The End of Specialization?

22 July 2019 | 0 Comments

There is a rule in sports and music about practice—the 10,000 hour rule—which says that if you want to be an expert on something, you need ten thousand hours of intentional practice. The corollary to this rule is: if you want to be really good at something, specialize. In colloquial language, you cannot be both a jack of all trades and a master of one.

Translating this to the network engineering world, we might say something like: it takes 10,000 hours to really know the full range of products from vendor x and how to use them. Or perhaps: only after you have spent 10,000 hours of intentional study and practice in building data center networks will you know how to build these things. We might respond to this challenge by focusing our studies and time in one specific area, gaining one series of certifications, learning one vendor’s gear, or learning one specific kind of work (such as design or troubleshooting).

This line of thinking, however, should immediately raise two questions. First, is it true? Anecdotal evidence seems to abound for this kind of thinking; we have all heard of the child prodigy who spent their entire lives focusing on a single sport. We also all know of people who have “paper skills” instead of “real skills;” the reason we often attribute to this is they have not done enough lab work, or they have not put in hours configuring, troubleshooting, or working on the piece of gear in question. Second, is it healthy for the person or the organization the person works for?

The Floating Point Fix

15 July 2019 | 0 Comments

Floating point is not something many network engineers think about. In fact, when I first started digging into routing protocol implementations in the mid-1990’s, I discovered one of the tricks you needed to remember when trying to replicate the router’s metric calculation was always round down. When EIGRP was first written, like most of the rest of Cisco’s IOS, was written for processors that did not perform floating point operations. The silicon and processing time costs were just too high.

What brings all this to mind is a recent article on the problems with floating point performance over at The Next Platform by Michael Feldman. According to the article:

While most programmers use floating point indiscriminately anytime they want to do math with real numbers, because of certain limitations in how these numbers are represented, performance and accuracy often leave something to be desired.

Design Intelligence from the Hourglass Model

8 July 2019 | Comments Off on Design Intelligence from the Hourglass Model

Over at the Communications of the ACM, Micah Beck has an article up about the hourglass model. While the math is quite interesting, I want to focus on transferring the observations from the realm of protocol and software systems development to network design. Specifically, start with the concept and terminology, which is very useful. Taking a typical design, such as this—

The first key point made in the paper is this—

The thin waist of the hourglass is a narrow straw through which applications can draw upon the resources that are available in the less restricted lower layers of the stack.

DORA, DevOps, and Lessons for Network Engineers

1 July 2019 | Comments Off on DORA, DevOps, and Lessons for Network Engineers

DevOps Research and Assessment (DORA) released their 2018 Accelerate report on the state of DevOps at the end of 2018; I’m a little behind in my reading, so I just got around to reading it, and trying to figure out how to apply their findings to the infrastructure (networking) side of the world.

DORA found organizations that outsource entire functions, such as building an entire module or service, tend to perform more poorly than organizations that outsource by integrating individual developers into existing internal teams (page 43). It is surprising companies still think outsourcing entire functions is a good idea, given the many years of experience the IT world has with the failures of this model. Outsourced components, it seems, too often become a bottleneck in the system, especially as contracts constrain your ability to react to real-world changes.

Cloudy with a chance of lost context

24 June 2019 | Comments Off on Cloudy with a chance of lost context

One thing we often forget in our drive to “more” is this—context matters. Ivan hit on this with a post about the impact of controller failures in software-defined networks just a few days ago: A controller (or management/provisioning) system is obviously the central point of failure in any network, but we have to go beyond…

It’s not a CLOS, it’s a Clos

17 June 2019 | Comments Off on It’s not a CLOS, it’s a Clos

Way back in the day, when telephone lines were first being installed, running the physical infrastructure was quite expensive. The first attempt to maximize the infrastructure was the party line. In modern terms, the party line is just an Ethernet segment for the telephone. Anyone can pick up and talk to anyone else who happens to be listening. In order to schedule things, a user could contact an operator, who could then “ring” the appropriate phone to signal another user to “pick up.” CSMA/CA, in essence, with a human scheduler.

This proved to be somewhat unacceptable to everyone other than various intelligence agencies, so the operator’s position was “upgraded.” A line was run to each structure (house or business) and terminated at a switchboard. Each line terminated into a jack, and patch cables were supplied to the operator, who could then connect two telephone lines by inserting a jumper cable between the appropriate jacks.

An important concept: this kind of operator driven system is nonblocking. If Joe calls Susan, then Joe and Susan cannot also talk to someone other than one another for the duration of their call. If Joe’s line is tied up, when someone tries to call him, they will receive a busy signal. The network is not blocking in this case, the edge is—because the node the caller is trying to reach is already using 100% of its available bandwidth for an existing call. Blocking networks did exist in the form of trunk connections, or connections between these switch panels. Trunk connections not only consume ports on the switchboard, they are expensive to build, and they require a lot of power to run. Hence, making a “long distance call” costs money because it consumes a blocking resource. It is only when we get to packet switched digital networks that the cost of a “long distance call” drops to the rough equivalent of a “normal” call, and we see “long distance” charges fade into memory (many of my younger readers have never been charged for “long distance calls,” in fact, and may not even know what I’m talking about).

Reaction: Overly Attached

10 June 2019 | Comments Off on Reaction: Overly Attached

In a recent edition of ACM Queue, Kate Matsudaira has an article discussing the problem of being overly attached to a project or solution.

The longer you work on one system or application, the deeper the attachment. For years you have been investing in it—adding new features, updating functionality, fixing bugs and corner cases, polishing, and refactoring. If the product serves a need, you likely reap satisfaction for a job well done (and maybe you even received some raises or promotions as a result of your great work).

Attachment is a two-edged sword—without some form of attachment, it seems there is no way to have pride in your work. On the other hand, attachment leads to poorly designed solutions. For instance, we all know the hyper-certified person who knows every in and out of a particular vendor’s solution, and hence solves every problem in terms of that vendor’s products. Or the person who knows a particular network automation system and, as a result, solves every problem through automation.

When should you use IPv6 PA space?

3 June 2019 | 1 Comment

I was reading RFC8475 this week, which describes some IPv6 multihoming ‘net connection solutions. This set me to thinking about when you should uses IPv6 PA space. To begin, it’s useful to review the concept of IPv6 PI and PA space. PI, or provider independent, space, is assigned by a regional routing registry to network…

Gall’s Law and the Network

13 May 2019 | Comments Off on Gall’s Law and the Network

In Systemantics: How Systems Really Work and How They Fail, John Gall says: A complex system that works is invariably found to have evolved from a simple system that worked. A complex system designed from scratch never works and cannot be patched up to make it work. You have to start over with a working…

Throwing the baby out with the bathwater (No, you’re not Google, but why does this matter?)

6 May 2019 | Comments Off on Throwing the baby out with the bathwater (No, you’re not Google, but why does this matter?)

It was quite difficult to prepare a tub full of bath water at many points in recent history (and it probably still is in some many parts of the world). First, there was the water itself—if you do not have plumbing, then the water must be manually transported, one bucket at a time, from a…