The Importance of Product Education

brainI learned something new this afternoon. While other users of this product were already aware of it, I was not. This is something that is specific to the Wi-Fi community, but there is a larger point affecting all practitioners of technology that I will attempt to illustrate in this post.

The Problem

I have been doing a lot of wireless surveys lately. These particular surveys have been large enough to require two engineers to be on site. We’ll divide up the location by floors or sections in order to get the job done in less time. These particular surveys are in place assessments, so we aren’t putting survey AP’s up on poles and measuring signal strength, determining attenuation of walls, etc. We’re simply measuring the signal of all AP’s in place and making recommendations based on the requirements of the business(e.g. moving to support voice at 5GHz or location based services). In addition to using a survey tool, which in our case is Ekahau’s Site Survey, we are also doing spectrum analysis at various points within the given facility with Metageek’s Wi-Spy DBx hardware and Chanalyzer software.

The spectrum analysis portion is where my problem resided. I happen to have a pair of Wi-Spy DBx devices that Metageek was kind enough to give me when I attended a few Wireless Field Day events put on by the folks at Tech Field Day. Not too long ago, the capability of capturing 2.4GHz and 5GHz simultaneously with multiple Wi-Spy DBx adapters was added. This meant that if you had 2 of their Wi-Spy DBx adapters, you could capture spectrum on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz bands at the same time. If you only had one adapter, you could only capture on a single band at a given time. This meant that when you wanted to capture spectrum in one location, you had to run a capture on 2.4GHz, and then run another capture on 5GHz. If you are doing 5 minute captures, your total time in that spot was 10 minutes, because both bands needed to be observed.

For the past several months that I have been on the road doing surveys, I was able to capture spectrum in half the time of any of my colleagues because I used both of my Wi-Spy DBx adapters at once, where the standard survey kits we were using only had one. Considering the time savings involved while doing spectrum(a decent sized facility might require spectrum analysis in well over a dozen locations) with multiple adapters, we looked into purchasing more Wi-Spy devices for our survey kits. Metageek has a Wi-Spy device that is only 2.4GHz. Since the Wi-Spy DBx can do both bands, we could just purchase the 2.4GHz model and save a little money. As luck would have it, Metageek doesn’t list the price of the 2.4GHz model on their website and asks you to contact them for pricing. I reached out to them this afternoon and received a quick response back.

As of Chanalyzer version 5, you can now record simultaneously in both bands with a single Wi-Spy DBx device. Granted, with a single adapter, it is alternating between 2.4GHz and 5GHz, so it isn’t as granular as it would be if you were using dual Wi-Spy adapters, but still, that is a great feature. If there is persistent interference, that isn’t a problem, but if the interesting spectrum traffic is brief, perhaps it could be missed, or less accurate than if you were using 2 adapters.

I ended up telling the Metageek person who responded to me that we wouldn’t need to buy additional adapters based on this newfound knowledge. While that is a lost sale for them, we did just buy another survey kit that included another Wi-Spy DBx and Chanalyzer license, so they got some additional business from us. 🙂 I should also point out that the person I was communicating with at Metageek didn’t try to push the sale anyway. They were just happy that my “problem” was resolved and made sure to tell me that Metageek made awesome products, with which I happen to agree!

I Don’t Use Metageek’s Products. Why do I care?

The larger point I want to bring up is that of vendor education. Or, to put it another way, ensuring that we as practitioners are up to date on all the features that a given product supports.

Think about the products you use in your daily job. How knowledgeable are you on what the latest software or hardware revisions improve or add? If it is a large list of products, I am willing to bet there are a fair amount of things you could be doing with those products that you aren’t. Some of those things might save you a lot of time and/or money. How valuable is your time? I can’t help you with the endless meetings you may have to endure. I can’t reduce your commute time. I can’t get you more money in your paycheck. What I CAN say is that as your proficiency increases in a given product, you will become more effective in your job, and that is rarely a bad thing for you or the company you work for.

How Do We Keep Up To Date?

Simply put, you have to schedule product update research into your routine. This is especially crucial in any sort of implementation team, be it corporate or VAR. I fully expect the vendors are going to be up to speed on all the latest features of their products, unless you happen to work for a very large vendor like Cisco where a field sales engineer has to be able to sell for the full product portfolio.

This is much easier when you have a team of engineers/admins/architects as opposed to being the sole person responsible for your area of technology. Make a list of the products you have to use in your day to day job and divide that list up among the team. Task them with going over release notes, product data sheets, vendor blog posts, etc. Once they have combed through those things, get the team together and update each other on those products. Some things can be as simple as an e-mail sent out to the team. Other things are better presented in person so that everyone on the team can talk about them and how it affects the operation or implementation of that particular product.

Closing Thoughts

It is easy for me to say that every team should get together and discuss the latest and greatest regarding all of the products they support or implement. It is a LOT harder to make that happen. In this particular case with Metageek’s spectrum analysis platform, our problem was solved quickly, and without additional expense to the company. However, I have experienced the opposite several times in my career.

There are so many different people and projects that eat up portions of your days and weeks. We tend to put professional development to the side in most environments because it isn’t “billable”, or doesn’t appear to make the company any more money. I would argue the opposite. Being able to perform at a high level in your day to day job and not make mistakes out of ignorance ends up benefiting the company immensely in the long run. For many of you, this happens after hours when you are “off the clock” so to speak. There are plenty of things I try to stay current on, but I have to admit that those things don’t encompass all the things I do in my day job on a regular basis.

What do you think? Is it possible to stay current on all the things you do in your job on a day to day basis?

Posted in career, learning, training, wireless | 3 Comments

Can I Be Brutally Honest?

There are several reasons I love being on the road. One of them is the sense of accomplishment I get from doing a particular job in a set amount of time. There is a defined period in which I will be on site with a client to do a job, or a set number of days I will be sitting in training. The light is always at the end of the tunnel. I find that when I am involved in projects around where I live, that they tend to drag on. Time is always important, but not as important as when I am on the road.

Another reason I love being on the road is the fact that I get to interact with a number of my fellow IT professionals on their home turf. I love talking to them about their networks and seeing how they solve the particular issues of their business with technology. I also love to help them improve their networks when needed. Depending on the engagement length, a good working relationship may develop to the point where you seek each other out for conversation or shared meals when you are in the same general vicinity. In the course of my 3 city tour these past 11 days, I have met up with friends in 2 of the 3 cities. The third city was a bit smaller, but I still met some really great people. I can’t do much of that sitting at home because I am a husband and a father of two children whose time living under my roof decreases with every new day.

The last thing I enjoy about being on the road is the time spent alone in the hotel room reflecting on what it is that I do for a living. Don’t get me wrong. I LOVE my family. They are the only reason my tolerance level for any number of things is as high as it is. Were I single with no responsibilities other than feeding myself, I would probably make a lot of rash decisions that would either propel my career to the next level, or sink it to the lowest depths where I would be borderline unemployable. My family keeps me grounded, and ensures any decisions I make in terms of my career are made with consideration of their never-ending food and shelter addictions. 🙂

The road brings me clarity, and after more than a week away from home, it brings me brutal honesty.

I’ve come to a realization in the last several years regarding what it is that I do for a living. The realization is that I don’t make that much of a difference in the world. I am an arms dealer for the IT industry. I’m not here to heal the sick or raise the dead. I’m here to ensure my company is represented at a high technical level(This one takes a lot more work than you would think and doesn’t always happen like I wish it did due to my own deficiencies.) and that the needs of the client are met. That’s it. Being a salaried employee, I am not dependent on a commission from a sale to get paid. Granted, if you don’t sell, you don’t work, but if a sale goes down for 100k less than what was originally proposed, my paycheck won’t be affected. I certainly don’t want to give you the impression that the sales folks I work hand in hand with are used car salesmen(Sorry. We don’t have any female reps at the moment.). They aren’t. I wouldn’t work somewhere that was unethical or immoral. I teach Sunday School for crying out loud. I have a conscience to contend with. 🙂

Back to the “not making a difference” thing…..

I’m okay with being a cog in the machine that is the IT industry. I am at peace with it. I don’t feel the need to act as if I am trying to make the world a better place one router or access point at a time. I have a job to do, and I have no problems doing it. I want to be as good of an engineer/architect/installer/pre-sales guy as I can be. The harder I work, the more successful I become. The more successful I become, the sooner I get to retire and go do something with my life that can directly benefit others without me needing to work 40 or more hours a week to put food on the table. I have at least 20 years left in the trenches, and I plan on grinding it out until I hit my retirement number, or I end up at a pre-IPO company and get enough equity to burn $100 bills in my fireplace to keep warm in the winter time. The former is probably more realistic than the latter.

Does that sound self-centered? Perhaps, but in that internal brutal honesty comes the realization that my life goals will only be achieved by doing my job better than the next person, and helping my company’s clients. When I work harder than the next person to deliver a better widget, it makes the client happy. When the client is happy, my company is happy. When my company is happy, they keep giving me more work and paying me. Everybody wins.

Ask yourself this: Do you work out of the kindness of your heart? Would you do the same job for 50% less pay as long as your employer wrote you thank you notes every week and gave you a hearty thumbs up whenever you walked up and down the hallway of your office? Of course you wouldn’t.

