One of my pet peeves about the network “engineering” world is this: we do too little engineering and too much administration. What brought this to mind this week is an article about Margaret Hamilton about the time she spent working on software development for the Apollo space program, and the lessons she learned about software development there. To wit—

Engineering—back in 1969 as well as here in 2020—carries a whole set of associated values with it, and one of the most important is the necessity of proofing for disaster before human usage. You don’t “fail fast” when building a bridge: You ensure the bridge works first.

Sounds simple in theory—but it is not in practice.

Let’s take, as an example, replacing some of the capacity in your data center designed on a rather traditional two-layer hierarchy, aggregation, and core. If you’ve built your network with a decent modular design, you buy enough new routers (or switches—but let’s use routers here) to build out a new aggregation module, the additional firewalls and other middleboxes you need, and the additional line cards to scale the core up. You unit test everything you can in the lab, understanding that you will not be able to fully test in the product network until you arrange a maintenance window. If you’re automating things, you build (and potentially test) the scripts—if you are smart, you will test these scripts in a virtual environment before using them.

You arrange the maintenance window, install the hardware, and … run the scripts. If it works, you go to bed, take a long nap, and get back to work doing “normal maintenance stuff” the next day. Of course, it rarely works, so you preposition some energy bars, make certain you have daycare plans, and put the vendor’s tech support number on speed dial.

What’s wrong with this picture? Well, many things, but primarily: this is not engineering. Was there any thought put into how to test beyond the individual unit level? Is there any way to test realistic traffic flows while connecting the new module to the network without impacting the rest of the network’s operation? Is there any real rollback plan in case things go wrong? Can there be?

In “modern” network design, none of these things tend to exist because they cannot exist. They cannot exist because we have not truly learned to do design life-cycles or truly modular designs. In the software world, if you don’t do modular design, it’s either because you didn’t think it through, or because you thought it through and decided the trade-off just wasn’t worth it. In the networking world, we play around the edges of resilient, modular designs, but networking folks don’t tend to know the underlying technologies—and how they work—well enough to understand how to divide a problem into modules correctly, and the interfaces between those modules.

Let’s consider the same example, but with some engineering principles applied. Instead of a traditional two-layer hierarchy, you have a single-SKU spine and leaf fabric with clearly defined separation between the fabric and pods, clearly defined underlay and overlay protocols, etc. Now you can build a pod and test it against a “fake fabric” before attaching it to the production fabric, including any required automation. Then you can connect the pod to the production fabric and bring up just the underlay protocol, testing the entire underlay before pushing the overlay out to the edge. Then you can push the overlay to the edge and test that before putting any workload on the new pod. Then you can test fake load on the new pod before pushing production traffic onto the pod…

Each of these tests, other than the initial test against a lab environment, can take place on the production network with little or no risk to the entire system. You’re not physically modifying current hardware (except plugging in new cables!), so it’s easy to roll changes back. You know the lower layer parts work before putting the higher layer parts in place. Because the testing happens on the real network, these are canaries rather than traditional “certification” style tests. Because you have real modularization, you can fail fast without causing major harm to any system. Because you are doing things in stages, you can build tests that determine clean and correct operation before moving to the next stage.

This is an engineered solution—thought has been put into proper modules, how those modules connect, what information is carried across those modules, etc. Doing this sort of work requires knowing more than how to configure—or automate—a set of protocols based on what a vendor tells you to do. Doing this sort of work requires understanding what failure looks like at each point in the cycle and deciding whether to fail out or fix it.

It may not meet the “formal” process mathematicians might prefer, but neither is it the “move fast and break stuff” attitude many see in “the Valley.” It is fail fast, but not fail foolishly. And its where we need to move to retain the title of “engineer” and not lose the confidence of the businesses who pay us to build networks that work.