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One of the things I'm commonly asked for is advice on what and how to learn when someone new enters into the world of network administration, engineering, and management. I was asked this by a good friend of mine just the other day and as I was handing him one of the networking books from my bookshelf I found myself crossing out all of the sections that were no longer relevant and writing in the things that were missing but important in today's world of networking. For certain, the knowledge that one needs to be sucessful in today's networking community is very different than it was 10 or even 5 years ago. As I was discussing this with him it occurred to me that these same statements also apply to the required capabilties of today's network management systems (NMS).

In general, while success for many network professionals and NMSs of the past was based on the breadth of knowledge and capabilities, today's environments require less breadth and more depth. Let's take for instance some of the things that an old-school NMS and us older network engineers can manage but no longer need to:

* Appletalk, IPX, DECNet, Banyan Vines, SNA and most non-IP based protocols - there was a time when knowledge of SNA and IPX traffic was a hot commodity. Network engineers needed to understand how these protocols worked and NMSs needed to be able to monitor networks based upon them. In today's networks, it's highly unlikely that you'll run into any of those...

* ATM, FDDI, and Token Ring - Most of my knoledge on token ring was learned via OJT but I've probably attended 6 months of formalized, classroom training on ATM and FDDI combined and I can't remember the last time that knowing ATM was made up of 53 byte cells impressed anyone...

Non-IOS like network operating systems - I'll probaby get some push back on this one, but back in the day a lot of folks resisted IOS as it was just one vendor's way of doing things. Anybody else remember working on Cabletron gear? Nowadays, if the gear isn't from Cisco it's highly likely that the vendor used IOS as a reference when designing the user interaction with their network operating system and so understanding Cisco IOS is going to be a HUGE help.

I could go on and on but just as important as what "not to learn" is "what to learn". The more you know about the following items the more valuable you're going to be. Here's my top 5 things that every network engineer should have an in-depth understanding of:

Head Geek's Top 5 Things Every Network Engineer Should Know Well

5. The OSI Model. This needs to be so ingrained into your noggin that you don't even think about it. It's just there.

4. Virtualization. This is going to save you a ton of time and it's going to make you more marketable. Start with VMWare and branch out of business demands. Be sure to understand the entire environment from the physical ESX host, through the virtual switch, and including the SAN.

3. Packet analysis and troubleshooting. If you don't have a copy of Wireshark and the SolarWinds Engineer's Toolset installed on your laptop I have to seriously doubt your credibility as a network engineer. Wireshark is completely free and there's even a free version of the Engineer's Toolset. Be sure that you have these tools and that you're familiar with them. If you're on the phone with a tech support rep from Cisco and they ask you to send them a packet capture you should know how to do it, including filtering and exporting into a format that they can read it.

2. WANs - You need to understand how today's WANs work. Most likely they're either point-to-point connections, VPN based, or MPLS based. You need to understand how to monitor and analyze performance of these networks, how to tell if you're getting what you're paying for from your provider, and how to optimize leveraging QoS, WAN accelerators, and traffic filtering.

1. IP - IPv4 for sure and start getting familiar with IPv6. I'm not saying you have to be able to do subnetting in your head but you really need an intimate understanding of how the different IP based protocols work.

Yes, there are other very important items that we could easily add to this list but for me, these are the top 5. Send me your suggestions and we'll make it a top 10 or let me know which things you're keying on when hiring for this talent nowadays.


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As you may have seen, a couple of weeks ago my friend and fellow blogger Michael Morisy over at Tech Target wrote a great blog post on his views of why today's network technology doesn't support the all wireless office environment. You can go read what Michael had to say about it here. I happen to be of the opposite opinion - i.e. I do believe that in many cases organizations could save a lot of time, money, and even improve the customer experience by going all wireless. You can read more about my position here.

As would be expected Michael came back with even more propaganda about how he thinks that wireless isn't really cheaper than wired, has security concerns, and etc and posted it here as well as opening it up for discussion on IT Knowledge Exchange. And now my friends, for, the rest of the story...

We have a habit as technologists of jumping onto new technologies really early and forming opinions that don't get updated as the technology evolves. Take NetFlow for example. When Cisco first released NetFlow you had to be extra careful about turning it on. In many cases enabling this feature took up so much CPU that the router either stopped routing packets or just completely gave up the ghost. A lot of folks decided at that point that NetFlow was too dangerous for their networks. This helped to drive the development of technologies leveraging Deep Packet Inspection (DPI) in network appliances. Funny thing is, NetFlow didn't sit still. It evolved. Nowadays it's extremely safe to enable and with the ISR G2s there's no way that you can affect the main operations of the router with ancillary applications like NetFlow. That said, I still run into people at every event that are afraid to use it because of their early exeriences with the technology.

Could it be that many of us are hesitant to trust wireless for similar reasons? I don't think any rational person could argue that wireless isn't a lot cheaper than wired so let's discount that right off the bat. The fact that the calculator I used was written by a wireless vendor doesn't change the math behind it. Microsoft, eBay, Google, Yahoo, SAP, Ohio State University, the United States Air Force, and NASA have all publicly talked about the money that they've saved by going wireless.

