Rethinking the Network

Michael Bushong

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Wizards are also for, well, wizards

I always enjoy reading the IPspace blog and as Ivan has stated about our blog, I don’t always agree with his opinion, but they are informative and cover just about everything networking. So this may come as a surprise, but in response to his “Do we have too many knobs” post from about a week ago I have one simple response: “Amen”.

Networking is unnecessarily complicated. We have written several blogs on this topic and related items. I used to run the sustaining organization for all data products at my previous company and when you do the analysis of the customer reported issues that come in to the support organization, you find that a very large percentage stem from configuration mistakes.

Many of those mistakes are not typos. We like to refer to fat fingered configurations often as a reason to move to a more automated configuration and provisioning environment, but most of the configuration mistakes that are made are simply because we have made it so difficult to configure these devices. Type something in the wrong order and it may not work right or behave slightly differently. Simple checks across configurations that could avoid many problems are not provided. If my goal is to have spanning tree or some loop detection mechanism enabled for all access side ports on a switch, why would that same switch not tell me if I missed a port?

Ivan raises the questions of wizards. And I know what the reaction of hardcore network engineers is. Wizards? We don’t need no stinking wizards. But we do. We all do.

Wizards are the most visible examples of automation. A specific sequence of configuration steps is automated, and instead of configuration data retrieved from some other system, it simply asks the user for input. The wizard is the most commonly used form of automation. We typically use wizards to configure something new, but I am sure we have also all use the “my wifi on my windows machine is not working, please tell me why” wizard. You can question if it covers all the failure scenarios, if it can diagnose all the things that are wrong with your wireless. But even if it covers 80% of them, that’s 80% less frustrated users and potential outages or calls into support centers.

Wizards are also excellent answers to do configuration checks. Check for easy mistakes and inconsistencies. Many companies in the past have attempted to create root cause analysis and correlation engines. And they are not easy to build. They require tons of knowledge to be taught to them and we are extremely sensitive to false positives. But just because it is hard should not mean we should not continue to build on this. We have to get to network wide configuration and automation, network devices are not independent and have not been for a long time. There is a reason why many portions of configuration of a Plexxi network are done at a complete fabric level.

Let’s start and try and tackle the 80% of common configurations. If getting a switch setup in its basic configuration would be nothing less than a few wizards we would make such a leap forward. The step from wizards to automated configuration is not a large one. The really big cloud companies have created their own wizards and template machines. They roll out so many switches that are all almost identical. Those configurations are template driven and wizard-like final automation to relay what makes them different.

You do not have to be a wizard to create or use some wizards. But to be a true networking wizard, you understand you need automation, you need wizards. It will improve your efficiency, reduce mistakes and resulting weird network behavior, and ultimately give you back time for exciting new things. Like reading our blog.

 

We at Plexxi wish everyone that celebrates Thanksgiving a safe and enjoyable day with your family and friends. And for those that do not, we wish you a very productive working day without email from your US based colleagues.

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The best marketing efforts leverage deep technology understanding with a highly-approachable means of communicating. Plexxi's Vice President of Marketing Michael Bushong has acquired these skills having spent 12 years at Juniper Networks where he led product management, product strategy and product marketing organizations for Juniper's flagship operating system, Junos. Michael spent the last several years at Juniper leading their SDN efforts across both service provider and enterprise markets. Prior to Juniper, Michael spent time at database supplier Sybase, and ASIC design tool companies Synopsis and Magma Design Automation. Michael's undergraduate work at the University of California Berkeley in advanced fluid mechanics and heat transfer lend new meaning to the marketing phrase "This isn't rocket science."