser from Cisco for putting the idea for this post in my head. Back in late April of this year, he wrote an article for Network World entitled “The ABC’s of Anybody but Cisco.”
Like a lot of people, I work on networks that have a lot of Cisco gear. I’m very comfortable with their stuff. I’ve used CatOS, IOS, and NX-OS. Switches, routers, phones, firewalls, load balancers, access points, voice gateways, ACS, etc. It’s all familiar. Old hat. A lot like the old comfy t-shirt that Tom Hollingsworth wears. I’ve invested a lot of my time and energy into learning their product set. One could say my familiarity with their gear has been responsible for a significant portion of my earnings over the years. I don’t want to give the impression that I am a paid shill for Cisco. After all, I don’t work for a Cisco partner. I’m one of those corporate types who occupies a cubicle and acts as the caretaker for a decent sized network. Not a massive network, but big enough to have some direct support from our local Cisco office when we need it. We don’t use Cisco for every single thing on the network side, but if the various vendors on our network had voting rights, let’s just say that Cisco would be able to influence any election in their favor.
Although I use a lot of Cisco gear, I also try and keep an eye on the other vendors out there. On a given day, I probably get at least a dozen e-mails from other vendors and networking publications. Additionally, I have an ever growing RSS feed list comprised of dozens of vendor blogs and blogs from the many networking professionals I follow on Twitter or have found via word of mouth. In other words, I spend at least 10% of my day consuming information from Cisco, other vendors, and networking professionals who may or may not share my viewpoint. I feel that gives me the potential to have a very well rounded view of the networking industry. Whether or not I can process all of that information to form worthwhile opinions is another matter. Suffice to say, I am trying to put in the hours to ensure I can make the best decisions for my employer.
The challenge to vendors other than Cisco is figuring out how to pitch their product and have it SERIOUSLY considered by people who manage networks where Cisco dominates. This can be done, but it takes marketing and sales people who understand who their likely customers are. I’ve seen and read plenty of non-Cisco pitches. Some are very good and offer compelling reasons to consider their product. A lot offer nothing other than “We’re not Cisco!”.
A few years ago, I read a very interesting book about Wal-Mart called “The Wal-Mart Effect”. I thought it was a mostly balanced look at the company and how they do business. One of the most interesting parts of that book was where a retail executive was giving advice on how to beat Wal-Mart. He said that you would NEVER beat them on price. They are too big and have too much influence over their suppliers. Wal-Mart will do whatever it takes to get the lowest price possible from the supplier. You beat Wal-Mart by creating a better experience for the customer. Give them better quality. Give them better product selection. Give them nicer facilities to shop in. That’s how you beat them. If you try and take them on in a price war, you WILL lose. I think about what that person said and try and apply that to Cisco’s competitors. How do you compete with the overall networking market leader? In my mind, that requires some different thinking.
1. Don’t spend all day bashing Cisco. – If I am willingly talking to another vendor as an alternative to Cisco, it’s probably because I realize there are other options out there. You are not helping your cause any if the main thing you have to offer is that Cisco sucks and you are better. Up until July of this year, the Riverbed blog was full of posts slamming Cisco. I’m not going to say that Cisco didn’t deserve some of those. I’m not even going to make the argument that WAAS is the same or better as Riverbed when it comes to WAN optimization. Clearly Riverbed is doing some great things in WAN optimization. They’re very easy to setup and administer. Their products work very well. Sell me on those points. Sell me on the fact that it works and that you’re offering me things that the other WAN optimization vendors are not. When I have to deal with corporate arrogance be it from marketing content or sales people, I get turned off on the product real fast. Why? Well, arrogance breeds complacency. It doesn’t allow an organization to see clearly and eventually someone is going to catch up and turn your double digit market share into single digits. When competing with a company like Cisco, you are competing with a very well oiled marketing machine. Don’t ever forget that. In fairness to Riverbed, I haven’t seen that mentality lately. As a result of that, my feelings toward them have improved greatly.
