Dave Ward has an excellent article over at the Cisco blog on the three year journey since he started down the path of trying to work the standards landscape (called SDOs) to improve the many ways in which these organizations are broken. Specifically, he has been trying to connect the open source and open standards communities better—a path I heartily endorse, as I have been intentionally trying to work in both communities in parallel over the last several years, and find places where I can bring them together.
While the entire blog is worth reading, there are two lines I think need some further thought. The first of this is a bit of a scold, so be prepared to have your knuckles rapped.
My real bottom line here is that innovators can’t go faster than their customers and customers can’t go faster than their own understanding of the technology and integration, deployment and operational considerations.
Precisely. Maybe this is just an old man talking, but I sometimes want to scold the networking industry on this very point. We fuss about innovation, but innovation requires customers who understand the technology—and the networking world has largely become a broad set of meta-engineers, interspersed with the occasional engineer. It could be there are just as many engineers as there have always been, but there are so many more administrators calling themselves engineers that it doesn’t not seem like it—but this is not my sense of where we have come since I first started working on the McGuire AFB backbone in in the late 1980’s.
My time in the Cisco TAC compared to today is telling; jbash used to open cases with the stack trace decodes in his initial email. Rodney Dunn and I used to speak to standing room only crowds on router architecture. Today, on the other hand, I go to sessions where speakers are talking about router architecture, and they are flat out wrong on how these things work. When I ask why, the speaker says “this is all this crowd is ever going to understand.” This sort of cycle is self-reinforcing. Another sign: I’m told my audience is so small because most networking folks “just don’t see the point.” They can’t see how to apply the theory I teach to the “real world,” which is driven by vendor product and configuration.
If you want innovation, be an educated consumer.
A corollary: if you want to effectively use innovation, you need to be an educated consumer. To innovate, there needs to be a tight interaction between the consumer and the creator. This is why car manufacturers sponsor racing teams, for instance—they need educated consumers to interact with in order to invent.
The second line that caught my eye was this one—
And, we need to reduce the fracturing of the industry because, in this interim period, a technology landscape has evolved that is littered with “Stacks”, “Controllers”, and “Virtual Fubars”.
This is a real problem. I think it is a product of the first problem Dave mentions—the uneducated consumer. The tendency, in the networking world, is to chase after new solutions, and to layer solutions one on top of the other. The result is often massively intertwined complexity, as we create new layers to hide the complexity of the layers below the current one. We often don’t even understand how the underlying layer works, we just assume it will. Further, we assume there will be no interaction between the layer we are smearing on top and the underlying layers we built before.
The result is a system hardened to the point of ossification. These brittle systems fail when the wind blows the wrong way, causing much heartache and distrust among our users. What is our solution?
Smear another layer on top.
Further, this kind of thinking leads to the market fragmentation Dave is talking about. As each layer becomes more complex, only “specialists” know how to work on it, creating silos.
If you want to see the market innovate, and you want to break down the silos being built right now, and you want to reduce the complexity in your network, there is a solution at hand. It is not an easy solution; it requires real work.
Get educated. Learn how this stuff works.