Our Cisco team has been reaching out to get feedback on our relationship with Cisco and its products — a healthy practice for any vendor. I’ve tried to be open, honest, and consistent in all our talks.
As I mentally review our conversations, I conclude I’ve been contradictory. On one hand, I’ve talked about how the industry is changing and Cisco’s products need to evolve in a software-defined marketplace. At the same time, I’ve decried their decision to move last-generation data center products to the campus portfolio to make way for newer technology.
My contradictions reveal that I haven’t articulated my true concerns. There’s a problem underneath these problems.
I’ve been watching presentations by Russ White on network architecture and complexity. He makes the point, and I’m paraphrasing, that many of our technological advances don’t solve complexity, they move complexity to a different place in the stack. Engineers and architects must determine if the complexity changes are worth the trade-offs. We must ask if added complexity solves the problem at hand without creating undo stress on the system.
With that in mind consider Cisco, a company in love with complexity. They’ve built their business making complex systems. Their culture breeds nerd knobs. They’ve built certification tracks — through which many network engineers have built their careers — to develop expert level understanding of their products.
At the same time, engineers operate in a culture where we believe configuration and operational complexity have inherent value. We unconsciously embrace the following logic: Networks are complex. One must be smart to understand networks. I understand networks. Therefore, I’m smart.
We extrapolate this logic and believe that complexity, for complexity’s sake, makes us superior. In truth, our pride has tied gordian knot with complexity and we don’t know how to unravel it.
Cisco has fallen into this trap. They don’t have a technology problem, they’re suffering an identity crisis.
SD-WAN is unravelling the knot. Cisco has insisted that the level of complexity we experience in managing our networks is inherent. If you want multi-path selection, prioritized traffic by application, and quality of service you have to make sacrifices. It’s hard of course, and barely possible. After all, we’re solving difficult problems. There are caveats, bugs, and boundary cases but there is no other way. It’s a pipe dream to expect simplicity in management and operation of a system so complex.
The best SD-WAN vendors are proving these assertions wrong. You can have multi-path selection, prioritized traffic by application, and quality of service with an operational efficiency previously unimagined.
Is there complexity in an SD-WAN enabled network? Sure! But strong centralized management tools significantly reduce configuration and operational complexity.
I’ve heard people say, “SD-WAN technologies are not new.”
Using this logic, you could argue that the iPhone wasn’t really something new. When the iPhone was first announced, we already had mobile phones, mp3 players, web browsers, digital cameras, and touch screens. Apple simply created a management interface and software platform to make all those technologies work well together in one small form factor. You could perform the same functions without an iPhone but you had to use 5 separate devices that weren’t designed to work as a unit. The iPhone married several technologies and sparked a movement, reimagined the internet, and enabled an entire generation to communicate in ways they couldn’t before.
Will SD-WAN have the same mass-market consumer enablement as the iPhone? No. But within the microcosm if network engineering, we may soon discover that SD-WAN has sparked its own movement. At the very least, SD-WAN vendors prove the challenges we face can be met in new ways. They’re forcing the stalwarts to sit up and take notice. They bring a promise that we no longer have to choose between unmanageable complexity and non-functional simplicity. In my book, that’s a win regardless of who wins the WAN.
Want more to think about?
Watch Engineer vs. Complexity, Russ White at NANOG