Sure, sometime wireless networks go down. So do wired networks. Spectrum-wide interference is no less rare than service impacting IOS or firmware bugs. Today's best in class wireless networks automatically adjust to interference to find clean air and some of the new stuff coming out from Aruba and Cisco will enable spectrum analysis to increase the networks' view of the air to alert and adapt in realtime.

Nowadays people don't even do site surveys or any of the old school practices we used to do with wireless. The just drop an AP every 4,000 sq feet or so, plug it into the wall, and the systems automatically adjust the power and channels.

I'm not saying that wireless is a fit for every single use case. However, I stand by my opinion that in many cases you can skip the wires. Cut the cord already. The technology is here.


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I've mentioned it before, but The Big Bang Theory is one of my absolute favorite TV shows and if you're a geek like me you really ought to check it out sometime. Spoiler alert - if you watch the show I'm just about to discuss this week's episode... This week they did a bit where the guys had been following Adam West around Pasadena  (hey, if you saw Adam West driving around town wouldn't you follow him?) and stumbled into a garage sale where they bought a box of miscelaneous items for $65. Among various other treasures was the One Ring. The one, single, remaining ring used in the filming of The Lord of the Rings trilogy (just about the best movies ever made in my book). Wow. Of course the guys all fought over it and it was hilarious. I thought this was especially interesting as I've been trying to buy myself one of these rings for a while but haven't found one in my size yet. Yes, my precious...

I don't think I've mentioned this before, but for the last several months (ever since I moved into this house) I've been receiving Martha Stewart Living in the mail. I can't for the life of me figure out why. At first I thought maybe they were being delivered for the previous owner of the house but sure enough my name and address are on the shipping label. Then I thought maybe one of my friends sent it as a gag lift (or even worse a gift gift) but I've asked around and either none of my friends did it or none of them would admit it. Nevertheless, this month things changed...

This month Marth Stewart Living never arrived. Instead, Maxim showed up. When I opened the mailbox and saw it there, quite literally the clouds parted, the sun came out, and angels were suddenly singing all around me... This my friends is justice. Yes, I do believe in karma. I give money to the homeless dude outside of our office with the cardboard sign that says "Lear Jet ran out of fuel" and I always I park my humongous truck in the spots designated for beasts such as this. This is my reward. What goes around comes around folks...

To bring these two seemingly random subject togther, this month's Maxim included a special interview and photo shoot with Kaley Cuoco, star of The Big Bang Theory where she plays the smokin' hot chick that lives across the hall from the geeks. In the article she says that she loves geeks, she only dates dudes that like dogs, they have to be funny, and she prefers older men.

Kaley, if you're out there, I can be reached at headgeek@solarwinds.com


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Josh
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Some things really are a matter of opinion. My buddy Greg Newman prefers spinnerbaits while I prefer to fish with plastic worms. My brother Zach prefers to shoot a pump gun while I shoot an over/under. And apparently my friend and fellow-blogger Michael Morisy over at Tech Target prefers to waste his money on less secure,old school wired networks than to step into the 21st century and join the wireless fan club... You can read all about his take on this subject here.

Don't get me wrong - there are plenty of places where wired networks are the only logical choice and I don't need to detail them here. What we're talking about here is whether or not to deploy wireless over wired for a new, greenfield office deployment for a group of typical, everyday office users. Picture it - your company is building and opening a new sales office in San Diego (hey, if we're going somewhere why not go somewhere warm?) and you've been tasked with doing the network design. It's a new building - no existing cabling or other infrastructure and most of the users will be in cubes.

Let's first tackle the question of security. A lot of people will tell you that wireless networks are less secure than wired networks. They'll point out the wireless hacking tools out on the net or sites like wigle.net where you can locate and get access to wireless networks and say that wireless networks are less secure than wired networks. Bull malarkey. I tell you what, let's me and you go to downtown Austin one day and you can take a wireless only laptop and I'll take a wired only laptop and we'll see who can get online AND access to someone's confidential company information first. The truth is, most people don't secure their wired networks at all. You can just walk in, plug in, and away you go. I've been a guest in hundreds of corporate conference rooms where while everyone else was struggling to get into the secured wireless networks I just plugged a patch cable into the wall and was up and running instantly. Today's wireless networks include strong authentication and encryption and it's painless and easy to deploy. Even if you try to enforce authentication on your wired networks (and it's a real pain) the data will be unencrypted. On a wireless network it's practically impossible to sniff someone else's traffic.

Next let's debunk my buddy Michael's point about cost. With 802.11n you can run 30-40 users per radio which means fewer expensive cable runs and fewer wireless switches. Combine that with mesh technology and you may not even need to run cable to all of the APs. This cost calculator from Aruba Wireless shows some great examples of how much you save. Mike, buddy, have you priced the costs of having an office wired with cat-6 lately? Even if you go all redneck, like I'm known to do, and run, terminate, and patch the cabling yourself it's still incredibly expensive. In what universe is this not signicantly cheaper than a wired environment?

I could go on and talk about things like allowing guest access (you going to build a separate wired infrastructure for these folks) and per-user stateful firewalling (vs. VLAN designs that give even a geek like me nightmares) but instead, as a final point, I'll say this. Users like mobility. Just like we saw with high-speed internet access, now that most users have wireless access at home they are accustomed to the advantages that it offers. Who wants to be tethered to their desk all day anyway?

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Josh
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