I genuinely like what I do for a living. I love never knowing it all, but still trying to. I love interacting with other IT folks on a daily basis. I love seeing people get excited about their network infrastructure, as odd as that sounds. If wages in IT were depressed to the point where we all had to take a decent pay cut, I would probably still be in IT.

Let’s be clear on one thing though. I’m not sitting in your data center in the wee hours of the night on a weekend because I want to be. That ship has sailed. The adrenaline rush from doing IT black magic while the general public slumbers away blissfully has long departed my body. Every now and then I get to do something cool and I feel a slight rush of CLI-induced splendor at 2am, but that soon passes and I am left with the realization that I am there because I get paid to be there. If there is no financial incentive for me to be there, I am at home laying in bed next to my wife dreaming of a really good meal or pondering why Firefly only lasted one season. You know. Important stuff! My one caveat to that would be if I was doing some pro-bono work for another organization and they needed work done at off hours. So far, I have yet to find the need for my services in a data center at a charitable organization. If you know of one in the Nashville area, hit me up and I will lend a hand. 🙂

There’s nothing wrong with being honest about why some of us do what we do. I don’t have a void in my life that is filled by working in IT. Any void I have isn’t going to be filled with a job. It will be filled with things far more important. One thing I can assure you of is that my tombstone won’t say: “Here lies Matthew. He really loved BGP.”

Posted in career | 3 Comments

Where Is Cisco UCS Headed?

UCS-Grand-Slam-Social_Baseball2_v1-300x300If you happen to read my writing(as infrequent as it is these days), you know that I am a networking focused person. I live my day to day within the walls of routing, switching, wireless, and other “network centric” platforms and technologies. The days of Unix, Windows, and other generalist type administration duties are gone for me. However, like many IT professionals, I have a strong desire to understand all of the different areas in order to enhance my capabilities within the networking space. If you wish to implement IT in any particular silo, it helps to understand all the different pieces. With that in mind, I happily accepted my invite to the Cisco UCS Grand Slam event in New York City a few weeks ago. My involvement with Cisco UCS usually stops at the fabric interconnect point, and occasionally down into the virtual networking piece as well.

I mention that to state that while I understand the moving parts within storage, compute, and virtualization, I DON’T understand it at the level of people who live in those worlds full time. In light of that, I have to point out that I may be completely wrong in my predictions or thoughts around this particular launch. Then again, I may be 100% right in where this is all headed. Time will tell, and right or wrong, this will be available on the Internet until I am shamed into the void of abandoned blogs, or offered a very lucrative gig shilling for one of the billion flash storage companies.

UCS Mini

Coming into the Cisco UCS Grand Slam event, I knew about the UCS mini. Everyone knew about this. A fabric interconnect(FIC) for UCS that fits into the Cisco 5108 blade chassis. Great for smaller customers that didn’t want to go all in and buy the larger 6200 series FICs for a handful of servers. Not so great for customers that needed a ton of UCS servers and already had the larger 6200 series FICs.

Hooray! The mid market customer finally got some UCS love apart from owning a handful of C series UCS boxes. The use case was put forth for a large branch office, and since I live a lot of the time in healthcare environments, I can see that use case in hospitals. However, I still think it is a larger opportunity in the data center of smaller companies.

Here is a video I shot of one of these 6300 series FICs at the event. I can tell you that this little guy was not light, but then again, they had to pack a fair amount of technology in this smaller form factor.

But Wait, There’s More

A couple of interesting things were also announced at the event.

First, there was the M4308 modular server chassis. It is a 2U box that can hold up to 8 M142 compute cartridges. Each cartridge is actually 2 different servers. Well, it is really just a processor and memory. The M4308 uses shared network(2x40Gbps uplinks) and storage(up to 4 SSDs). Cisco has effectively decoupled everything from the server itself other than processor and memory. Why would you want to do something like this you ask? Well, the way I see it, it gives you the potential for a lot of distributed computing power without the typical expense involved in buying regular servers. Maybe you don’t need anything but a lot of processing horsepower for a particular application. Maybe you just need small servers to run a bunch of smaller applications that require their own dedicated box. It could be used for any number of things I suppose.

M4308 Front Picture

M4308 Front







M4308 – Rear Portion Open

M4308 Open Rear







M4308 Rear Picture Showing Drive Bays and Network Connections

M4308 Rear






M142 Compute Cartridge

M142 Front








M142 Cartridge Opened

M142 Open







Second, the C3160 server was announced. Basically, this is a big storage box. It can hold up to 360TB of storage. It has 64 drive bays. While Cisco isn’t the first to release a server with tons of storage space like this, it does make their compute offering a little more complete.

C3160 Server









Is That All There Is?

Okay, so we have some new hardware that gives us more options. That’s always a good thing, right? Other, more qualified server/storage/virtualization folks, would have a lot more content regarding these products, and you can find their posts linked at the bottom of this page. I would normally end things here. A basic piece about the new UCS offerings.

But then I read this piece from Stephen Foskett, where he discusses virtualized and distributed storage…….

That added some more info to what I had already been pondering in regards to the future of UCS. I also ran across this post from Colin Lynch, and he makes some very interesting statements that caught my eye:

“You need to embrace the concept that UCS is not a Chassis Centric architecture”

“There is no intelligence or hardware switching that goes on inside a UCS Chassis.”

Now consider the rise of solutions like Nutanix and Scale Computing. Consider how they differ from the traditional big storage and big compute silos that we tend to pack into data centers. They converge it all down into nodes that intelligently link together. It’s a clever way to provide somewhat similar services, but with the ability to scale out linearly in both storage and compute within the same box/vendor.

Here’s where I am going to take a wild guess. I think that in the coming years, Cisco will be able to provide the compute, storage, and networking, but in a variety of different building block sizes. From the compute perspective, they already have an interesting array of products. From the networking side within the data center, they have already demonstrated their ability to provide a variety of platforms to suit every need from 1Gbps up to 100Gbps. The missing piece is the storage aspect. Maybe that is where Invicta(Whiptail) comes in. If Stephen is right, distributed storage will be the future. Instead of very large centralized storage platforms, we’ll see lots of smaller platforms spread out across the data center.

As long as the distributed systems can provide the same or similar type of services that the large centralized storage platforms have, I think it can work. Since I am not a storage guy by trade, I have to assume that there are features and capabilities that the larger centralized storage platforms possess that would be hard for Cisco to duplicate with UCS. This would be similar to how larger chassis switches such as the Nexus 7000’s offer things that smaller 1RU switches typically do not. If I were to assume that less than a quarter of storage implementations utilized the largest arrays available, that leaves a considerable chunk of the storage market that can be served with a highly distributed model. I just made that 25% number up. I have no idea what the real number is of organizations that use something like VMAX from EMC. Even if that number is 50%, that is still a lot of customers that don’t need the largest storage platform.

Closing Thoughts

I’ll admit that there is a LOT that I don’t understand when it comes to storage and compute. However, I think at a basic level, we can all understand what the various pieces of the puzzle are within the data center when it comes to infrastructure. If there is something to be gained by using smaller components, while managing it all centrally to where it isn’t that much different than having massive compute, storage, and network blocks, then how bad can that be? I suppose it all hinges on the performance required for the business to function properly. Perhaps, if I look at this from an SDN perspective, it will make more sense. If I can get the same reliability and performance from a bunch of distributed switches throughout a data center and manage them centrally(not just NOC type monitoring, but distributed forwarding intelligence), as opposed to nailing up all 10/40/100Gbps connections to a monster chassis, how is that a bad thing? It should be cheaper, and it should allow for more flexibility.

If I were Cisco, I would want to own it all from the network port to the hardware the data lives on and is processed on. Provided it could all be managed and provisioned from a central location, that is a compelling offer. Vendor interoperability is a good thing, but outside of a single vendor, the single pane of glass concept is relatively unrealized.

I’ll end this post here, because I have started to ramble, and I am not entirely sure if I have made a whole lot of sense. What I am certain of is that Cisco has started creeping closer into the storage vendor’s territory. Will they end up making another acquisition in the storage world soon, or will the Whiptail acquisition provide them with as much of the storage piece as they want? I have no idea. What I do know is that they have managed to make a dent in the compute/server market with UCS in just a few short years. It seems to me that storage is the logical next step for them. If storage as we know it is changing into a more distributed model, I wouldn’t rule out some additional offerings from them. I have no firm insider information regarding their future plans. Just a hunch.

Disclaimer: My travel, lodging, and food expenses were covered by the Tech Field Day crew(Thanks again!), and I assume that Cisco ultimately footed the bill for my accommodations. I wasn’t asked to write anything in return, and based on the timing of this post(which I haven’t had time to finish until tonight in a hotel room), I can assure you that they have probably given up on me by now if they were expecting something. 😉

Posted in cisco, data center, hardware, storage | 1 Comment

A Training Class Where I Actually Learned Something

brainTL/DR – Canned labs never work for me.

Training for me has always been hit or miss. I have had better luck with in person classes than online training. I realize that everyone learns differently, so I suppose you pick the model that works best for you and hope you get your money’s worth out of it.

Back in June, I had the pleasure of attending the ClearPass Advanced Labs course at the Aruba headquarters out in Sunnyvale, CA. This was not a typical “class”. In fact, every time I referred to it as a “class”, I was reminded by the instructor that it was more of a workshop. The instructor was not there to teach you everything about ClearPass. Their job is to simply function as a proctor and help out when you got stuck on a particular issue. Yes, there was a slide deck, but it was VERY brief and just covered the goals of the day’s activities.

