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Posts Tagged ‘design’

The Many Hats of the Network Engineer

November 18, 2010 8 comments

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.

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Drowning in Features

August 12, 2010 3 comments

Have you ever bought a car without all the bells and whistles? You end up with some blank buttons in your dashboard. You’re not really sure what they are for, but there’s that little voice in the back of your mind telling you that you should have bought that feature. Of course, you can drive the car for years and never need that button. Or, you can flip through the driver’s manual and see just what it is that button does on the fully loaded model you didn’t buy.

Perhaps you are a student of automobiles and wouldn’t dream of buying a new car without knowing all the possible options or features. You make sure you buy exactly what you need. Nothing more. Nothing less.

What about features that you never knew existed? My mother drove a 1994 Mazda 626 for about 7 or 8 years. It was a pretty nice car, but it had a feature that I have not seen in any other car. The center vent could oscillate back and forth between the driver and passenger seat. There was a button on the center console labeled “Swing”. Push the button, and the vents “swing” back and forth. Leave it off and the air blows in the direction you have the vents turned. Before I saw this, I had no idea such a thing existed. After I saw it, I looked for it in every car I drove or rode in. Not long after my mother bought her 626, I bought a Mazda Protegè. Sadly, I did not have the “Swing” button as an option on my car. Although I drove that car for a good 8 years or so, I never forgot about the “Swing” button letdown and felt as if my car was inferior. My mother moved on and bought a Mazda Millenia. That was the step up from the 626. The flagship car of Mazda, much like the Toyota Avalon or Chrysler 300. Sadly, the Millenia lacked the “Swing” feature in the AC vents, but it did have blue colored gauges at night on the dashboard. Now the “Swing” feature didn’t seem as cool next to the blue colored gauges and dials. One of my friends had recently bought a Volkswagen Jetta around the same time. He had blue colored gauges and dials as well. Of course, his CD changer was in the trunk or boot, and I was not a fan of that feature at all.

Now that I have exhausted my knowledge of automobiles, let me relate this to what you and I do for a living(or at least I assume you do the same thing as me). Features come and go. Some are neat and have a practical purpose. Others are just there. Eye-candy. Nothing more. Sometimes what we need is not the same as what we want. Sometimes we don’t want something until we find out it exists. Ahem, iPad anyone? Now before any Apple fan-boys or fan-girls jump down my throat, I must admit that I own one. I bought one recently and have decided that if my house were burning down and I had to choose one item to take with me in addition to my wife and kids, it would probably be my iPad. 🙂 Having said that, I was perfectly fine living with a laptop and desktop PC at home prior to the iPad’s debut. Once it was marketed to me, and I must say it was marketed rather well, I needed one. Not wanted. NEEDED.

I’m getting away from what I wanted to focus on and that was features, versus an entirely new product, but you get the point. There are a lot of neat little things out there that one vendor does over another. However, I wonder if those particular features are REALLY something we need. Do I REALLY need something like OTV? Some people will say yes. Others will say no. I would say it depends. What were you doing prior to OTV? Although my main focus is on network hardware and software, the same holds true for features in software and hardware outside of the network space. In the case of security, sometimes features can actually end up being vulnerabilities or additional entry points that you have to lock down.

So what is my point in all of this? Well, I am not going to give you answers because to be quite honest, I don’t have them. Remember, this is a blog about network therapy. A big part of therapy is simply stating the problem or concerns. Here’s what I think. If you are spending a lot of money on something, make sure you need what you are buying. Not want. Need. Yes it takes time to go through everything, but that’s what you get paid for. Don’t buy a Lamborghini if a Kia will suffice. If you need the Lamborghini, make your case and get it. Don’t settle for the Kia. If you absolutely have to settle for the lesser due to decisions made above your pay grade, then put in writing your concerns about why the Kia is not sufficient and move on. I know I said I had no answers, but I do have some suggestions. It’s better than a kick in the head, and it’s free, so take it for what it’s worth.

1. Only buy what you need or will need in the near future. You’ll want to consider future requirements as well (ie expansion, features needed down the road). It is often hard to predict the future, but do the best you can.

2. Careful consideration of how to spend company dollars will ultimately reflect good things about you or your particular group. You don’t want to be known as a money wasting group or person.

3. Careful attention to features will help you navigate the difficult waters of vendor selection. This is one of the harder things to master. If you know what you need and are relatively aware of what the major vendors are doing, product selection along with the right feature set becomes a bit easier. For example, check out this article by Greg over at etherealmind.com. If you ONLY live in the Cisco 3750 world of stackable switches, you might miss the fact that Juniper can do the same thing, but extend the logical switch over a LOT longer distances. This is but one example. There are many more like this out there. Go find them and buy them, but only if you must. 😉

Thankfully, most network hardware comes with a ton of features by default. It’s usually the higher end stuff that we talk ourselves into buying and don’t necessarily need. I’m looking at you VSS. I’m not saying there isn’t a place for it. I use it and think it is some pretty cool stuff, but I wonder if the expense is worth the benefit sometimes.

If you are a consultant, ignore everything I just said(or “wrote” if you want to nitpick). You make your living off of selling services and equipment. You are exempt. However, if you are the reason a 10 user network of office workers have dual 6513’s with Sup720’s, ACE, FWSM, and WiSM, you should be ashamed of yourself. In that case, I can simply quote Jesus: “Go and sin no more.“.

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