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Tech Field Day 5 Is Over. Now What?

February 14, 2011 4 comments

I made it back to Nashville before noon on Saturday. A cross country red eye flight with a short layover in Atlanta put me into Nashville just in time. I was able to get a few hours with my kids, dinner with my wife and a bunch of friends from church, followed by dessert and more socializing with all those church friends over at my house. Sunday was full with church, time spent with my father explaining what this San Jose trip was all about(he was very interested in it all), a cub scout hike with my son, and more church. I’m still exhausted. I feel like I haven’t slept in days. I’ve had a nagging cough that air travel made worse and the weather is now 50 degrees warmer than when I left last week to go to California. My co-worker left my company to go work for a well known hardware vendor. His last day was Friday when I was in San Jose. As luck would have it, we had a major data center outage Friday afternoon. I spent the remaining hours in San Jose on the phone and glued to my laptop staring at switch configs. I didn’t get to really say proper goodbyes or even enjoy the final meal with everyone else as I was constantly jumping off and on a conference bridge to deal with the problems in the data center back home. In the end, the problem ended up being something outside of my control, so it was an extra kick in the teeth from the data center gods. In spite of it all, I feel like a million bucks!

Let me tell you why.

1. I love technology. – I love it to the core of my being. There is no greater joy for me than to immerse myself in the 1’s and 0’s of networking and consume mass quantities of information. I’ve never been one to understand people who do what I do for a living and have no real interest in technology outside of 8 to 5 Monday-Friday. Maybe that sounds somewhat elitist. Maybe that’s not a realistic attitude to have. I get paid to learn. That’s the coolest thing in the world. I guess I just recognize that opportunity for what it is and want to be around people who think the same way.

I have been a part of IT groups before where a core group of us had similar attitudes regarding the world of technology. We would feed off of each other and our efficiency and skillsets advanced much faster than all the other environments I have been in where not a whole lot of people shared the same drive and desires. Things change and our careers take us other places. Over time you start to shift back to what is normal for everyone else. You no longer look at Friday afternoon as an inconvenience since you have to put the toys away and go home for 2 days. You no longer wake up Monday morning excited to go into work. For a couple of days last week, I got that spark back.

Now, I don’t want you to think I have a depressing life. I LOVE my life. I love what I do for a living. I love just about everything about my life, and I work in a cubicle! My point, is that I was in the midst of a large group of technology zealots once again. Over the next couple of days, I would either witness or take part in countless discussions regarding networking, storage, virtualization, backups, or systems in general. These were discussions with people who were well versed in their respective areas. People who actually thought about technology as opposed to parroting talking points gleaned from a vendor slide deck. Some of them were published authors. I have a book collecting addiction. Being around authors rates pretty high on my scale of coolness.

2. I love talking to vendors. – My typical exposure to vendors is via their sales channel or third party reseller/integrator. This time, I was able to go straight to the source. I liked the fact that the companies I was exposed to at Tech Field Day 5 ranged from the very large like Symantec and HP, to the very small like Drobo, and Druva. I also saw the companies that fit in between those 2 groups like Xangati, Infoblox, and NetEx. I like talking to the vendors because they all want to differentiate themselves from one another. This means that in general, they have differing points of view as to how to solve a problem. By understanding each vendor’s approach, you can make a more informed decision.

I live on the corporate side of IT. If I make a recommendation in regards to the network, I need to make sure I make the BEST one possible. Yes it takes a lot of time and effort, but choices around hardware and software need to be treated with more care than one uses when selecting which brand of breakfast cereal to buy at the grocery store. I’ll talk to just about any vendor that lives within the network space. No matter how insignificant the product or company may seem, I want to know what it is they do. There is no such thing as being too prepared when it comes to making decisions about your network.

That was Tech Field Day in a nutshell for me. Lots of discussions with my peers and lots of discussions with vendors.  For now, I am still trying to digest it all. Two full days worth of briefings and discussions will take a bit to sink in for me. If anything, I have a sincere desire to shore up my virtualization and storage knowledge. I just have to find the time to fit it in. Networking on its own is enough to keep me busy for years to come!

I met some really great and SMART people at this event. Several of them I already knew from Twitter, and some of them I had read their blogs prior to this event. Others were affiliated with vendors, so I had never heard of them, except for some of the people from the larger companies. My RSS feed list has grown by quite a few entries as a result of this trip.