What Made It Different?

In short, the lack of step by step instructions. Many of the training classes I have attended consist of the following:

1. Death by Powerpoint
2. Canned labs

There’s no need to elaborate on the first point since we are probably all familiar with that portion of instruction. It is the second point that I feel the need to expound on.

Canned Labs

You’ve probably seen these. The product covered is beat into your head via numerous slides and then you get to apply what you just learned by doing a lab exercise. The problem I run into is that the exercises are given along with every single click of the mouse and every keystroke. It becomes more of an exercise of: “Can you follow instructions?” I seldom learn from these to the point in which what I am doing actually makes perfect sense. I get no sense of depth in the product and just suffer through each lab exercise until I am done for the day and can go find somewhere to eat my next meal. Sure, I can poke around the product and flip a few knobs here and there, but you basically just wander around aimlessly.

Back To ClearPass

Canned labs do not exist in the Aruba ClearPass Advanced Labs course. There are very minimal instructions given. A few sentences with what needs to be accomplished and that is it. It is up to you and your lab partner to figure out how to accomplish the task. I should point out that you were expected to have some experience with ClearPass prior to attending the course, but the prerequisites could be accomplished without ever having touched ClearPass in a production environment.

To better illustrate the minimal information given, here is a picture of the guidebook for the Aruba ClearPass Essentials course in orange along with the Aruba ClearPass Advanced Labs course in black on top.







Was It Better With Less Information?

Yes! I found myself struggling in certain areas, but was able to work through them with occasional help from the instructor. The benefit was that after a brief period of time, it started to make sense. ClearPass was no longer as daunting as it initially seemed. Don’t get me wrong. It is a VERY deep product with a variety of different ways to accomplish a given task, but as a whole the main pieces began to make a lot more sense. I would not have gotten to that point had every step been written out for me to follow.

If you have ever taken a math class*, you are probably familiar with something along the lines of:

3 + 2x = 15

The astute reader already knows that x=6, but that is because they know how to solve the problem.

(15 – 3)/2 = x

*Note – I was never good at math. It just doesn’t interest me. Please forgive any incorrect logic on my part.

Imagine if you didn’t know that instinctively. You would have had to reason it out. Through enough trial and error, you would eventually reach 6. In that process, you would have figured out exactly how to derive “x” from the given information. You could use the same method in the future and solve the problem much faster. You would have LEARNED, which should be the overall goal of any sort of education.

I realize that developing any sort of training content is not an easy job. Technical content development is even harder. However,  by simply running people through a set list of commands to type, I think the student gets the short end of the stick. They are deprived of the opportunity to explore different approaches to solving a problem. While this doesn’t extend to every aspect of learning(e.g. Landing an airplane has a very specific set of steps that need to be followed in order to avoid crashing.), I think it covers a fair amount of IT work in general.

Closing Thoughts

The ClearPass Advanced Labs course from Aruba was without a doubt the best technical class I have ever taken. In 5 short days, I learned more about that product simply because I was not given all the answers up front. That doesn’t mean I am an expert, or even highly competent with ClearPass. That comes with more experience and exposure to different problems that need solving in that given product. What it does mean is that I returned home knowing a lot more about how it works and the various methods I could use to solve a given problem. 

Consider something like BGP. There are generally multiple ways to influence path selection. While I may use some methods more than others(e.g. prepending, local preference), I am aware of other ways to accomplish the same thing. That didn’t come about because I sat through a bunch of canned labs on BGP and gained immediate insight into how the protocol works. It came about because over the years I have tried various methods and failed. I would have to reassess how to solve the problem another way and try again until I got it right.

Raising kids has taught me that the best way to ensure their success is to let them fail. The exception being safety issues where they could get physically hurt beyond a simple bruise or scrape. If I hold their hand until they are old enough to venture out on their own, they will be woefully unprepared for the world that awaits them.

Your IT staff is no different than my kids, except that they have credit cards and a driver’s license. Don’t hold their hand. Make them work for it. They’ll be better technologists and you as the employer will benefit from their increased knowledge.

If you are involved with ClearPass as an end user, Aruba employee, or Aruba partner, I HIGHLY recommend you send your people to this course. In addition to the massive amount of learning that takes place, if you attend the class at Aruba’s headquarters, they have a really nice cafeteria with a plethora of yummy food. I wish I could eat lunch there every day! That may be due to my love of Asian food though. It is hard to get that out here in Tennessee. 🙂

As always, I am interested in your comments. What has been your experience with training classes?

Posted in aruba, career, learning, training | 2 Comments

Choosing Sides In Technology

Sometimes There Is Too Much Choice

Sometimes There Is Too Much Choice

I started out the evening writing a post on Aruba ClearPass, but this has been weighing on my mind lately, so I figured Aruba ClearPass can wait.

It seems that the Internet is filled with all sorts of opinions as it relates to all things IT. Shocking, isn’t it? 😉

We squabble over all sorts of technical things that mean a great deal to us as IT folks, but probably not a whole lot to the people who actually benefit from the use of those systems. Yes, I am referring to the end users. What do they care about? They care about their systems working. That’s it. They have their own jobs to worry about. This can be confirmed by the fact that end users almost never call up the IT department or fire off an e-mail unless there is a problem. Consider exhibit A:

1. Does it work? Great. I can do my job. The IT department isn’t even on my mental radar.

2. Is it broken? Uh oh. Now I can’t do my job as effective, or quite possibly, at all. Time to notify IT to get this thing back up and running.

Now, take that same concept and apply it to something you care about other than IT stuff. Do you like getting paid? I sure do. Two times a month, my paycheck is deposited into my bank account. How often do you think I swing by the accounting department to discuss my paycheck? If you guessed almost never, you are correct. As long as the check shows up, I am happy. If the check doesn’t get deposited, you better believe I am going to reach out to the accounting department and ask about it. If I don’t get paid, I am not going to do any work for that company. It’s a pretty simple relationship I have with them. I don’t really care how the money gets into my bank account as long as it gets there on time.

Does The Solution Matter?

This is a semi-loaded question, because it really depends on your angle. Consider these 5 potential angles:

1. Vendor – You ABSOLUTELY think the solution matters. You make your living off of selling your solution. Why would you not think your stuff is the best? To the vendor, there is a wrong way to do things, and there is their way. The right way. Maybe not for every scenario, and a good vendor will tell you when  they are not the right fit for you. I don’t want to make all IT vendors sound like they are soulless corporations out to take all your money. They aren’t. They are made up of people not unlike the people that work for the companies they sell to or partner with. They just chose a side. They’ll root for their team as long as they are a part of that vendor organization. I don’t think most people go to work for vendors hoping they fail. They believe in their message. You’ll find many idealists in the vendor ranks. No problem with that. That’s what it takes to make an impact in the marketplace.

The vendor will be ready to talk you out of every other vendor’s solution but theirs. Maybe that salesperson sitting in front of you isn’t well versed in their competition and can only spout their own talking points. Maybe they are hoping the potential customer isn’t savvy enough to counter their pitch with an informed view of that particular solution segment of the market. Or maybe, the vendor has brought in one of their specialized engineers/evangelists/sales superstar to answer all your questions around the competitor’s solutions. Maybe they do it without stretching the truth at all and just lay it all out there for you the end customer, to decide.

The vendor is in this battle to close the deal. They want the sale. Nothing wrong with that at all. Some do it better than others. Some do it more ethically than others. Some don’t even have to try that hard since their technology is well known and respected.

2. Reseller – The solution MAY matter. It depends on who they sell for. It also depends on whether or not the vendor walked them into this deal. I can tell you that if a vendor walks us into a deal(I work for a reseller), I will do my absolute best to ensure I ONLY pitch their solution(s). The only time I will veer off message is if a customer asks me a very direct question regarding a competitor or about that particular vendor that brought me. I won’t lie. Period. If I don’t know, then I say I don’t know. I’m not going to bite the hand that feeds me though and offer up alternate vendors that my company may sell for right in front of the vendor that walked us into the deal. That’s just bad business.

What if a reseller only sells a solution for a single vendor in the segment of IT you are looking in to make a purchase? What solution do you think is going to be pitched? If you guessed the one they sell for, you are correct. Consider something like switching. My company sells for several switching vendors. While I may LIKE other vendors, I am not going to be pitching switches from a vendor I don’t sell for and tell the customer to go to another reseller to make the purchase. Does that seem like I am boxed in? To a certain extent, yes. However, if none of the solutions my company sells for are going to be a fit for that particular customer, I have no problems telling them that. My experience is that most vendors(I’d say 9 out of 10) can solve 90% of the customer’s problems. It’s the corner cases that really involve a lot of head scratching and pondering.

To sum up the reseller, the solution matters if they sell that within that segment of IT. If you were in the market for a new car and went to a Ford dealership, what kind of car do you think they are going to sell you? That’s how business works. They have a select set of product, and their job is to move that product. I will add that provided that product can solve the customer’s problem, there is nothing wrong with that. You cannot be all things to all people. Try it, and you’ll find that you will be good at nothing.