2. Don’t preach to me about standards. – If there’s one thing I hear the most, it’s that vendor XYZ is a completely “standards” based company. If you have been around the Cisco community for a few years, you know how instrumental they are in driving standards. VRRP, MPLS, PoE, LLDP, 802.1q, and CAPWAP among others are a direct result of Cisco and their influence. Additionally, some of these companies that want you to use their hardware because it is standards based are producing their own variants of certain standards. I can think of a couple of vendors right off the top of my head that have their own enhancements to VRRP. Most of the Cisco gear I have been around support these “standards”. Remember, they drove the creation of quite a few of them in the first place. Yes, Cisco does make modifcations/enhancements to things like OSPF and other protocols, but so do most large vendors. My point is that everyone supports standards, or they wouldn’t be standards. What vendors are really trying to tell me when they are preaching the fact that they are standards based is that by using proprietary protocols, I am locking myself into Cisco. That, in their minds, is a bad thing. I can assure you that I am aware of the risks of running EIGRP, HSRP, or whatever proprietary protocol that Cisco puts out. It’s also not a good idea to assume that I am running any proprietary protocols just because I have Cisco gear.
3. Your presentation needs to be polished. – Please, please, please spend some time on your documentation and presentation material. Understand that people who are buying and deploying Cisco have access to very polished design guides, configuration guides, product data sheets, etc. While I am not asking you to replicate the entire Cisco documentation/support ecosystem, it would help if you ran your documentation through a spelling and grammar check before displaying it on your website. For examples of good documentation outside of Cisco, see Juniper. They have their act together.
4. Innovate – Sometimes a radical approach to the way we are used to seeing things is needed. Aerohive is doing some very interesting things in the wireless space. They’re not using controllers to manage their AP’s. The AP’s manage each other. Very different and very cool. I’m not a wireless expert. I don’t use their products. I don’t have any plans to use their products in the near future. However, I AM keeping an eye on them and if an opportunity comes up in which they would be a good fit, I won’t hesitate to reach out to them.
Juniper has completely sold me on their SA line of SSL VPN appliances. Everyone I talk to about them has the same feeling. Very feature rich!
Riverbed is the leader in WAN optimization. I use their product and am very satisified with it. It just works.
Arista has created a compelling offering in the data center switching environment. The fact that I can run numerous third party applications on their switch due to their granting me shell access is VERY interesting. Oh, and I should also mention that nobody else can give me the same amount(384) of wire speed 10Gbps ports in a chassis(7500) of their size(11RU).
Brocade and Force10 both offer an interesting alternative to the standard top of rack copper switch or Nexus 2k FEX line. They have line cards that support the MRJ21 connector system developed by Tyco Electronics. Essentially, your top of rack switch is reduced to a patch panel that connects back to a Brocade or Force10 chassis. However, this is not a 1 to 1 patch panel. Rather, a single MRJ21 cable(about the width of a pencil) connects the patch panel and chassis. Each cable supports 6 10/100/1000 connections. The patch panel is not the ordinary punch down block you are used to seeing. It’s a modular cassette or fixed 24 or 48 port 1U patch panel. None of these cassettes or patch panels require power. All management is done from the central chassis. If you are familiar with Nexus 2k administration from the Nexus 5k, this is similar. The benefits to this technology are three fold. First, there is no power consumption required in the top of rack. Second, all administration is done from the central chassis which can be located at the end of the row, middle of the row, or on the other side of the data center. Third, with the modular capabilities, you can split up the 24 or 48 ports your typical top of rack switch has. 1 logical 48 port switch being managed at the central chassis can be spread out over 2 or more racks.
That’s it. Four simple things from my perspective. There may be more, but to me, these are the big ones. I didn’t mention pricing. I don’t usually see this as being an issue. Other vendors know what the pricing is going to be from Cisco. They can figure out based on the size of the company what the discount is probably going to be. They may not know the exact amount, but they can make a pretty good guess. Your product needs to be cheaper. That’s a great selling point for a lot of vendors. They know you are paying for the Cisco name, so they can use that as leverage. If it is not cheaper, it better have some sort of compelling reason to be chosen. There needs to be a “wow” factor and not vaporware. It needs to be legitimate.
You’ll also notice that I did not address the problems with Cisco itself. That would take another long post and there are plenty of other capable bloggers out there hammering away at them on a regular basis. My goal in this post is to focus on how to compete with Cisco.
Once upon a time I wanted to grow up and be an astronaut, police officer, pilot, and cartographer. Well, as you can probably guess, I didn’t end up anywhere near those professions. Here I am neck deep in the world of information technology. Although my primary focus is on the routing and switching areas of networking, I find myself routinely pulled into other areas of networking as well. If I am at one of my employer’s remote sites, I might get asked about power and cooling needs, or even how we are going to replace a PBX with a VOIP solution. Just a few days ago, myself and several co-workers pulled an all-nighter at the data center in order to add more redundancy. That involved security as well as other services such as DNS. Although our wireless networks typically work well, if there is a problem, my group is responsible for fixing it. Basically, I get to run the full range of networking.