If I could give any advice in regards to this kind of event, it would be this. Go register to be a Gestalt IT Tech Field Day delegate. Do it NOW. If you love technology, if you love talking about technology, and if you want to mix it up with vendors in their own back yard, this is the event for you. I was taken care of very well by Claire and Steven. Nothing was overlooked. Every single vendor that presented seemed interested in us being there. Nothing was off limits in terms of what you could ask. Of course, there’s no guarantee they are going to answer it. The vendors still have to protect their intellectual property and rightfully so. Never in a million years would I have imagined that I would be able to engage someone like the CEO of Symantec and ask a direct question and get a direct answer. I also wouldn’t have imagined myself ever talking to the CEO and CTO of a company like Druva. I spent at least 15 minutes talking with them about their company, social media, and other similar things at the Computer History Museum. Without a doubt it was one of the high points of my trip to San Jose. I could go on and on about other incidents, but it wasn’t my intention to ramble on in this post.

Oh, and lest I forget to tie into the title of this post I should answer the question: “Now what?” Well, I still have to finish preparing to take the CCIE Route/Switch lab. However, I find myself wanting to give equal time to ramping up in the VMware and storage networking worlds. I spent several days in the midst of some storage and virtualization experts. What can I say? They have made me a convert. Or maybe it’s just that I want to understand a bit more of what they were talking about if I ever run into them again. 🙂 In the near future, I want to write a bit about the various vendors. In particular, I will focus on Xangati, HP, Infoblox, and NetEx. They have more of a network-ish focus and that’s the area I focus on. That’s not to say that I won’t comment on the others. I really enjoyed the data deduplication talk from Symantec!

I cannot say thank you enough to everyone who made this event possible. Stephen Foskett played the role of our fearless leader very well. Claire was the driving force behind the scenes making sure everything went off without a hitch. The audio/visual crew produced some very high quality stuff even in the face of several technological glitches. The vendors were very gracious in hosting all of us. I appreciate their interaction from the presentation standpoint as well as their active Twitter presence. Bonus points to Xangati for the bacon and chocolate espresso beans! As for the delegates, well I am humbled to have been among you. Some of you are used to interfacing with these companies at this level. I personally, am not. I do look forward to reading your writings and hope to run into you again at some point!

*****Disclaimer*****
As a Tech Field Day delegate for Gestalt IT, my flights, hotel room, food, and transportation were provided by all of the vendors that presented during this event. This was not provided in exchange for any type of publicity on my part. I am not required to write about any of the presentations or vendors. I received a few “souveniers” from the vendors which were limited to t-shirts, water bottles, pens, flash drives, notepads, and bottle openers.

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Dealing With Knowledge Gaps

January 6, 2011 2 comments

Inevitably, we are all going to come across things in our jobs that we are deficient in. Maybe we know a little about a certain topic, but we need to know more. Maybe we know absolutely nothing and need a basic introduction to the topic. Regardless, there will come a time in which we need to increase our knowledge and understanding of something in this ever growing world of networking or just IT in general.

The problem as I see it, is how I go about filling in those gaps. When you just start out in the IT world, you may not have a good methodology in which to learn about IT things. If you have been in the industry for a long time, you may already have a good system that works for you. No matter which category you fall into, the fact that you will constantly have to learn is unavoidable. There are NO exceptions to this rule. If you wish to be at the top of your game in IT from a technical standpoint, you must make a habit of constantly learning new things. Failure to do so means that your knowledge will become dated and you will drift off into obscurity working as some corporate slave in a dark and dreary cubicle. This may or may not involve working for the government. 🙂

Now that we have established that static knowledge is a dead end, let’s look at how to ensure we are always at the top of our game. I offer you the 5 step plan. Others have 12 step programs. Maybe some have less. I only have 5. I am all about efficiency…..and my program doesn’t cost you a dime.

1. Examine your current level of knowledge. – How much do you already know about the subject in question? The answer to that question is going to dictate the kind of resources you use. Let’s use BGP for example. If you need to learn about the basics of it, there are a few good books that can handle that. There are also plenty of websites with white papers and blog posts that give a generic overview of BGP. There are some classes out there that will accomplish the same thing. However, there are quite a few books and white papers that will completely blow your mind if you don’t already have a decent understanding of BGP. The service provider side of BGP comes to mind. Enterprises and service providers use BGP in VERY different ways.