3. Vendor Bigots(Pro) – Some people go all in with a vendor and don’t necessarily even work for that vendor. They exist in the reseller market as well as on the end customer side. No matter what, their first choice is always their favorite vendor. They’ll go to great lengths to ensure their favorite is the vendor of choice. Sometimes they have VERY valid reasons for doing so. Other times, they just like that vendor more than the others. The solution matters to them as long as it is their vendor of choice. All other solutions are inferior in their mind. Again, might be a valid reason based on solid research and experience, or it might be out of sheer stubbornness or ignorance.

4. Vendor Bigots(Con) – Some people hate certain vendors with the fire of a thousand suns. Maybe they had some really bad experiences. Maybe they hate the market leaders(sales numbers). Maybe they hate the small upstarts that are clamoring for any market share they can find. Maybe they are turned off by the arrogance of certain vendors(real or perceived). It could be any number of things. In my experience, the vendor bigots of the “con” persuasion tend to hate the bigger vendors and feel like they are getting ripped off and sold bad technology. They generally have some vague story about a perceived evil that was done to them or their network by the big bad vendor. Might be a valid reason, or might be paranoia.

Note – In my experience, vendor bigots of any persuasion tend to be more on the uninformed side when it comes to alternative view points. I have learned in my almost 20 years of IT that exposure to other vendors is a good thing. For example, I am currently deploying an Aruba Instant solution for a customer and it is my first time working with this technology using more than a single access point. I love it. It just works. It might not have all the features that other solutions have, but for this particular deployment, it meets all of the customer’s needs. Prior to this, I had a few “go-to” vendors for similar solutions, but now my eyes have been opened even more. That isn’t to say that I will always favor Aruba Instant for every similar deployment. It simply means that I can help a customer make a more informed choice. It makes me a better engineer, and it helps any of my company’s customers make a better decision when it comes to this type of technology.

5. The “Just Make It Work” People – These people don’t really care about the logo on the box or software provided it works. That’s all they care about. They may or may not be sensitive to price. If their pain is great enough, price isn’t the most important issue, provided you can stop the 2am phone calls from rousing them from their slumber.

What Is The RIGHT Solution?

The one that works. Period.

While that seems like a pretty straightforward answer, it is a little more complicated than that.

1. Price – As much as I wish it didn’t, price matters.
2. Vendor ecosystem – Is there information available from the vendor on the product in more detail than a data sheet?
3. Supportability – Can my in house/outsourced staff manage this solution, or is it too complicated?
4. Life expectancy – Is the vendor going to be around in a year and will this solution last long enough to meet my needs in the future?

There are probably more variables, but those are the big ones I run across.

What’s Wrong With Preference?

Nothing at all. It is human nature to prefer certain things over others.

Consider the various political rhetoric that is spewed on Twitter and Facebook on a daily basis. Some people have a preference for a particular political party and have their feet in concrete. No matter what, it is always the “other” side that is wrong. If you were to ask some of the zealots out there, they would tell you that they are reasonable. They are open minded. They consider all the variables and amazingly, they are always on the correct side of things. If you could just open your eyes and see things their way, you would be better off. They look in the mirror and see a reasonable and informed person. The “other” side is full of morons and idiots. They are the lemmings. The dummies. The followers. If always falling on one side of the coin makes you think of yourself as “independent”, then you are delusional and arrogant. Probably beyond any sort of help, to be quite honest.

Now take the above rant and apply it to technology. The same person exists, but with an eye towards technology. I have always maintained that the esoteric nature of what we do in IT can breed arrogance. Couple that with a social media platform from which to preach our message and we become convinced that we have the answers to all the questions you may have. If you could just see it our way……

Preference in and of itself isn’t bad. The world would be a very boring place if we all chose the same things all of the time. I find though, that my familiarity with certain solutions breeds preference. That doesn’t mean we make poor choices when we choose solutions we prefer based on our experience, or based on who is signing our paychecks. As long as the solution gets the job done, does it really matter? No. If the customer is happy to pay Cisco to get a datacenter full of Nexus switches, let them. If the customer would rather pay another vendor to use their switches instead of Cisco, let them. It is their network. They will succeed or fail based on their choices.

I have seen quite a few customers make decisions that my company recommended against and be perfectly fine. I have also seen the opposite.

Is This Post Over Yet?

Yes. In summary, the customer will make the decision they feel is best for them. You may not like the decision, but it is theirs to make. Maybe it was uninformed, or maybe it was done after careful consideration of the alternatives.

Additionally, all vendors have very smart people developing and selling solutions to end customers. Resellers and end customers also employ very smart people as well. You won’t always know all the reasons people make the choices they do when it comes to technology. However, if you simply ask them WHY, they may just surprise you. The things you are passionate about when it comes to your solution of choice may not be a big deal to that other person. Or, by engaging them in a professional manner, you may just be able to sway their opinion more in your favor. Technology is always changing. Vendors come and go. Architectures come and go. Understanding WHY you hold a certain opinion will help you more than being stubborn and refusing to admit you may be wrong. We’re all wrong at some point.

Now I am off to go find another knock-down, drag out, technology fight on social media. I may even participate, hoping you will just see it my way. 🙂

Posted in career, selling | 5 Comments

How Does This Help Aruba Networks?

I was going over my YouTube subscriptions tonight, as I do at least once a week, and came across this video from Aruba Networks:

While I do love watching things go through a shredder, I fail to see the point of this video. It begs the question: Who watches this and would this video change their mind?

In my opinion, this video is aimed at a non-technical buyer. If you make a significant investment in Aruba based on this video, I have serious concerns about your ability to make sound judgements when it comes to technology. That is not to say that the AP-225 from Aruba can’t beat a Cisco 3702 AP in testing. I honestly don’t know. I have access to both AP’s, and I suppose I could run my own independent tests, but to what aim? I certainly don’t have 20 laptops laying around to run my own version of this test, and I am struggling to locate the exact testing methodology used on the Aruba website. The video mentions that Aruba publishes the exact test they performed. I assume it is available somewhere. There was nothing in the video description, so I suppose I have to do even more poking around Aruba’s website to find the testing methodology, if it is indeed there. I looked around for a few minutes, but couldn’t find anything showing how the test was done.

There’s good tech marketing, and there is bad tech marketing. I think this fits the latter. I have a great deal of respect for Aruba, as I think they DO have very good technology on the Wi-Fi side, as well as the extra systems that complement Wi-Fi(ClearPass, Meridian, AirWave, etc…). I just think their time could be better spent adding to the other GOOD videos that they have done in the past that have a lot more technical substance to them.

You are better than this Aruba. I’d have no problems calling out one of your competitors if they were doing the same thing. You want to call out Cisco? Fine. Do it. I welcome that, as I think ALL vendors should have to explain how their products work and let the customers make more informed decisions. You can do that in a better way. How so? Well, I am glad you asked.

Check out the following video from GT Hill at Ruckus where he discusses Cisco’s Clean Air technology and Ruckus’ stance on it. Although the video is a few years old, it still makes you THINK, and THAT is what makes a better informed buyer.


What do you think? Am I off base here? Is this how tech marketing is SUPPOSED to work? Are people being influenced by videos like the one shown above from Aruba?

Posted in aruba, ruckus, wireless | 1 Comment

Winning With Ecosystems

Back in 2010, I wrote a post entitled “Competing With Cisco”. It has been a few years, and since I have been in the VAR space for almost 3 years now, I have a slightly different perspective. One thing I didn’t really touch on too much in that article was the powerful ecosystem that surrounds Cisco. I’ve seen it win many deals over the past several years and thought it was worth writing about. Perhaps you already know the power of that ecosystem.

I feel sorry for smaller technology vendors. They face an uphill climb when going against the 800lb gorillas. Interestingly enough, I have often wondered about that phrase. Perusing the Wikipedia article on “800lb gorilla”(That site really does have everything!), it gives a riddle:

Q: Where does an 800lb gorilla sit?
A: Anywhere it wants to.

For people within the greater networking space, that 800lb gorilla is Cisco. It has been that way for a number of years, and will likely continue that trend for years to come. Although there are numerous competitors, time and time again, they fail to take substantial market share from Cisco. While Cisco does make many fantastic products, there are plenty of other vendors that do a better job in certain areas. Occasionally, they achieve market share greater than the competing Cisco product and reach the level of acceptance in the market to where Cisco is not the first name that comes to mind when it pertains to that particular technology. This is not the norm though.

I’ve tried to honestly look at networking vendors over the past several years and determine who had the best technology for each given situation. It wasn’t always like that though. For years, I succumbed to the marketing engine of Cisco and associated networking with that name, and that name alone. I chalk that up to either laziness, lack of knowledge, or both. I made design choices based on my comfort level with Cisco, and didn’t really entertain other vendors because it was just too easy to buy one more Catalyst switch.

Somewhere along the way I changed. I’m not sure I can point to a specific event that made me consider others, but I think a lot of it had to do with simply being exposed to alternatives. This change was similar to the OS wars that I got sucked into back in the 90’s. Windows had dominated, but once I got exposed to Unix and Linux, I begin to see things differently. It wasn’t that I loathed Microsoft. Rather, I begin to see use cases where Unix or Linux was a better fit. Over the years, I began to look more at the technology as opposed to the vendor. I don’t really care too much about cost. I care about solving the problem for the business. Now, I should point out that my experience has been that 9 out of 10 vendors can solve 90% of the problems out there. There are a fair amount of features within a given hardware/software platform that are commoditized. Switching is switching for the most part. I can deploy Brocade, Cisco, HP, or Juniper on most customer networks and they will all work just fine. Same with wireless. Occasionally, there are some compelling differentiators that push one vendor to the top based on the customer needs, but generally speaking, it doesn’t matter to me. They will all work. The big differences between the vendors will show up when you start comparing their ecosystems.

