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I thought I’d take  break from Cisco Live to relive some memories in another Netstalgia.

Working in product management at a Cisco business unit, we are constantly talking about the latest and greatest, the cutting edge of technology.  It’s easy to forget how many customers out there are nowhere near the cutting edge.  They’re not near any edge at all.  When I worked at a Gold partner, I got to see all sorts of customer networks in a variety of states.

I remember one customer who ended up spending a lot of money with my company.  They were (and are) a major grocery chain in the United States.  They had reached a point when their network was grinding to a halt, and they needed help.  They had two overworked network engineers running things, and I remember being amused that their company policy required them to wear ties in the office.  This was not a financial company in San Francisco, but a discount grocery chain in a very relaxed part of the East Bay.  Anyways, they had hosts dropping off the network, performance problems, and their mainframe kept losing contact with its default gateway.

Walking in to these kinds of situations, you’re never sure what you might find.  Oftentimes the problems aren’t clear and the customer gets frustrated with their hired gun.  In this case, the very affable in-house engineers were thrilled to have experienced help.  They explained to me that the entire network, a large corporate office and countless stores, were on a single /8 network.  Only the on-site data center had a separate subnet.  Even the remote sites were in the /8!!

It got worse.  The stores were connected to HQ with IPSec VPN, but the hardware VPN devices they were made by a company that no longer existed.  The devices kept failing, and one of the network engineers had a stock of them he had purchased on eBay.  He amazingly was using his electronics skills to perform component-level repairs on the devices, cannibalizing parts from the eBay stash, which enabled him to stretch the stash longer than if he had simply swapped them.

My favorite was the data center.  The mainframe was sending constant pings to its default gateway, which would occasionally drop packets, in which case the mainframe would declare the gateway dead.  I found out that the default gateway was none other than a 2500-series router.

An old 2503 router

Even in 2009, this router was ancient history.  It had an old AUI connector on it which was nearly falling out.  In their 100 Mbps environment, they were limited to 10 Mbps.  I seem to recall it was doing router-on-a-stick on that interface, hairpinning traffic, but I don’t think the 2500 could do subinterfaces, so I may be wrong.  Anyways, the poor little 2500 was being slammed by traffic and dropping packets from time-to-time.

The ubiquitous CentreCOM AUI 10Base-T transceiver

I spent months at the client.  We designed a subnet scheme, renumbered their network, installed ASAs for IPSec, cut over all the stores, and put some high-end switches in the data center.  They were a grateful client, never complained, and I was able to make a genuine improvement in the lives of their users.  Unlike that other client I wrote about before.

I have a lot of bad memories of working for that partner, but one of the most interesting things was walking into so many different customers’ worlds, seeing what they dealt with every day, the mistakes they had made in building their networks, and helping them out by fixing those mistakes.

I worked for two years at a Cisco Gold Partner.  The first year was great.  We were trying to start up a Cisco practice in San Francisco (they were primarily a Citrix partner before), so my buddy and I wined and dined Cisco channel account managers trying to impress them with our CCIE’s and get them to steer business our way.  Eventually, the 2009 financial crisis hit and business started to dry up.  The jobs became fewer and less interesting.  I had two CCIE’s and at one point, I drove out to Mare Island near San Francisco to install a single switch for a customer whose entire network consisted of–a single switch.  I always recommend people not to stay in jobs like this too long, as it hurts your prospects for future employment.

Potential Employer:  “So what kind of jobs have you done lately?”

You:  “Uh, I installed one switch at a customer.”

Anyhow, we had one other customer that managed to keep me surprisingly busy, considering their network was quite small as well.  They were a local builder, and with three small offices connected together with ASAs and VPN tunnels.  The owner was filthy rich and also paranoid about security, which meant I was out there a lot changing passwords, tightening up ACLs, and cleaning up the mess the last network engineer had left.

The owner had a ranch near Wilits, CA which was reputed to be the size of the city of Concord, CA.  He also had two jets to take him to his private landing strip at his ranch.  Being a pilot myself, the prospect of a trip in a small jet to his ranch made me wish for some sort of network problems up there.  However, there wasn’t much up there for me to work on.  He had a single ASA 5505 connected to satellite uplink which he primarily used to connect to the cameras (which he had everywhere) at the ranch.

One day, my contact at the builder told me the cameras weren’t reachable.  Yes!  Finally a trip in the jet.  We set a date and I spent my time wondering whether I’d get the Lear or the Citation.

Unfortunately, when the day rolled around, the weather was hideous.  A Lear jet can handle most any weather, but the little airstrip had no instrument approaches.  Instead, my contact gave me an alternative:  I was to drive up there with her in-house cabling contractor (I’ll call him “Tim”) to do the job.  (I never understood why a business this small had an in-house cabling contractor.  As far as I knew he didn’t work on the actual construction projects associated with the company.)  Now from San Francisco, the drive to Willits is about 2.5 hours.  However, the ranch was near Willits.  After driving 2.5 hours to Willits, we had another hour drive over dirt roads to the middle of nowhere.

