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Viewing the Network as an Ecosystem

Level 10

Many of us have or currently operate in a stovepipe or silo IT environment. For some this may just be a way of professional life, but regardless of how the organizational structure is put together, having a wide and full understanding of any environment will lend itself to a smoother and more efficient system overall. As separation of duties continues to blur in the IT world, it is becoming increasingly important to shift how we as systems and network professionals view the individual components and the overall ecosystem. As such changes and tidal shifts occur, Linux appears in the switching and routing infrastructure, servers are consuming BGP feeds and making intelligent routing choices, creating orchestration workflows that automate the network and the services it provides -- all of these things are slowly creeping into more enterprises, more data centers, more service providers. What does this mean for the average IT engineer? It typically means that we, as professionals, need to keep abreast of workflows and IT environments as a holistic system rather than a set of distinct silos or disciplines.

This mentality is especially important in monitoring aspects of any IT organization, and it is a good habit to start even before these shifts occur. Understanding the large-scale behavior of IT in your environment will allow engineers and practitioners to accomplish significantly more with less -- and that is a win for everyone. Understanding how your servers interact with the DNS infrastructure, the switching fabric, the back-end storage, and the management mechanisms (i.e. handcrafted curation of configurations or automation) naturally lends itself to faster mean time to repair due to a deeper understanding of an IT organization, rather than a piece, or service that is part of it.

One might think “I don’t need to worry about Linux on my switches and routing on my servers,” and that may be true. However, expanding the knowledge domain from a small box to a large container filled with boxes will allow a person to not just understand the attributes of their box, but the characteristics of all of the boxes together. For example, understanding that the new application will make a DNS query for every single packet the application sees, when past applications did local caching, can dramatically decrease the downtime that occurs when the underlying systems hosting DNS become overloaded and slow to respond. The same can be said for moving to cloud services: Having a clear baseline of link traffic -- both internal and external -- will make obvious that the new cloud application requires more bandwidth and perhaps less storage.

Fear not! This is not a cry to become a developer or a sysadmin. It's not a declaration that there is a hole in the boat or a dramatic statement that "IT as we know it is over!" Instead, it is a suggestion to look at your IT environment in a new light. See it as a functioning system rather than a set of disjointed bits of hardware with different uses and diverse managing entities (i.e. silos). The network is the circulatory system, the servers and services are the intelligence. The storage is the memory, and the security is the skin and immune system. Can they stand alone on technical merit? Not really. When they work in concert, is the world a happier place to be? Absolutely. Understand the interactions. Embrace the collaborations. Over time, when this can happen, the overall reliability will be far, far higher.

Now, while some of these correlations may seem self-evident, piecing them together and, more importantly, tracking them for trends and patterns has the high potential to dramatically increase the occurrence of better-informed and fact-based decisions overall, and that makes for a better IT environment.


Good article

Level 14

Great write-up, Nick! While I agree, this is an evolving ecosystem; I also believe the ecosystem is still in it's infancy. Growing and maturing daily, but a ways to go. There are still a ton of pieces and parts that need work so that everything can function coherently as one.

Level 15

Good article.  I have been seeing a vision similar to yours over the last 4-5 years or so.  After being in IT for over 34 years, it is refreshing view to see the holistic side of servers, network, etc to finally create the synergy between users and technology.  As we who manage IT become accustomed to the greater view maybe our overall understanding will also grow.  To the future!

Level 20

The big picture is where it's at right now in IT.  Being a computer scientist helps to see, learn, use, and understand multiple technologies and not be stuck in one silo.  I do windows, unix, linux, storage, virtualization, and network including now monitoring and even orchestration (with ACI, DNA Center, ISE, and in VMware vCloud Director).  I've been kinda lucky working on some closed air gapped networks which means fewer people are cleared to work so you have no choice but to learn and wear multiple hats.

Level 12

I am going to make a counter point argument towards this, just for the sake of creating some conversation.

Businesses seem to want their IT people to know more and more about more and more things. Pretty much gone are the days of only being a network, or a firewall, or a storage, or a linux person. Now you still need to know the intricate details of your main area, but you need to know about so much more as well. I am a Network Analyst, about to become Defacto Network Engineer (more on this in a moment), and the first job responsibility listed on my job is to support servers.

Here comes my counter to a lot of this. I have 2 Associate and 1 Bachelor degree in IT. If I added it all up I have about 7 years of college under my belt. That is barely enough to get me in the door at an entry level networking job anymore. I am currently about $40,000 in debt due to the bachelor degree, and it only took me 2 1/2 years of a normal 4 years to get it. Companies are expecting you to have more and more experience with more and more systems. But where do you get this experience when none of them are willing to train someone for the job they want to hire for. I see this more and more as time goes on, the list of requirements for an IT position getting longer and longer, and the number of systems your required to have working knowledge in grows. But companies are not willing to give training for it, they just expect you to come in with it already.

While I do agree that knowing more about how IT works then a narrow area of specialty is a good thing over all, I hesitate to wonder how people are supposed to get this experience and knowledge from? I am going to loop back to my becoming the Defacto Network Engineer in about 2 months. Our Network Engineer is leaving in 2 months. They decided not to hire a replacement. The person gave them a 6 month notice about him leaving, we think they are secretly hopping he changes his mind and stays, he wont. I have been told the following statements about my future here so far.

