How often have you learned about a new technology, and couldn’t understand it? How many trainings and presentations have you sat through that left you in a mental fog? It amazes me how many technologies we are supposed to master in our industry, and how many we never do.
Let me give an example. When I heard about “Cloud Computing” I could not, for the life of me, understand what it meant. I went to meeting after meeting where we talked about “the Cloud” without any understanding of what it actually was. I knew I used clouds a lot of Visio diagrams, but the MBA-types who were telling me we needed to migrate to the cloud would never be able to understand the Visio diagrams that network engineers make. It seemed to involve using centralized computing resources, but I’d been doing this for years. My first ISP accounts were shell accounts. My email and other services were hosted on their computers. Nothing was new about this. In fact, Larry Ellison gave a hilarious talk in which he asked “What the hell is Cloud Computing?”
We all know the “cloud” has in fact made significant changes in how we engineer computing resources, but the truth is, the idea of centralized “compute” is not a new one. (Side note: I hate turning nouns into verbs. “Compute”, “spend”, and “ask” are verbs, not nouns. The MBAs who invent these terms apparently don’t have to study grammar.) The scale is certainly different, but we all know that mainframes had both centralized computing and virtualization long before anyone said “cloud.”
SDN is another one. I was told we needed SDN, but I couldn’t figure out what it meant. I was a hard-core routing protocols guy. BGP and OSPF are software. Ergo, networks are already software defined.
Someone sent me a video from Nicira, later acquired by VMware. The vague video described slicing networks into pools, or something like that. I couldn’t understand what this meant. Like a VLAN? I finally found a document that described SDN as separation of the control plane from the data plane. OK, but we already had been doing that in routers and switches for years? Yes, but SDN was a centralized control plane. Kind of like BGP route reflectors? I couldn’t figure it out. I spent some time getting OpenFlow up and running to try to understand it from the ground up. What a waste that was. Whatever SDN has become, it’s certainly not what it was originally defined to be. And don’t get me started on SASE.
I used to think maybe I was stupid, but now I realized all of these things confused me because they were (a) confusing in themselves, or (b) so badly explained that nobody really understood them. A little more detail:
- Some technologies are simply vague marketing terms. They don’t correspond to anything precise in reality.
- Some technologies do correspond to reality, but they are simply bucket terms. That is, the marketers took five, six, ten technologies, and slapped a new label on them. In this case, you’re looking for some precise definition of term X and you realize term X refers to ten different things at once.
- Sometimes new technologies are invented, and the inventors don’t want to cough up too much proprietary information. So the produce vaguely worded marketing content that appeals to “analysts” with MBAs in marketing, but which technical people realize are meaningless. Said “analysts” now run around creating hype (“You need software-defined cloud secure-access zero trust!”) and now we’re told we to implement it.
- A lot of technical people are really bad explainers. Sometimes there is a new technology which is clear and well-defined, but the people sent to explain it are completely incapable of explaining anything at all.
My point is, it’s ok to be confused. A lot of times we’re in the room and everyone seems to be getting it, but we have no idea what is going on. Chances are, nobody else really understands what is being said either. Ask questions, drill down, and if you don’t understand something, chances are it’s hot air. In a world where we prioritize talk over reality, there seems to be an abundance of that.