If you are reading this, odds are you understood everything I just wrote in the opening paragraph. You understand it because you are probably involved in the industry to some degree. The average non-IT person out there does not. That’s not to say that they are completely in the dark about IT or networking in general. It’s just that they don’t deal with this stuff every day and thus, it is a foreign world to them. One of the questions I get asked quite often is what I do for a living. I can tell people I am a network engineer/architect/janitor/technician, but I usually end up telling them I am in IT. Some people know what IT is, and for others I have to define it as “Information Technology”. I usually just mention the word computer and people understand. One of things I am quick to point out is that I don’t actually work on the computers themselves. I simply make sure they can all connect to each other and pass data back and forth. Perhaps the most frequent comparison I use is that of a road network. If you think of the various homes and buildings around your part of the world, those are the computers. The roads are the network. I take care of the roads. Whether it means building a new one, filling in potholes, or widening an overcrowded stretch of road, that’s my job. Thanks to the wonderful marketing power of Cisco, I can usually ask people if they are familiar with the “Cisco” brand and most times they are. Then it’s easy enough for me to say that about 90% of what I do revolves around that brand name. Surprisingly, nobody has asked me to help fix their Flip device yet!
Why am I mentioning all of this you ask? Well, it is simply a reminder that for those of us who are networking professionals, our job is relatively unknown outside of IT circles. Perhaps the one big exception might be those of you who focus on voice. The phone is a device everyone is familiar with. It is a tangible product that we surround ourselves with. If you tell someone you take care of the phone system, they understand that. Router, switch, firewall, access point, and load balancer are all foreign terms to most people. They hear the word computer and more often than not, assume you can remove that virus that is preventing them from getting to YouTube. That couldn’t be further from the truth.
As you grow in your networking or IT career, you’ll find that you need to constantly improve your skills and knowledge. What you know today is only a fraction of what you’ll need to know a few years from now. In the course of all this, you’ll have designs that fail and implementations that go bad. You’ll also have a lot of scars to prove it. There will be plenty of war stories that you acquire over the years. That information is of great value to others in this field. You’ll also want to hear the war stories from others. Since the average person out on the street is not involved in what you do for a living, you will have to find other people who do what you do. You need to share what you know with others. Likewise, they need to do the same. There’s a reason I chose the “therapy” theme for this blog. I can’t go home at night and talk to my wife about what I do for a living. My son and daughter are both under the age of 10. If my job doesn’t have anything to do with Barbie or Star Wars, it’s not very interesting to them. With very few exceptions, I can’t go and talk to people at church about the struggles and successes about life in corporate IT. Thus, I need an outlet. We ALL need an outlet.
Here’s a few suggestions:
1. Find a local user group. This would be a group of people who do what you do for a living and get together once a month or once a quarter and talk about various technologies, hardware, or software.
If you happen to be a predominantly Cisco shop, there are quite a few of these groups around the United States. You can find one here.
For all other types of IT related groups, this site can help.
2. Get involved online. It goes without saying that if you are reading this, you are already involved to a certain extent. However, there’s more out there than just blogs.
LinkedIn is a great way to connect with other IT professionals. There are tons of groups on LinkedIn that pertain to a certain local area and technology. Via the group discussions, you can interact with thousands and thousands of IT professionals all over the world.
Twitter is one of my favorite sites to use. It provides almost instant feedback on virtually anything you can think of. Plus, there are tons of really GOOD technical people on there. People who write books you have read. People who work on networks you dream about. With a worldwide audience, there’s always somebody online watching their Twitter feed who can help out with an issue or just listen to you rant about why you should have gone to law school instead. Not only will you learn a lot, you will get to know people you will probably never meet in person.
Forums are a great resource to ask questions or help out with other people’s problems. Cisco has a fairly large technical forum on the main cisco.com website. Another decent site to use is networking-forum.com.
There’s more things like IRC, mailing lists(NANOG comes to mind), and even sites like Facebook, but I think you get the idea.
As technology becomes a larger part of our everyday lives, people will figure out more about our networking jobs. Wireless is becoming the norm out there, so a lot of people are learning more about wireless hardware and terms. With the dangers of the Internet, the term firewall is being thrown around a lot more. While I doubt everyone out there is going to learn about the OSI model, I do think our jobs will become less esoteric and more mainstream. Until then, we have to find a way to help each other out.