I will have to step up.

I will not be getting a job title change.

I will not be getting a pay increase (in fact there was a pay freeze for the 2018 year so no raise at all this year).

There is no money for education or training.

I am neither qualified nor educated enough to be the Network Engineer, yet that is what I am about to become, just without the pay and job title basically. It is fairly frustrating to basically have the business tell me that you need to do this job, but we are not going to give you the support or the tools to do it properly.

This is the dark result of expecting your IT people to be able to do everything. Unless you are willing to support them, train them, and educate them on how to do all of that then you are setting them up to fail. If you do actually find people with that wide range of experience, you are going to need to pay a premium price for it, and not throw chump change at them like most businesses do.

Level 9

Wow Nick. This is a great summarization of IT if I may say so. You just hit the targets so well in this article. A lot of information has been passed here.

Level 13

Good article.some nice insights.

When I attended a Cisco LIve session 18 months ago and saw the 93xx and 94xx switches coming with huge internal SSD storage that can be partitioned off into four separate environments, I was seeing the beginning of what you wrote about here.

Those partitions can be used as containers for a wide variety of items, not least of which are security solutions that can improve network performance while reducing risk.

Years ago when we saw Cisco making Access Switches capable of being Wireless Controllers, we were seeing a precursor to your topic here, where a switch could be a controller and provide new resilience and granularity.

Your observation " . . . a wide and full understanding of any environment will lend itself to a smoother and more efficient system overall . . ."  left a big gap in the solution.  A gap that can only be filled by training.

Training is the solution to so many things:

  • Being able to trust your staff to get things right the first time
  • Trusting your team can make good recommendations and help guide your company down the right paths in the future
  • Preventing problems and wasting time
  • Solving issues, properly triaging and diagnosing issues quickly

And training requires a corporate philosophy that states "It's less expensive to train our employees to the need, and to build an environment that sustains and rewards and challenges them appropriately, than it is to lose employees to the competition because we won't train our people out of fear of losing them."

Understand that training is critical, and that employees cannot get the same quality of training by making do on their own after-hours time, or even by attending virtual online training session.

Dedicated, off-site, professional training is superior in the things that matter.  Budget for it--it's a fact of life. Or be prepared to have unhappy, undertrained, and eventually-incompetent staff.  And also be prepared to see your good people move onto greener pastures where employers DO offer the right training, and where they pay competent employees a competitive wage.

Changing a business environment to include the right kind and amount of training can be the key to becoming the attractive employer that folks are lined up to join, instead of one whose employees are carefully watching for openings elsewhere, and who will leave you wishing they'd stayed.

The challenge, as I have always seen it, is how to get all of these moving parts to function cohesively. A combination of processes/procedures, staff, technology to keep the ecosystem cycling efficiently. I am of the mindset that to reach nirvana is to streamline and standardize as much as possible, even sacrificing upfront costs to do so. The downstream benefits are incalculable.

Level 16

Thanks for the write up! One thing you can count on in IT is change!

Level 10

I do completely agree that this is an issue. I was in a different boat when I got started - IT was not a utility, I was a poor art student trying to pay for my art school and just happened to have an aptitude toward networking and UNIX. Today, the IT field is flush with ways to pay for training and education. Unfortunately, the opportunities out there are often expensive and generic. Honestly, I don't have great advice in this space outside of a home lab and a burning drive to break and fix stuff to learn how it works, that's what worked for me (with full realization that at this point I am the "old guy" in IT and it's not the same as it was back when I broke in the mid-90's.

What I have seen is that opportunities do actually exist, but often times they require a bit of guile in hunting them down and a willingness to relocate, which was always a non-starter for me, so I get why it's not a fun topic in many cases. 

All that said, I do believe that having a well rounded and diverse skill set - understanding the relation of IT systems will only make a person more marketable long, and very likely short term.

Level 10

Yes, and it's always a bit surprising to me how adverse to change so many IT folks can be. Embracing change makes for a far more well rounded and adaptable (not to mention employable) IT professional.

Level 10

Absolutely. Do the work up front. Make the investment - it pays back huge dividends long term. Another absolutely critical factor is good, collaborative, positive communication lines. I'll trade a technical savant who doesn't communicate for an average tech that has great communication skills all day long. Tech can be taught. Communication inside of and between teams is invaluable.

Level 16

There's some that embrace change and run with it and then there's the others that kick and scream the whole way, then there is the third group that makes changes just for the sake of change...

Level 10

All three have their place. Without change for the sake of change we'd never see progress or innovation. Without those that resist, we'd have mayhem. Getting that balance in a positive, collaborative way is the cornerstone of success.

About the Author
15+ years IT experience ranging from networking, UNIX, security policy, incident response and anything else interesting. Mostly just a networking guy with hobbies including, film, beer brewing, boxing, MMA, jiu jitsu/catch wresting/grappling, skateboarding, cycling and being a Husband and Dad. I don't sleep much.