The Death of My Idealism

I’m coming up on my third year in the VAR space. I worked for a smaller VAR several years back, but it ended up being mostly SMB work, and was more break/fix than project based, so I don’t put it on the same level as the work I am doing now. There was far less selling in that role, and I pretty much just cranked out fixes to existing gear as opposed to proposing new solutions. In my current position, there are a couple of things I have had to come to terms with over the past several years.

First, you can’t always sell what you prefer. Nobody can successfully sell for a massive amount of different vendors and be any good at it when it comes time to implement. I have a hard enough time with just a handful of vendors based on the level of technical depth I need to implement things successfully. That’s just the reality I have come to accept. I may be a fan of a certain vendor, but if we don’t sell for them, it doesn’t matter. Maybe we do sell for them, but if they are not our lead vendor for a particular technology, they won’t necessarily be brought to the table on the first pass. However, if another VAR has deal registration with our lead vendor in a given technology, we can always come in with another vendor we sell for in the same space. Deal registration is VERY important as it ensures a much larger discount(usually) to the VAR that pitched that vendor first. This is just the way the business works. As long as each vendor will do the job(see my comment about 9 out of 10 vendors above), I have no problem pitching one over the other. I don’t have to lie and I don’t have to compromise my integrity to sell for a vendor in one deal and sell against them in another deal. They ALL have strengths and they ALL have weaknesses.

Second, the power of the vendor ecosystem is one that CANNOT be ignored. Companies want assurances that their people will be able to support the hardware and software that they buy. The term “support” can mean different things. It may be that they want to use products from a vendor that is known to them. They may want to be able to find more people to hire that have worked on that particular equipment. They may be concerned about enough information being available out there in the way of documentation, forums, books, etc. It is this second point that I want to focus on.

What Does An Ecosystem Bring?

A good ecosystem brings tremendous power when it comes to closing a deal with a customer. Since Cisco holds the largest market share in networking, there are a massive amount of resources out there in the way of their ecosystem when compared to other vendors. Here’s a short list:

1. Large number of resellers(VAR’s).
2. Certification programs
3. Books
4. Message forums
5. Third-party companies that enhance Cisco products
6. Conferences
7. Design guides
8. A MASSIVE marketing machine that produces enormous amounts of videos, blog posts, white papers, etc.
9. Large numbers of networking professionals who are comfortable with their products.

Let’s break down each of those items:

1. Large number of resellers(VAR’s) – The sheer number of Cisco resellers out there means that their products get mentioned to customers all over the world on a regular basis. In my particular city(Nashville,TN), I can name at least 10 different VAR’s that sell for Cisco. That’s a lot of sales reps and a lot of engineers out preaching the Cisco gospel message on a regular basis. Other vendors might only have 1 or 2 VAR’s in the Nashville,TN area selling for them. Those other VAR’s might also sell for Cisco, so it gets to be pretty tough for them. Back in 2012, I had the pleasure of attending a Brocade event at their HQ in Silicon Valley. I happened to be at the same dinner table with one of the Brocade executives, and I asked him what the biggest challenge was for them to take market share from Cisco. His words were basically that their biggest obstacle was simply getting VAR’s to mention their name to customers. When so many VAR’s are leading with Cisco, it makes it hard for vendors like Brocade to win deals if they are never brought up. It pretty much means that the local Brocade sales teams are having to engage customers and then bring in a partner that can close the deal for them. While there are VAR’s that do not sell for Cisco, they are in the minority.

2. Certification programs – When you think of the baseline certification for networking, does the term CCNA come to mind? For most people, I bet it does. On the top end, you have the CCIE certification. This is a certification that is so well respected, that it usually commands an immediate salary increase when someone passes their CCIE lab. Not always, but usually. It isn’t uncommon to see someone achieve their CCIE and then change jobs a few months later due to the better offers that flood in. Entire companies have been formed around Cisco certifications. IP Expert, Internetwork Expert, and others exist to provide third-party training to people in order for them to pass a large number of Cisco certifications. Throw in companies like Global Knowledge, New Horizons, and several others, and you have a pretty decent Cisco training ecosystem out there. Try and find certification classes for other vendors in the networking space and you usually end up looking at training direct from the vendors themselves.

3. Books – Two words. Cisco Press. Find me another networking vendor with anything close to the number of titles put out by Cisco Press. I realize that Cisco Press is not wholly owned by Cisco, but it doesn’t really matter. The books have Cisco logos on them and the association to the vendor is assumed. It isn’t just Cisco Press ether. O’Reilly has several books on Cisco hardware/software as well as do other smaller publishers. Finding a book on a particular Cisco technology or product isn’t hard to do. Juniper is the only other networking vendor I know of that even comes close to matching the number of Cisco related titles out there. HP is off to a start with their publishing arm, but their titles are mostly limited to their ASE/MASE certification programs and there appear to be fewer than 20 titles available across the entire HP Press line.

4. Message forums – These may be dwindling as a whole, but some are still very active. The forums on Cisco’s site are massive and have a large number of people posting questions and answering questions. On a lesser scale, there are other message forum sites with large portions dedicated to Cisco issues. If you have a question and don’t necessarily want to open a support case with Cisco, or didn’t pay for support, one of these forums can usually help out.

5. Third party companies that enhance Cisco products – As someone who recently switched from a Windows phone back to an iPhone, I know the pain of seeing a really cool app and not having it available for a particular platform. One of the main drivers for me going back to the Apple ecosystem was the sheer number of apps that are now available to me. When it comes to third party applications/systems from network management companies, support for Cisco products is pretty much assumed, in the same way that any smart phone app is assumed to support iOS and Android. Whether it is call reporting software, flow data repositories, configuration management, or network monitoring, you can pretty much bet that Cisco will be supported.

6. Conferences – Starting on Sunday, May 18th, Cisco Live will kick off in San Francisco,CA. While not the only Cisco conference in the world, it is the largest. Thousands of networking professionals will descend on San Francisco for several days worth of technical training and informative sessions. The level of detail in some of these sessions is simply astounding. I know of no other vendor that gives that much insight into how their products work on the scale that Cisco does. Almost every product that they sell is also available to see on the expo floor at the show. Product specialists stand ready to sell and tell you about all the whiz-bang features that are supported with that particular product. You can even schedule time to meet with Cisco engineers and discuss any design challenges you are facing. They provide you help for free. It is truly an amazing conference. If you can’t attend in person, they make almost all of the sessions available online for free. They used to charge for them, but in the past several years, they did away with that and now you can watch sessions from all of their conferences around the world for free. Each session is usually about 2 hours, so the amount of information you get is fairly comprehensive.

7. Design guides – In order to appreciate the amount of detail that goes into a standard design guide from Cisco, you really just have to sit down and read one. They are usually several hundred pages and are filled with diagrams, configuration examples, and specific recommendations on how each technology or feature is expected to be implemented. This helps tremendously in the field when implementing new hardware or software. A lot of the guessing is eliminated because most things are spelled out in these design guides. Yes, some of them can be a bit dated, and not every single technology/product is covered, but it is far more comprehensive than any other networking vendor I have seen.

8. Massive marketing machine – When it comes to marketing for networking, Cisco sets the standard. They are at every major technology show. They have more webcasts, webinars, product videos, etc than any of their competition. If you want technical information, their TechwiseTV program is simply unmatched. In short, Cisco is everywhere. White papers, webcasts, product launch events, partner-only training events and conferences, etc. The sheer size and scale of their marketing is mind boggling. I can’t even put it into words how big it is. I tend to check my YouTube subscriptions at least once a week and the Cisco channel always has several dozen more videos uploaded. Whether or not anyone watches them in large numbers is another story, but they crank out a ton of content in videos alone. I’m not saying I agree with all of their marketing. It serves its purpose, even if I disagree with the content or approach sometimes. Somebody, somewhere, is influenced by it. Otherwise, they wouldn’t do it this way.

9. Large numbers of networking professionals familiar with their products – I rarely see a job posting for a networking person that doesn’t have some Cisco certification listed as a requirement. Almost every single client office I walk into has some piece of Cisco hardware in production. It is a rarity to find a network engineer that isn’t somewhat familiar with a Cisco Catalyst switch. I’m the type of guy who orders the same thing from each restaurant I go to. I find something I like and I stick with it. I do it so much that my wife is constantly trying to get me to try something else, but I rarely do. I like what I like, and I would rather know what I am getting(good and bad), then try something new and be disappointed. I think a lot of people think like that when it comes to choosing Cisco hardware/software. It is familiar to them. They are comfortable with it. They may gripe about software bugs or hardware quirks, but they keep on buying Cisco.

You Want To Compete Against That?