2. Find out where the information is. – For starters, you need to identify what kind of learner you are. Some of us are visual learners. Some of us are audible learners. Some of us learn by doing. Perhaps you are a mix of several different methods. Only you know what works best for you. If you need a lot of pictures and the topic is relatively mainstream, maybe a visual CBT(computer based training) course is what you need. If that is the case, I highly recommend you check out CBT Nuggets. If what you are looking for is somewhat more obscure, then I would recommend asking other people who do what you do. There are a variety of resources in which you can ask these questions like LinkedIn, forums, or Twitter. I prefer Twitter because it is a lot quicker. The only possible problem would be having enough people see the request. If you are new to Twitter, or very rarely use it, you may not have many followers who would see your message. Feel free to engage others in a substantive manner and over time your followers will grow. If all you do is tell everyone what you ate for lunch or what the weather is like in your part of the world, you probably aren’t going to get anywhere. If you absolutely refuse to use something like Twitter, then consider posting on Cisco’s forums if your issue is of a Cisco nature or networking-forum.com. There are other forums out there as well as mailing lists(NANOG comes to mind). All of the major vendors have support forums as well. Keep in mind that you may have to sift through tons of information before you finally find the information you are looking for. There is not always going to be a technical paper or book that explains exactly what you are looking for. Sometimes you have to piece it together from multiple sources. Actually, I would recommend that you use multiple sources unless it is some vendor specific thing that you can only get in one place. I have found out that you cannot trust a single source for 100% accuracy. Not that all sources are wrong, but imperfect human beings write books, white papers, and blog posts. Other imperfect human beings double check these same sources. When the content is of a technical nature, things get missed. This is especially true for the deeper technical things.

3. Execute. – You have all of the appropriate resources identified. Now you just need to get that information into your head. There are no shortcuts. While I wish I could learn kung-fu like Neo did in The Matrix, it isn’t going to happen. You have to put in the time required to absorb all of that information. Sometimes it can be done in a matter of minutes. Sometimes it takes weeks.

4. Ignore any distractions. – In the course of your learning, you are bound to come across something else that is interesting or neat. Resist the temptation to get sidetracked and stay focused on the main thing you are trying to learn. If you want to go back at another time and research the other items that pop up, then make a note of them. By focusing on the main thing you are trying to learn, you have a better chance of retaining information then if you start going in 100 different directions with every new thing that appears.

5. Allow the information to digest. – Sometimes it helps to simply think about things. Just go over it in your head. I tend to do this in conjunction with step 3. If I need to absorb a large amount of information, I like to take it in pieces and digest it little by little. By stopping to sort things out in your head, you can really come to terms with what makes sense and what doesn’t. I am very thankful my current employer allows me the freedom to do this. While it may look like I am spacing out on any given day in my cubicle, lots of times I am just thinking about something I just read or watched. It’s my way of performing a “write memory” on my brain. One of the other things I will do is drive to and from work in complete silence. That really helps because all I have to focus on is not crashing the car, which is relatively simple.

**Note – When asking others about a certain technology or product, do yourself a favor and research it first. Try and figure some things out on your own. This isn’t so much a problem with people who have been in the industry for a number of years as it is with those who have only been in IT for a few years or less. It’s not that people don’t want to answer the question. There will always be someone who will just blurt out an answer. The issue with asking without having done any research on your own is that you miss out on a great opportunity to develop your own research methods. There’s a reason that lmgtfy.com was created and is often quoted on Twitter. It has been my experience that those who last in IT are the ones that only need a nudge in the right direction. They don’t want their hand held. They just want a sanity check every now and then. The people who never want to put in the time or effort to figure something out and habitually want you to solve their problems are the ones that won’t make it in the long run. Well, they might have a job, but they won’t be anywhere near what they could be if they put forth some effort.

I am not going to make the bold claim that the 5 steps I laid out will work for everyone. They work for me when I follow them, and I don’t always follow them. I find the instances in which I have tried to cram something new into my head without following these steps ends badly. I forget something and have to start all over again. When I take the time to really dig into something and not rush it, it tends to stay with me at least from a conceptual point of view.

