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