For smaller vendors, what I listed above is a BIG hurdle they have to overcome. The ecosystem drives the Cisco machine. Take away just a few of those things, or do them better, and you can beat Cisco. Yes, it can be done. Riverbed did it. F5 did it. Other vendors have done it as well, to a certain extent. I think in those cases, the technology they offered was compelling enough to overlook the ecosystem. That usually won’t be the case though.

If you want to compete on price, go for it. Be my guest. That will work with some customers, but not all of them. When people are committed to buying Cisco, they aren’t necessarily concerned about the lowest price. The way to beat them is through the ecosystem. You have to convince customers that you can provide a better experience with your products. I took a different stance in the article I wrote back in 2010, but have come to the conclusion that price isn’t that big of a deal anymore.

If I Were Running A Smaller Vendor

Note – I’m a technical person. I’m not in management. I am not in marketing. I am not an accountant. That means I might be a little unrealistic when it comes to how all of this stuff works when it comes to growing the bottom line. I just know what works for me, and that is how I approach the following.

Tell me how it works. That’s all. Tell me as much as you can without giving away your intellectual property and I will be satisfied. Once you have told me how it works, tell me how you expect me to implement it. Give me this information in two modes. High level and low level. I don’t care about all the marketing garbage where you use buzzwords and corner cases to appear like you are so much better than everyone else. I’m tired of that junk and I hate having to sift through all of it to get to the information I really need, if I can even find it. Design guides are a great thing to have. Cisco has plenty of them, and so does Aruba. Even better if they are not hidden behind a registration wall.

Tell me about every product you sell. If I have to open a support case to get information on something as simple as a lightning arrestor for an outdoor wireless access point, I don’t consider that a good thing. Every single product you sell should have some sort of a manual. Whether it is an installation guide or a configuration guide, make it available on your website. Pictures are great too!

I watch a LOT of vendor videos on YouTube. Most of them are so boring that I only make it through about a minute before I move on to something else. My absolute favorite high level videos are the TechWise TV Fundamentals ones that Cisco produces. In a few minutes, I watch Robb Boyd break down a specific technology with nice graphics and a touch of humor. Invest in good video production. Technical people will watch technical videos. I don’t know how many management types sit around and watch a group of marketing folks chat about ROI and other benefits of a given product on YouTube. These people are already triple booked for meetings each day at the office. You really think they take the time to watch an hour long webcast or video filmed in a studio with a roundtable discussion? Of course not. I take note of the number of views on YouTube videos. Unless I am missing something, the number of views on a lot of these videos are abysmal. You would be better served by creating content that actually means something.

Here’s a few examples of content I actually enjoy watching, in addition to the TechWiseTV stuff that Cisco puts out:

1. Aruba Outdoor Wireless Videos – These are great. Something as simple as how Aruba recommends you weatherproof outdoor AP’s are a great example of USEFUL information. You can also find plenty of videos from the Aruba Airheads conference on their YouTube channel and Airheads forum.

2. Tech Field Day – These are usually highly technical presentations from various vendors. Lots of great information found in these sessions.

3. Wireless LAN Professionals Summit – More great technical videos from the first WLP event.

Yes, those are all technical resources. I am a big believer in the “trickle up” effect when it comes to vendors winning over customers. If your IT staff gets excited about a particular vendor, then that information will be relayed up the chain until it hits the decision maker. Don’t overlook the power that the IT staff wields in influencing buying decisions. As long as they can make a great case for your product, you have a pretty good chance of getting it installed in a company.

Closing Thoughts

I should point out that I don’t dislike Cisco. The bulk of my living comes from Cisco. It is a company that I have a tremendous amount of time invested in from a professional development perspective. I’ve seen unbelievable quality from some of their products, and yet I have hurled many an insult at the Java based software they love so dearly. I like the company and many of the products they make. I’m just not naive enough to believe they are the end-all be-all when it comes to all things networking. There are alternatives out there, and each company has to evaluate the available solutions and choose the vendor that meets their needs the best. Due to Cisco’s sheer size and ability to execute, they tend to get the larger share in the marketplace. It isn’t always about who has the best technology.

I love to sell solutions for Cisco, and I love the challenge of selling against them. Well, maybe I love selling against them more, but that has more to do with me liking underdogs over incumbents. As long as it gets the job done, I don’t really care who you go with. I get paid either way. 😉 There are plenty of times when Cisco is going to be the best fit for you. There are other times when they won’t. You have to know how to spot the difference, and the more information a vendor can provide from a technical perspective, the better.

Posted in cisco, vendors | 2 Comments

Could Cisco ACI Kill APM?

APM TargetNote – This is ALL 100% speculation on my part. I may be WAY off base with what you are about to read, and if you know something I don’t, feel free to correct me in the comments below.

I attended the Cisco Live Local Edition event here in Nashville,TN last month. It was an all day event that gave a variety of presentations in different focus areas. While I spent the bulk of my time in the routing/switching/wireless/security presentations, I made a point to sit in on one in the data center track. It was entitled Data Center Fabric Futures. This session spent a lot of time talking about Cisco’s Application Centric Infrastructure(ACI) technology, so I was curious to learn a bit more about it since the company I work for sells a fair amount of Cisco Nexus switching.

If you want a little more information about Cisco’s ACI technology, here’s some really good writing on that subject:

Insieme and Cisco ACI [Part 1] – by Matt Oswalt

Insieme and Cisco ACI [Part 2] – by Matt Oswalt

Cisco’s ACI (Insieme) Launch – by John Herbert

While the presentation was moving along, one particular aspect of ACI caught my attention. It was a specific function within the Application Policy Infrastructure Controller(APIC). Before I dive into that, let me give you a brief overview of the purpose of the APIC.

APIC is the brains of ACI. Think of it as the controller for the network. Control plane operations can be orchestrated from here in the same manner that a wireless LAN controller would do for wireless access points. Anyone who has followed the industry buzz around SDN is familiar with this concept of a network controller. Instead of doing a lot of manual configuration on each and every switch and router, the controller(APIC) would handle optimized routing, QoS, and other configuration tasks automatically. Policies can be deployed and removed on the fly without a human having to intervene at every step along the way of a given data flow.

Getting My Attention

When the discussion moved to the monitoring aspects of APIC, I was suddenly even more interested. The ability to monitor traffic flowing across the network is something that every decent sized network requires. Well, it may be required, but the price tag associated with platforms that can provide this sort of monitoring tend to scare off all but the most committed organizations. They have a reputation for costing an arm and a leg. I have seen customers get excited about what a particular network monitoring product can do, and then lose interest once they see the price tag. I’m not arguing that companies with decent technology should sell it for next to nothing. It takes a lot of skill and hard work to develop any decent product and companies should be able to charge what they think is a fair price for their hardware or software. The price will be dictated by what customers are willing to pay, and if enough of them agree to that price, the vendor doesn’t necessarily have to come down on pricing to satisfy what a customer “thinks” they should pay for said product.

Here’s the slide that caught my eye:


Forget the basic flow based monitoring tools or up/down state monitoring tools using SNMP. Those are old news. Granted, they are still quite useful, but in today’s larger networks, they don’t go deep enough. Consider all of the multi-tier applications that companies are employing today. What may be looked at as a simple web based application to an end user could in reality be a multitude of servers, load balancers, and other devices on the back end to allow that web page to be displayed. The complexity is hidden from the end user, and rightfully so. They just want it to work. You and I get paid to figure out how to make that work.

Enter Application Performance Monitoring(APM)

Over the past several years, I have had the pleasure of working with a few different APM vendors. In addition to logging how much traffic has traversed the network, they can drill down even deeper and show you precisely what that traffic was made up of. Instead of just telling me that a flow was comprised of Microsoft SQL traffic, APM can tell me which specific operations to a given database were made. Let’s say that you have a web application that is running slow. With APM, I have the ability to look at each transaction within that SQL flow and see if a particular “select” statement was taking too long to process. Instead of just telling the DBA’s that their database was running slow, I can point them to the precise operation that is causing that slowness.

Of equal importance is the fact that I can map out all of the applications and see exactly which systems are talking to each other. I can’t tell you how many times I have had to help a client troubleshoot a slowness issue and there was little to no information about how all of their systems interacted with each other. There is always some box in the corner of a datacenter that has been running for years and nobody knows what it does, except that when it goes offline, everything breaks. APM can tell you precisely what the box does, as it knows all the other systems it talks to, and what type of traffic is being sent and received by that unknown box.. The value of mapping out all of an organization’s applications and who talks to who should not be overlooked. When it breaks and nobody knows how it works because the original system architects have moved on to other jobs, much pain will ensue. Been there. Done that. Got plenty of scars to show for it. THAT reason alone is enough to justify the cost of an APM solution, unless you don’t really know how much your downtime costs you. If that is the case, remind me not to buy any of your stock. 😉

Allow Me To Speculate……

APIC is not available for purchase yet. I just checked for SKU’s on the Cisco pricing list and couldn’t find any for APIC. As best I can tell based on what I have heard, it should be coming within the next year or so. This shouldn’t be too much of a surprise though. Juniper did the same thing with QFabric. The whole solution came in phases.

Based on the fact that APIC is not available today, I have to speculate on what it MIGHT be from an APM perspective due to lack of the ever popular Cisco design guides and extensive documentation. There’s also the understanding that over time, more and more capabilities will be added. This is NOT unusual within the industry, or even Cisco for that matter. The Nexus 7000 series product line didn’t come to market with everything it has today. It took time, and so will ACI.