Chasing the “Ah-ha!” Moments

December 20, 2010 9 comments

Image courtesy of Wikipedia

Whenever I talk to people who are just getting started in networking, there’s a part of me that wishes I was in their shoes. I say that because I know several of the things they are going to learn or figure out in the next couple of years and I remember having to go through the same process. Before I understood variable length subnet masks(VLSM), the numbers in the subnet mask field of a workstation’s TCP/IP settings didn’t really mean a whole lot to me. If someone used slash notation(ie /24, /16, /27), I had no idea what that meant. Like a lot of people, I relied on someone to tell me what the subnet mask was. However, once I learned about VLSM, it was as if a whole new world opened up. That was one of my absolute favorite “Ah-ha!” moments. You’ve had those yourself haven’t you? It is the point in time in which a certain technical concept just clicks in your head. You go from not really understanding it, to comprehending it. In fact, it’s almost as if that concept is only represented in binary inside your head. You go from a 0 to a 1 with no in between.

As you progress along in networking, more and more of these “Ah-ha” moments come. Unfortunately, over time they become fewer and fewer. That’s not to say that they go away completely. They don’t. They are just harder to come by. I’ve found that I am able to keep a steady stream of these “Ah-ha” moments coming as long as I look at technology without taking anything for granted. What I mean by that is that I don’t assume anything when it comes to trying to understand a protocol or technology. What I “think” I know might actually be wrong. My understanding might only be partial. I have to continually ask “why/what/how/when/where” when dealing with technology.

Let me give you a personal example. I have known for many years that a T-1 is 1.544Mbps in terms of bandwidth. It is comprised of 24 64kb channels. The only problem is that 24×64,000 is 1536000 and not 1544000. Oops. Where did the other 8k go? To further drive this home, a “show interface” on a serial link that is configured as a full T-1 shows the interface bandwidth to be 1536kbps. Why the discrepancy? I could have just moved on and ignored the reason behind the discrepancy. However, by researching the issue and figuring out what the issue with this discrepancy was, I learned a whole lot more about T-1’s. I learned how alarms over the circuit get propagated. I learned what the extended super frame(ESF) actually was. In other words, had I not been curious as to why the math didn’t add up when it came to T-1 bandwidth, I would be far more deficient in the inner workings of the T-1.

In the spirit of chasing the “Ah-ha” moments, take a look at the 4 questions below. Go find the answers if you don’t already know them.

1. Why is MPLS faster than conventional IP based routing?
2. What are the differences between a multi-layer switch and a router?
3. Why do you need different antennas for wireless access points and where would you use each antenna type? Sure, this is rather open ended, but what I am getting at is the radiation pattern of each antenna.
4. How does traceroute really work? Not just the TTL mechanics, but look at the various ICMP type codes as well.

Can you remember the last “Ah-ha” moment you had? If not, why? If so, does it make you want to go out and find more of those moments?

The Myths of IT – Part 1

December 7, 2010 8 comments

Unicorn - Stolen/Borrowed from http://katemckinnon.files.wordpress.com/2008/07/unicorn.jpg
About 15 years ago, I started my journey through the wonderful world of IT. I realize I am not as old as this guy, but I think I have been around long enough to form my own opinions in regards to some of the myths of IT. Well, at least my perspective is that they are myths. They may be truths for you.

1. Big enterprise experience trumps all. – I’ve been in big environments, small environments, and places in between. To me, there’s not a whole lot of difference. Okay, so the tools might be more expensive in larger environments. The equipment might be a bit beefier in some regards. However, the fundamentals are still the same. In a larger company, chances are you have less responsibilities than someone at a medium or small company. You’re just working on an exponentially larger number of devices than your small/medium company counterparts.

Why is it that people seem to think large network experience equates to more professionalism or better knowledge around whatever it is you do? Here’s a dirty little secret about large networks. They typically employ a lot more people. Guess what that means? It is easier to hide out. It is easier to be mediocre and not have anyone notice. After all, you’re an engineer in a Fortune 1000/500/100/50/whatever company. They wouldn’t have hired you if you were a bum would they? The truth is most IT managers, and certainly most HR managers don’t really understand what it is that you do. That is NOT true for all IT managers. If my manager happens to read this, you are the best. Remember that when it’s annual bonus time. Some IT managers have technical backgrounds and are more than capable of determining technical skill sets. Let us be honest though. Managers are supposed to be good at managing people and expenses. You don’t hire managers to manage routers and switches. You hire engineers and administrators to do that. My last job had a network that was easily 20 times the size of the network I am on now, and many people would consider my current network to be a decent size. Does that give me credibility when it comes to a lot of IT managers? Sure. Should it? Probably not. Sadly, I have had to witness really good engineers get turned down for their dream jobs because they didn’t have “large enterprise” experience.

