On a Spring 2019 walk in Beijing I saw two street sweepers at a sunny corner. They were beat-up looking and grizzled but probably younger than me. They’d paused work to smoke and talk. One told a story; the other’s eyes widened and then he laughed so hard he had to bend over, leaning on his broom. I suspect their jobs and pay were lousy and their lives constrained in ways I can’t imagine. But they had time to smoke a cigarette and crack a joke. You know what that’s called? Waste, inefficiency, a suboptimal outcome. Some of the brightest minds in our economy are earnestly engaged in stamping it out. They’re winning, but everyone’s losing. —Tim Bray

This, in a nutshell, is what is often wrong with our design thinking in the networking world today. We want things to be efficient, wringing the last little dollar, and the last little bit of bandwidth, out of everything.

This is also, however, a perfect example of the problem of triads and tradeoffs. In the case of the street sweeper, we might thing, “well, we could replace those folks sitting around smoking a cigarette and cracking jokes with a robot, making things much more efficient.” We might notice the impact on the street sweeper’s salaries—but after all, it’s a boring job, and they are better off doing something else anyway, right?

We’re actually pretty good at finding, and “solving” (for some meaning of “solving,” of course), these kinds of immediately obvious tradeoffs. It’s obvious the street sweepers are going to lose their jobs if we replace them with a robot. What might not be so obvious is the loss of the presence of a person on the street. That’s a pair of eyes who can see when a child is being taken by someone who’s not a family member, a pair of ears that can hear the rumble of a car that doesn’t belong in the neighborhood, a pair of hands that can help someone who’s fallen, etc.

This is why these kinds of tradeoffs always come in (at least) threes.

Let’s look at the street sweepers in terms of the SOS triad. Replacing the street sweepers with a robot or machine certainly increases optimization. According to the triad, though, increasing optimization in one area should result in some increase in complexity someplace, and some loss of optimization in other places.

What about surfaces? The robot must be managed, and it must interact with people and vehicles on the street—which means people and vehicles must also interact with the robot. Someone must build and maintain the robot, so there must be some sort of system, with a plethora of interaction surfaces, to make this all happen. So yes, there may be more efficiency, but there are now more interaction surfaces to deal with now, too. These interaction surfaces increase complexity.

What about state? In a sense, there isn’t much change in state other than moving it—purely in terms of sweeping the street, anyway. The sweeper and the robot must both understand when and how to sweep the street, etc., so the state doesn’t seem to change much here.

On the other hand, that extra set of eyes and ears, that extra mind, that is no longer on the street in a personal way represents a loss of state. The robot is an abstraction of the person who was there before, and abstraction always represents a loss of state in some way. Whether this loss of state decreases the optimal handling of local neighborhood emergencies is probably a non-trivial problem to consider.

The bottom line is this—when you go after efficiency, you need to think in terms of efficiency of what, rather than efficiency as a goal-in-itself. That’s because there is no such thing as “efficiency-in-itself,” there is only something you are making more efficient—and a lot of things you potentially making less efficient.

Automate your network, certainly, or even buy a system that solves “all the problems.” But remember there are tradeoffs—often a large number of tradeoffs you might not have thought about—and those tradeoffs have consequences.

It’s not “if you haven’t found the tradeoff, you haven’t looked hard enough…” Don’t stop at one. It’s “if you haven’t found the tradeoffs, you haven’t looked hard enough.” It’s a plural for a reason.