I am also aware that Cisco’s ACI solution was probably not even intended for use as an APM-like platform. I’m just trying to think outside of the box here.

Still with me? Good.

Imagine the possibility of being able to see the health of an application from the same vendor that sold you all of your data center switches. No more span sessions or expensive network taps. No more high dollar appliances which are commodity Dell, HP, IBM, or Cisco servers with a different vendor name slapped on them. None of that. Granted, APIC won’t be free, and I wouldn’t be surprised if licensing wields its ugly head and the APIC functions are carved up under various licensing SKU’s. That’s just the way the game is played by the majority of vendors out there.

How deep will APIC be able to see into each application? I am unsure of this, but I am pretty sure it will be a bit more than just flow data or standard ICMP/SNMP health checks. I find myself wondering whether or not an “application” from an ACI perspective is the same as an “application” from a traditional APM vendor. An ACI “application” might just be a grouping of hardware and virtual resources as opposed to the lower level functions within an “application” such as database operations, etc.

The two terms that I am VERY interested in from that slide are “health scores” and “resource consumption”. They might have different meanings than what I would expect to see from an APM vendor. If they are, then you just wasted time reading this, and I wasted even more time writing it.

Closing Thoughts

I don’t know what Cisco ACI will do in terms of application monitoring. My guess is it will not be anywhere near as comprehensive as the mainline APM tools out there. However, it may be good enough, and quite a few networks out there are monitored with systems that are good enough, because the cost of APM solutions was too much for them to stomach. If it costs a little more to get even more insight into the applications running over the network, I would say that will be an easier sell than trying to bolt on a very expensive APM solution from a third party vendor. I say that as someone who LIKES the APM solutions from other vendors. I just happen to dwell in reality where lower cost often overrides the best technology choice.

Posted in cisco, data center, monitoring, network management | 1 Comment

Architecting Supportable Designs…..and a rant or two.

Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga,TN. A fine piece of architecture.

Tennessee Aquarium in Chattanooga,TN. A fine piece of architecture.

I just spent 9 weeks on site with a client building out a network reference architecture. The goal was to provide them with a framework they could use to configure their network in the future without having to reinvent the wheel every single time. I ended up with almost 90 pages of documentation which included somewhere in the neighborhood of 30 Visio diagrams. From a network infrastructure perspective, this reference architecture included routing, switching, wireless, network management, QoS, WAN optimization, and a few other things.

It was a very interesting experience, as I have never really sat down and thought about how I would design the network as a whole. I’ve done my fair share of implementations, but they generally focus on one particular area of the network. Companies don’t generally forklift their entire network or change every device configuration across the board all at once. During this process, one thing kept nagging at me in the back of my mind. It followed me through every major section of the document. I needed to ensure that this particular reference architecture could be supported by the networking staff.

Due to that, I had to make some tradeoffs. That doesn’t mean I slacked off and didn’t consider all possibilities. It just meant that I had to ensure that any recommendation I made would make sense to the average networking person out there. Did I explain the reasons why I chose to use NSSA’s in OSPF multi-area environments? Did I include caveats to running things like VTP on Cisco switches? Did I provide enough information to help explain why I would limit the SSID’s on wireless AP’s to 4 or less?

By writing the document with the thought of people being able to support the proposed architecture, it wasn’t an attempt to say that I am much smarter than the design choices I recommended. I was being pragmatic. I DO have an ego(Don’t we all?), but I try not to let it come out and play too often. I’ve been wrong WAY too many times to go shooting off at the mouth, errr…..keystroke.

The Problem

What I am about to tell you isn’t something you don’t already know. There is a shortage of mid to senior level qualified networking people out there. There are a LOT of tactile engineers floating about. By tactile, I mean people who have done process XYZ a number of times and their level of understanding never goes beyond that. This is easily discovered when things break and their troubleshooting methodology is either non-existent, or doesn’t go beyond a few “show” commands on a device. If this is a junior level person, that’s not a huge problem, unless the thing that broke is well within their skill set. For senior level people, and I realize that “senior” is a very subjective term, there is less wiggle room for lack of understanding when things go wrong. Especially if they were the person who designed and implemented that particular aspect of the network.

I also fully admit that my opinion is based on the encounters I have had, and in no way could I claim to speak as an authority for the entire IT community at large. I will say that when I mention this subject to my peers or network managers out there in corporate America, they tend to validate as opposed to dispute my assumptions. As always, I reserve the right to be completely wrong and have someone tell me that I am wrong. I am also approaching this from the position of networking. I don’t pretend to understand the other silos in the way that I think I understand networking. This could probably apply to those areas as well.

Why This Problem Exists

There are a number of reasons I think this problem exists. The easy thing to do would be to blame everyone for not having the drive to develop themselves professionally. Realistically though, it’s a bit more complicated than that. Allow me to put forth some theories here.

1. Companies don’t care about professional development. – This isn’t true for all companies, but it tends to be the norm in my experience. Most IT managers I have dealt with really do have an interest in ensuring their people can do the job required. However, their directives are to get people in the door that can do the job with little ramp up time. They need performers from day one. Training may be promised during an interview, but all too often, it is never followed up with actual training time or resources. It is lip service. Employees that have a need to develop themselves are going to do it on their own, but don’t expect them to stick around for too long. They’ll gain additional experience at a particular company and move on to somewhere else. They know a dead-end when they see one.

If the networking team at your company consists of more than a few bodies, managers should be doing all they can to ensure their people have freedom and support for professional development. Lots of people stay at companies for years in spite of the fact that they could make more money somewhere else. There is something to be said for being in an environment where there is a solid technical team lead by competent managers. A good team can work wonders with even dated infrastructure. The better prepared your people are, the better your network will be run. That may not fit into a nice little spreadsheet in the accounting department, so network managers need to be prepared to defend the reasons for employee X taking a half day every week to train/learn. I can definitively state that there are a handful of people I have worked for/with over the years, that I would gladly work for/with again. When you find a good team, you don’t want it to ever end, even though it usually does at some point.

Tip: If you are interviewing for a job and they mention that they support training, ask them which of their employees have been on the receiving end of that training in the past year. If they can’t answer it, that should set off alarm signals in your head.

2. People don’t know how to develop themselves. – Remember your first job in IT? Were you overwhelmed? Did only a small amount of things make sense? You aren’t alone. I suspect it was like that for most of us. The difference, I think, is having an environment where learning and development is encouraged. The senior level people need to take time to ensure the junior level people understand what it is that they are doing. Looking back over the years, I have had the good fortune of working for people who took an interest in my development. They gave me projects and refused to hold my hand. They would help me out if I got stuck and needed further explanation, but overall, they instilled in me the need to research and learn things on my own. It has served me well over the years, and above all, I always want to know WHY something works the way it does. I credit my mentors for instilling that value within me, and hope I can do the same for others.

For people that didn’t have the fortune of good mentors, they may spend an entire career just going through the motions and repeating the same tasks over and over. While some out there are just lazy, I think there are a fair amount that just don’t know where to begin. They also may not be able to visualize how far they can actually go if they take the time to step out of mediocrity and go for it.

Tip: If you work in an environment where you are laughed at or belittled because you don’t know how everything works, find another job. People that withhold information from you are probably insecure and don’t know half as much as they let you believe they do. I’ve learned plenty of things from people that had far less experience than I did over the years.

3. We don’t screen candidates properly. – I could go on and on about recruiters sending in lambs to the slaughter, but I won’t. They aren’t going to change their tactics. A fair amount of them are just trying to meet that quota and don’t really care, or even know, if a candidate is viable. One of the things I do once a year or so is have lunch with a recruiter that I trust, along with some of his newer recruiters. We tend to eat at places that use paper as the table cloth, and in between bites of food, I draw out different network technologies for them. Very basic stuff. Here’s a switch. Here’s how it works. Here’s a load balancer. Here’s what it does. Etc. They will ask questions about things they have heard. I try my best to answer it in a way that makes sense to them. This is all done to ensure that when they start to vet potential candidates to put in front of a client, they can ask some basic things and perhaps understand the candidate’s resume a little more. I get a free lunch at a nice restaurant, and they get some basic introduction to networking. An even trade in my opinion. It helps my belly grow a little more, and hopefully, it makes them better at their job.

It isn’t just recruiters though. Sometimes network managers don’t have a technical background. I’ve seen good network managers with heavy business backgrounds, and I have seen good managers who have technical backgrounds. Everyone is different. Lots of different opinions on which approach is better. For network managers who only understand their infrastructure from a very high level, it means that they might end up hiring someone based on a resume and their ability to make themselves seem technically stronger than they are. They don’t know what to ask them unless they are hiring a very junior person. If you, as a technical person, see enough resumes, and provided a recruiter hasn’t “fixed” the resume, you get a general idea of whether they are the real deal. The personal interview will usually reinforce your initial instincts. If you aren’t doing technical interviews for your higher level positions, you WILL get burned at some point. Don’t settle on candidates just because you need a body. If all companies performed technical interviews at the level the position required, people would take interviews more seriously. That would make the candidates prepare a lot more than some of them do.