The cabling contractor was exactly the sort of person with whom I have nothing in common, and spending 3.5 hours in a car with him, in the era before smartphones are a handy distraction, was painful.  Tim loved fishtailing his truck as we drove on dirt roads on the side of a mountain.  I think he also liked just scaring the white collar guy.  It worked.

We arrived at the ranch and Tim opened up the back of his pickup.  “Can you give me a hand here?” he asked.  In the bed of his truck were several large carpet rolls and piles of dry cleaning.  I grabbed one end of a carpet roll and began the backbreaking work.  My company was billing me out at $250/hour to haul some lady’s dry-cleaning into her ranch.

The ASA itself was located in a pole in the middle of the property, which had a satellite dish on top.  I was amazed the ASA 5505 even functioned out there, given that the external temperature could reach over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  The metal box housing the ASA was like an oven.  I consoled into it and immediately saw a problem.  Latency on the link was over one second round-trip.  There was no way he was going to get real-time video streaming with this slow satellite uplink.  I reported my findings to Tim and, after eating lunch with the ranch hands, we hopped back in the truck.  Tim put on a song called “You piss me off, f*cking jerk” while we drove.  I guess he didn’t like me.

When I mentor people, I often tell them you have to know the right time to quit a job.  There were several signs in this story that it was time for a change.  With two CCIEs, installing a single switch or working on a single ASA 5505 was not really a good use of my skills.  Neither was moving in carpet rolls and dresses for $250/hour.  Luckily I had enough big jobs at the partner that I managed to get through my interviews at Juniper without trouble.

Meanwhile, a few years later I read about the FBI raiding the builder who was my customer.  I guess he had good reasons for cameras.


In this article in my “Ten Years a CCIE” series, I look at passing the Security exam in 2008.  I get to experience the agony of failure for the first time, and have to re-tool my strategy.

Goodbye to Cisco

I worked two long years at Cisco. Two very long years. I learned so much there but it was a brutal job. The relentless flood of new and challenging cases grew tiresome.  When my aforementioned sushi eating CCIE friend called me in 2007 and invited me to come join him at a Gold partner I couldn’t say no.  Cisco sells much of its gear through value added resellers (VARs), also known as partners.  These partners are assigned different levels depending on the amount of business they do, and Gold is the highest.

Working at a gold partner with a CCIE was quite enjoyable. Gold partners need CCIE’s and so they have a lot of incentive to make you happy. My boss suggested that I get a second CCIE, this time in voice. I started to buy material for the voice exam, when my VP showed up in the office, fired my boss, and told me to start studying for the security exam. (His firing of my boss had nothing to do with my CCIE exam, but it certainly made me stand up and listen to what he was asking.) So, having really not started on voice, I switched immediately to security.

I had already passed the security written back at Cisco partly to qualify for the lab exam, and partly to re-certify my existing CCIE, so it was straight to the lab exam for me. The equipment list was a big challenge. At that time, you needed two ASA’s, one PIX, a VPN 3000 series concentrator, and IDS device, six routers and two switches, and some sort of Windows server running Cisco secure ACS. I still had my old lab equipment from before, but I was missing everything else. I had one ASA 5505 from work, but no other security devices. I decided that the cost was too prohibitive for me to set up my own lab. I was going to have to use rack rentals. That was my first big mistake.

I decided to approach the exam in exactly the same way I approached the routing and switching exam. I studied the various subjects on the blueprint individually, and then started doing full labs from the Internetwork Expert workbook. As great as IE’s workbook was for routing and switching, in 2008 it really wasn’t very good for security. I have a lot of respect for the Bryans, and I’m sure it’s come a long way, but at that time it just wasn’t enough.

Attempt number one

When I showed up at the familiar CCIE lab, I didn’t feel well prepared, because I wasn’t. The lab was a disaster. I only managed to complete about a third of the exam. While configuring DMVPN, all of my routers locked up and crashed. I called the proctor over, and when he saw that the console ports were locked up, he started to accuse me of having made a configuration error. I explained that I hadn’t touched the console configuration, and just then we both saw bus errors appear on the console sessions followed by reloads. It was obvious then that I was not at fault. I had heard that if routers crash during CCIE exam, the proctor will give you your time back. However, the proctor admonished me to save my configs frequently, and refused to give me any time back. I had probably lost 15 minutes. I would have fought it, except that I was already so far behind on the exam,  I knew it would make no difference. Still, to this day am a bit angry at that proctor. As I left the exam room I looked at him and said “don’t even bother grading this.” He looked at me and said, “Oh, I’m sure you’re exaggerating.” I looked at him and told him I hadn’t completed two thirds of the exam.” Oh!” He exclaimed.” Well… Don’t wait six months for your next exam!”

