It Always Takes Too Long

It always takes longer to find a problem than it should. Moving through the troubleshooting process often feels like swimming in molasses—it’s never fast enough or far enough to get the application back up and running before that crucial deadline. The “swimming in molasses effect” doesn’t end when the problem is found out, either—repairing the problem requires juggling a thousand variables, most of which are unknown, combined with the wit and sagacity of a soothsayer to work with vendors, code releases, and unintended consequences.

It’s enough to make a network engineer want to find a mountain top and assume an all-knowing pose—even if they don’t know anything at all.
The problem of taking longer, though, applies in every area of computer networking. It takes too long for the packet to get there, it takes to long for the routing protocol to converge, it takes too long to support a new application or server. It takes so long to create and validate a network design change that the hardware, software and processes created are obsolete before they are used.

Why does it always take too long? A short story often told to me by my Grandfather—a farmer—might help.

One morning a farmer got early in the morning, determined to throw some hay down to the horses in the stable. While getting dressed, he noticed one of the buttons on his shirt was loose. “No time for that now,” he thought, “I’ll deal with it later.” Getting out to the barn, he climbed up the ladder to the loft, and picked up a pitchfork. When he drove the fork into the hay, the handle broke.

He sighed, took the broken pieces down the ladder, and headed over to his shed to replace the handle—but when he got there, he realized he didn’t have a new handle that would fit. Sighing again, he took the broken pieces to his old trusty truck and headed into town—arriving before the hardware store opened. “Well, I’m already here, might as well get some coffee,” he thought, so he headed to the diner. After a bit, he headed to the store to buy a handle—but just as he walked out past the door, the loose button caught on the handle, popping off.
It took a few minutes to search for the lost button, but he found it and headed over to the cleaners to have it sewn back on “real fast.” Well, he couldn’t wander around town in his undershirt, so he just stepped next door to the barber’s, where there were a few friendly games of checkers already in progress. He played a couple of games, then the barber came out to remind him that he needed a haircut (a thing barbers tend to do all the time for some reason), so he decided to have it done. “Might was well not waste the time in town now I’m here,” he thought.

The haircut finished, he went back to get his shirt, and realized it was just about lunch. Back to the diner again. Once he was done, he jumped in his truck and headed back to the farm. And then he realized—the horses were hungry, the hay hadn’t been pitched, and … his pitchfork was broken.

And this is why it always takes longer than it should to get anything done with a network. You take the call and listen to the customer talk about what the application is doing, which takes a half an hour. You then think about what might be wrong, perhaps kicking a few routers “just for good measure” before you start troubleshooting in earnest. You look for a piece of information you need to understand the problem, only to find the telemetry system doesn’t collect that data “yet”—so you either open a ticket (a process that takes a half an hour), or you “fix it now” (which takes several hours). Once you have that information, you form a theory, so you telnet into a network device to check on a few things… only to discover the device you’re looking at has the wrong version of code… This requires a maintenance window to fix, so you put in a request…

Once you even figure out what the problem is, you encounter a series of hurdles lined up in front of you. The code needs to be upgraded, but you have to contact the vendor to make certain the new code supports all the “stuff” you need. The configuration has to be changed, but you have to determine if the change will impact all the other applications on the network. You have to juggle a seemingly infinite number of unintended consequences in a complex maze of software and hardware and people and processes.

And you wonder, the entire time, why you just didn’t learn to code and become a backend developer, or perhaps a mountain-top guru.

So the next time you think it’s taking to long to fix the problem, or design a new addition to the network, or for the vendor to create that perfect bit of code, remember the farmer, and the button that left the horses hungry.