Tip: If you fail an interview due to technical reasons, remember those things you missed. Write them down during the interview, or shortly after leaving while they are still fresh in your mind. Go home, accept the fact that you failed, and research the things you missed. One of the saddest things I hear from people that failed technical interviews, is that they never bothered to figure out what the proper answer would have been. I once got administrative distance and EIGRP’s advertised distance confused in an interview. Although I ended up getting the job, I was so mad at myself for missing that(Hello type 1 personality!), that I went home and memorized the administrative distance table. Years later, I can still write it down if someone were to ask me to. That’s how bad it upset me. Don’t let a failed interview go to waste. Learn from it.

Additional Tip: If you fail an interview because someone was trying to make you feel stupid, consider it a blessing if you don’t get that job. You probably don’t want to work with people who like to flex their little bit of power and use interviews as a forum to show you how much they know and how little you know. Give it a few years in a healthy environment, and you will run circles around them. In the future, when you are conducting technical interviews, remember how it felt when someone was being openly hostile towards you. Don’t do that to others. It serves no purpose. Also, remember not to confuse standard technical interview pressure with open hostility. I’ve been a part of technical interviews where multiple people would hit a candidate with questions all at once in rapid fire. It was designed to see how they operated under pressure. The questions were not asked in a threatening manner. They were just probing to see if the candidate could take each question and provide an answer without becoming flustered. Yes, you’re nervous in an interview. Perfectly natural. However, when things go wrong at 2AM and you are the one who needs to fix it, you can’t shut down if the problem count goes up.

The Fix

Fixing this problem is two-fold. It’s “tough love”, but it needs to be said nevertheless.

1. Companies – As a general rule, you guys are lousy. Not ALL of you, but a fair amount of you. I get it though. You are focused on the stock price. The quarterly numbers. You don’t have time to sink more cash into that money pit we call IT. Unfortunately for you, you need to take better care of your people. Imagine a place where your employees were willing to do what it takes to get the job done. Imagine a place where you didn’t have to manage by intimidation. A place where you had droves of people waiting to interview for a position at your company, instead of just settling on you because a better offer didn’t come up. Imagine a place where you don’t have to micromanage everyone because you didn’t trust them. They’ll make it happen because they are committed to the success of the business and they are solid professionals.

What’s that? You have an ample supply of corporate drones that don’t want to rock the boat because they are happy to have a job? Here’s some news for you. When you have a group of performers in IT, they have options. If their personal networks are developed and they have in-demand skill sets, they don’t need you. You need them.

Is your IT department a revolving door? Maybe you should stop and ask yourself why. Of course, if the profits remain high, who cares, right? You think outsourcing is the answer? Go for it. Let me know if that works out for you and it comes in under budget.

Take an interest in your people and they will do wonders for you. Here’s a secret that your accounting department and CFO will love. You don’t necessarily have to pay them all a ton of money. You could spend a little on investing in their professional development and they’ll appreciate you for it. That doesn’t mean they will all stay. Sometimes you outgrow a job from a technical perspective. It happens. It’s part of the natural evolution of the IT professional. I can bet you though, that a lot more people will stay if they think you actually care about them. For those that do leave, do exit interviews. It takes a little extra time, but wouldn’t you REALLY like to know what makes people leave your company?

2. Individuals – Abhor mediocrity. I don’t get to use the word “abhor” much, so I am really glad it fit here. 🙂 That’s about it. Don’t be content with treading water. Go out and drive your career. Don’t be a passenger! I can assure you that you will have far greater rewards in the long run. Spend some time figuring out what you want to do. Identify your weak areas. Be honest with yourself. Take some extra time and bump up your knowledge in those areas you are weak in. This will probably require time outside of normal work hours. There’s a fair amount that can be done without spending tons of money on educational material. Google will show you the way. Social media will help as well. Get on Twitter, even if it means being passive and just watching. Read blog posts and networking forums. Be a sponge.

I’ve talked with numerous networking folks over the past several years in interviews and casual conversations. I’ve recommended people for jobs they didn’t have the exact experience the employer wanted because they had potential and were strong in other areas. You knew after talking to them that they were destined for bigger things. They were hungry, and I will take “hungry and inexperienced” any day over “experienced and treading water”.

Closing Thoughts

I love what I do for a living. Life has a way of sending you in directions you never intended to go in. As a child, I was in love with the idea of being a pilot in the US Air Force, being a police officer, or being a cartographer. I ended up in IT. Looking back though, it was the greatest thing that could have happened to me. IT is one of those unique fields where YOU can dictate where you end up. If you are willing to put in the time studying and never settling for the experience you have today, you really can be anything you want to be. This is a knowledge based industry. The playing field is fairly level, in my opinion. Those that are willing to do more than the next person will find success. I firmly believe that. Yes, there is some luck involved, but in a way, you make your own luck.

I’m never content with what I know today. This industry moves way too fast to sit still. Things change. Technologies change. Vendors come and go. Jobs come and go. As you move around and move up, your value increases provided you never stop learning. Companies WANT people who are high performers. It may take you several years and many sleepless nights, but opportunities will come your way provided you put forth the effort to be ready when that opportunity presents itself.

I started out taking about network architecture, so let me end this long-winded post talking about that same thing. I’ve seen my share of network designs that were lacking, not necessarily from a hardware perspective, but from a configuration perspective. They were lacking because the people implementing the design weren’t fully aware of what their options were or they didn’t understand the technology in general. This is not always true. There are some very deliberate things done on networks, for very specific scenarios, that at first glance seem erroneous. However, it seems more common that things are done due to a lack of understanding. The same might be said for even the recommendations I made in my designs. By constantly improving ourselves, every design will get better and we’ll have fewer 2AM calls and alerts due to problems we inadvertently caused. Look at it this way. The more you know, the more time you will get to sleep at night. Unless of course, you are up late studying. 😉

Posted in career, documentation | 8 Comments

Easier Cabling Migrations

SergeantClipLogoSwitching upgrades are a necessary part of any network over a given period of time. Port speed requirements change. Platforms change. What doesn’t seem to change as often are the cables themselves. This is especially true in wiring closets. While I wish that the majority of wiring closets I have worked in had pristine cabling, this is sadly not the case in most of them.

The biggest challenge with updating switching platforms in wiring closets is always the cabling. This is especially a challenge when your maintenance window does not include adequate time to replace or reorganize the cabling itself.

In the interest of doing the job correctly, given the overall limitations, it is generally advisable to label all of the patch cables so that you know which port it came out of and which port it needs to go into on the new switch. Labeling hundreds of drops takes a tremendous amount of time.

The last batch of wiring closets I upgraded would have been the same old process of labeling each cable ahead of time, except I was armed with a new tool that saved me from having to do that.

Sergeant Clip

In September of last year, I received the following message on Twitter from @sergeantclip:

I get these kinds of messages from time to time, but this particular product seemed intriguing, and so I went to the website and poked around a bit. I didn’t have a use for it at the time, but filed it away in my head as something I might be interested in down the road.

In December, I had some wiring closets to update for a client that involved removing older Cisco 6500, 4500, and 4003’s. They were to be replaced with Cisco 3850 switches. It is always a pain to move from chassis’ to single switches or vice versa. The cabling is going to go from a spread out configuration to a denser one or the other way around. When you have the ability to move the patch panels around to compensate for the physical changes, it works out pretty well. Unfortunately, that isn’t always the case.

In light of the work my co-workers and I would be doing in these wiring closets, I thought it would be a good idea to test out these Sergeant Clips and see if they could save us some time. They did. In fact, they saved us a LOT of time.

The product is pretty straightforward. Take a bundle of up to 12 cables and insert the clip around them. Clamp it down, and now a 12 cable bundle is able to be disconnected and reconnected in a pretty quick fashion. You just have to keep an eye on which bundle goes into which port group. Instead of labeling 48 cables per switch, you just had to worry about 4 clips.

Here are some photos of the Sergeant Clips without all the cabling:



Basic Clip

































Here is one of the wiring closets we had to perform work in. The cables are all over the place, and although they appear to be labeled, the labels did not always match the port number on each module.



Here is that same closet with the Sergeant Clips in use:

PostClip1 PostClip2

Not all closets were messy. This photo came from a closet that had relatively pristine Cat6 cabling. Even with the bulk of that cable when compared to Cat5, the clips still closed over a group of 12.

NeatCabling Clip2


Closing Thoughts

This product is all about time savings. The sooner I can get a wiring closet swapped out with the new switches, the sooner I can move on to the next one. Over the course of a week and a half, we migrated to over 50 new Cisco 3850 switches from numerous Cisco platforms, with the most common being the 6504/6/9.

Any future migrations I do in wiring closets will include the Sergeant Clip. It was reasonably priced. I bought 16 of the 12 port clips and it was well under $100 USD. The product ships from the UK, so the prices are all in UK pounds. I’ll let you do the math and figure out how much it will cost you. Click here for the pricing section on their website.

I know what an hour’s worth of time costs my company per engineer, and I can tell you that the Sergeant Clip paid for itself within the first hour of use. If you are doing any sort of work in wiring closets, this NEEDS to be in your tool bag.

Disclaimer: I paid for this product out of my own pocket. I was not asked to write this by the folks at Sergeant Clip. They had no knowledge of this post before it was written. Yes, it is that good, and worth breaking a multi-month blogging hiatus. 🙂


Posted in efficiency, hardware, switching | Comments Off on Easier Cabling Migrations