2. Certification equals ability. – Let me just throw in the one caveat that just came to mind. Yeah. That’s right. I read your mind. The expert level certifications from Cisco(CCIE,CCDE) and Juniper(JNCIE) are usually indicative of ability within an engineer. If you’re a systems person, feel free to add whatever certs you have within your respective discipline that give you instant street cred. Let me go out on a limb even further and mention that if you got your CCIE or something similar 10 years ago and let it lapse, I still consider you an able bodied practitioner of technology even if you can’t put those acronyms on your business card anymore.

Within the IT field, we all know about the “paper” MCSE(or whatever it is called today) and CCNP/CCNA. Yes, those are the ones who crammed for a test and passed it with a little luck and a plethora of TestKing, HotCert, Pass4Sure, or even legitimate study materials. You see them on various forums asking for things as simple as “How do I configure EIGRP on a Cisco router?” and their user profile shows they are a CCNP. You’ve probably even worked with them. They have managed to get by simply by faking it. They learn a few repetitive things over the course of several years and are able to do the most basic things. When something hard comes up they get to pass it off to someone else. Eventually, they land another job making even more money somewhere else because someone was impressed with the acronym soup that came after their name in an e-mail signature. Since there was no big technical interview for this new job, they were able to astound the IT manager with the depth of their knowledge. Maybe they have some “big enterprise” experience under their belt. Years ago, I held a lot of these certifications in high regard. Due to the large number of people with certifications they clearly did not take seriously, I no longer get excited by those little acronyms. I’m almost biased towards the people with no little letters after their name. Yet, job advertisement after job advertisement lists these certs as pre-requisites. Manager after manager wants those little letters. If you are a reseller, I understand your requirements. You need discounts. You need references. I get that. It’s the corporate IT types that I am referring to.

3. Gartner knows all. – Are you a Magic Quadrant(Am I supposed to put that little “TM” thing after that?) fan? Do you read with all fear and reverence the reports that are issued that say so much and yet say so little? If so, I hate to burst your bubble, but there’s a general disdain amongst many of my technical peers when it comes to Gartner reports. Oh sure, they make the reports pretty wordy. They use lots of buzzwords and phrases like “visionary” and “ability to execute”. It’s enough to make an IT marketing professional weep tears of joy!

“Yay! Another report from Gartner on the market leaders in the “Layer 5-application-accelerator-firewall-router” device thingy space. Oh look. Flim-flam networks is in the top right square and Jim-jam networks is in the bottom right square. I guess we better go with Flim-flam instead. Cut the purchase order to Flim-flam and let’s buy today. In fact, buy 2 of whatever they sell! What do they sell? I don’t know. It’s a layer 5 thingy and I think we only go up to layer 4 in our switches. We’re losing ground to the competition without that layer 5 thingy that Gartner tells us we need. We’re visionaries! We need to own the hardware that backs up that claim!”

If you have never read an entire Gartner report, let me suggest that you do. Try this one or this one. Now, after reading either of those, find me something of substance that a technical person would be able to relate to. Is the lact of specifics done on purpose? I wonder. In the interest of fairness, I should point out that Gartner is not the only group I have a problem with. I also tend to ignore reports from “independent” test labs in which a vendor funds the tests. I know. I know. You gave the loser the chance to refute your findings. Here’s perhaps the funniest example of when these “independent” tests go wrong. You have to read all of the comments to get the full effect of it.

Well, that’s it for part 1. Just 3 little myths. Something to ponder over. If you disagree, let me know. I have an open mind, so I am always willing to change it given an effective argument. Just don’t give me a Gartner report telling me why I am wrong. 😉 Part 2 will have a few more of these IT myths. I’ll post it sometime in the near future unless the IPocalypse happens!

Categories: career Tags: ,

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.

What Exactly Do You Do For A Living?

November 2, 2010 4 comments

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.

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An NDA Can Keep Bad Decisions Away

October 20, 2010 1 comment

Over the past year, I have seen some interesting presentations from vendors showing me some things that they have on their future roadmap. Some of these things have already been released to the public. I’m still waiting on the rest. All of this was a result of having non-disclosure agreements or NDA’s in place. The vendors agree to show us some of their stuff that is coming to market soon on the assumption that we will not release this information to anyone else. While I do enjoy knowing about things before they hit the market, I sometimes feel bad for companies that don’t have access to this information. Not only that, I often wish I had access to all vendor product roadmaps. Let’s face it. From the network hardware/software standpoint, we generally do business with only a handful of vendors. I say that as someone who works in a corporate environment. If you are a consultant, that doesn’t necessarily hold true as you may sell a wide variety of hardware and software.

