Architecture and Process

Driving through some rural areas east of where I live, I noticed a lot of collections of buildings strung together being used as homes. The process seems to start when someone takes a travel trailer, places it on blocks (a foundation of sorts) and builds a spacious deck just outside the door. Over time, the deck is covered, then screened, then walled, becoming a room.

Once the deck becomes a room, a new deck is built, and the process begins anew. At some point, the occupants decide they need a place to store some sort of equipment, so they build a shed. Later, the shed is connected to the deck, the whole thing becomes an extension of the living space, and a new shed is built.

These … interesting … places to live are homes to the people who live in them. They are often, I assume, even happy homes.

But they are not houses in the proper sense of the word. There is no unifying theme, no thought of how traffic should flow and how people should live. They are a lot like the paths crisscrossing a campus—built where the grass died.

Our networks are like these homes—they are not houses so much as historical records of every new idea and vendor marketing drive. There is no architecture, there are many architectures strung together with a set of tightly wound and closely followed processes.

We need to support some new application or service? Throw a new overlay on top. There was a massive failure last night? Let’s spend hours closely examining our process and find some way to prevent the failure by adding a few new steps.

We never ask if our goals are realistic because we don’t have any goal beyond: “Let’s solve this problem right now.” We never ask if there is some future goal might be better served by using this solution or that—the future will take care of itself.

Why do we fail to attend to architecture?

Architecture is hard, and we often fail to correctly anticipate the future. This perceives architecture as a detailed plan—but there’s no reason it should be. An architecture can be a rough, and slow-changing, outline of how the network is laid out, a set of services the network supports, and a set of technologies the network will use to support those services. An architecture recognizes and defines limits as well as capabilities.

Processes are comforting. When things fail, we can always take comfort in saying: “I followed the process!”

We live in a culture of now. All problems take two hours, two days, two weeks, or too long. There is no history, there is no future, there is only an ever-present now. If I cannot have it now, it is not worth having at all.

These problems are hard to solve because they are cultural rather than technical—and the network engineering world has a strong bias towards “don’t tell me how it works, tell me how to configure it.” We present this as a problem-solving mentality, even though it causes more problems than it solves.

We need to rebalance the way we think about architectures and processes—perhaps we would get better results by combining lightweight architectures with lightweight processes, instead of relying on heavy processes with no architecture to build maintainable networks and sustainable lives.