If your dealings with companies are limited to a select few, those companies have a vested interest in making sure you stay with them. One of the ways to do that is to give you a better view into their product cycle so that you know what is coming. Look at the switch market for example. The number of vendors offering products in that space is growing and growing. I recently spent a LOT of time comparing 10Gig aggregation switches between 6 vendors. What if the vendor I use today had a platform that was average or below average in terms of 10Gig capabilities? If I had a hard requirement for a certain number of 10Gig ports and it had to be contained to 1 chassis, my choices are really going to be driven by 10Gig port density. It could be some other factor like power consumption or even chassis size. It doesn’t really matter. As long as my usual switch vendor cannot meet that requirement, I am going to go outside and look for another vendor. If I am dead set on staying with that vendor, I am going to change my requirements, To me this does not seem like a viable option unless it would cause unbelievable pain and suffering to introduce another vendor into the network. If that is the case, you probably need to re-think the whole single vendor strategy. Then again, if that single vendor works for you, then go for it. It’s your network and we each have to make the decisions that serve our company and customers best.

Back to the fictional switch problem. What if I am the incumbent vendor and I know you have a need that I cannot fill today, but will be able to fill that need in a couple of months, or even a year from now? Should I tell you even if nobody else knows about it? This is where the NDA comes into play. If you have done a bunch of research and are looking at alternatives to the incumbent, your mind might be changed if you happen to know something better is coming. Maybe it is far better than every other vendor’s current products you have been looking at. Maybe it is on par with the replacement vendor you have been looking at. Can you wait that long?

After seeing the new shiny thing that is coming out soon, you may decide to stick with your existing vendor. However, who is to say that the other vendors won’t be coming out with even better hardware/software around the same time or a month or two after? This is the point in which I find myself wishing I had access to all the vendor’s product road maps. I know some vendors will do an NDA on the notion that it will get them a sale, but I don’t know that I am going to be able to spend a bunch of time with every vendor to the point in which an NDA can be put in place. Perhaps it is best to bring in the consultants/integrators that sell products from a number of different companies. I would suspect they have some sort of idea when it comes to the future direction of certain product lines. Or maybe not. They might be in the same boat as I am.

The last thing you want to do is buy a product and have an even better solution appear a week later. I do think that most vendors will let you know that a better product is coming rather than lose the sale as long as the dollar amount is high enough. I don’t think company X is going to reveal a whole lot about their future road map if the net gain is a couple thousand dollars. Then again, if the salesperson has had a REALLY bad quarter all bets are off, but at that point you can smell the desperation in their sales pitch and I tend to be put off by that. That leads me to the thought that you really have to consider a wide range of factors when dealing with vendors. To me, the product has to meet the technical requirements above all. After that, cost is important. Right along with cost is the experience the vendor will give you. What are the hardware/software support capabilities of that vendor? What is the direction of the company? How long has the company been in business? If it is a recent startup(ie less than 2 or 3 years), who are the people running the R&D for these products? Are they known in the sector they are doing business in? In other words, if they sell security solutions, are they using experienced security professionals to develop the products or is this strictly an “academic” operation in which someone had a decent idea and got some venture capital funding? Granted, you can’t always figure all of that stuff out, but if you can, it sure helps when the decision making time comes.

To sum it all up, I think the smart vendors are going to tell their customers what is coming and when they can expect to see it for sale. It helps people like me plan for things down the road. I’m more interested in a vendor that is constantly updating their technology as opposed to one who releases new products with lesser frequency than leap years occur. When it comes to NDA’s, I don’t think the size of the customer should matter either. Small companies can get big relatively quick in this age of acquisitions and mergers. IT professionals DO talk to each other and tend to trust each other’s opinions MORE than a vendor paid “performance test” by an “independent lab”. If you are a vendor and want to show me your road map, I promise not to tell anyone outside of my company. 🙂 I don’t even want you to buy me lunch. I might just put pictures of your hardware up in my cubicle and drool over it all day until I my manager lets me buy it.

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