… It was six months before my next attempt.

The author's 2008 CCIE security lab. The laptop ran Windows Server in a VM for ACS. An ASA 5505 is visible on top of the drawers.

The author’s 2008 CCIE security lab. The laptop ran Windows Server in a VM for ACS. An ASA 5505 is visible on top of the drawers.

Changes to my approach

I knew I had to revise my strategy. Something wasn’t working. The first thing I fixed was the lab situation. When I did Routing and Switching, I knew that I needed my own lab at home. Using remote rack rentals for security just didn’t give me enough time in the lab. I managed to get a hold of the PIX from a friend who was decommissioning it. I bought myself an ASA 5510, which, at $2500, was the most expensive piece of hardware I had. I really needed two of them, in order to cluster them, but I had to make do with the mismatched pair of the 5510 and 5505. As with the Routing and Switching exam, I knew I could use remote rack rentals to fill in for the equipment that I didn’t have. The ASA 5505 was adequate for basically everything except clustering. It had almost all of the capabilities of the 5510, but the configuration of VLANs was slightly different.  I also managed to acquire an IDS, and VPN 3000 series concentrator. I borrowed a laptop from work and got a Windows server license and managed to install Cisco Secure ACS. I ended up with a very complete lab.

I realized that a big part of my problem was that IPSec configurations are long, complicated, and counterintuitive. IPSec is the core of the CCIE security exam, and you need to know it as well as BGP and OSPF on the routing and switching exam. I made a series of diagrams which depicted each of the constituent configuration elements for the various IPSec technologies as blocks, which were then connected together by arrows. For example, for basic IPSec configuration, I would have one block representing the IKE configuration, and another representing the IPSec policy. I would draw an arrow to show how they were connected, labeling the arrow with the command used to connect them. Before I was trying to memorize these configurations. Now I was able to visualize them.

Visualizing complex configurations helps make them easy to understand and remember

Visualizing complex configurations helps make them easy to understand and remember

I also completely abandoned using the IE workbook. It just wasn’t ready at that point. Instead I invented my own VPN challenge lab. It had every kind of VPN on it: IPSec on ASA, IPSec on PIX, IPSec on VPN 3K, client IPSec on all of those platforms, L2TP, PPTP, DMVPN, SSL. I worked this lab over and over again until I could configure all of these automatically, and I made sure I configured between disparate platforms.

I felt good but not 100% prepared when I went to take my second attempt. I failed, but my score was much higher than before. I continued preparing for another month or so before taking my third attempt. I was so ready for my third attempt, that I completed the lab shortly after lunch. As I was coming out of the bathroom, I ran into Ted the proctor (not his real name), in the hallway. I had seen Ted on my second attempt and he told me he was attending a bluegrass Festival in San Francisco. I spent a good 15 minutes talking to Ted about the festival in the hallway, and I think at that point Ted realized that I was feeling pretty confident. Most people don’t spend 15 minutes shooting the breeze in the middle of the CCIE exam.

Interestingly enough, while Ted had been the most helpful Proctor on the Routing and Switching exam, he was of almost no help at all on the security exam. I’m not sure if he had changed in the intervening four years, or if he simply wasn’t as familiar with the security exams that I took. Either way, be prepared to make difficult decisions on your own in the lab, without the help of the proctors. Of all the questions I asked them, only once did I get a useful answer. I realize that their job is not to give away the test, but often the test is poorly written and I think that they need to be more helpful in explaining the exam.
Passing Routing and Switching was exciting; passing Security was a relief. I had almost given up after my disastrous first attempt. And I’m glad that I passed it when I did. As with the Routing and Switching exam, I passed Security in November. And as with the Routing and Switching exam, Cisco was changing the test at the beginning of the new year. The VPN 3000, PIX, NAC framework, and several other technologies were being removed. Of course, they never removed technologies without adding some as well. Had I failed my third attempt, it’s likely I would never have tried again.

In summary:

  • Having “always-on” access to a lab is critical!  Remote rack rental is good to fill in for a few things you might be missing, but don’t rely on it.
  • You may have to spend some more money than you want to acquiring gear, but it pays off.
  • The way you pass one CCIE exam is not necessarily the way you pass another exam.  You have to spend some time looking at the topics you will be covering, figuring out the best way to reach the point of automatic configuration of the technologies.
  • Sometimes, the study material from the vendors just won’t cut it.
  • Proctors aren’t always nice, and don’t always do what you thought they were supposed to.

I will cover the question of lab blueprint changes in a later article on the value of a CCIE, but it’s worth noting that for both my routing/switching and security exams, a blueprint change happened immediately after my passing.  I spent a lot of time studying, for example, the VPN 3000 concentrator which was already obsolete.  Still, I would have the same credential as a guy who passed the exam with the new technologies a couple months later.

Also worth noting:  I passed all of my expert exams (2 CCIEs and a JNCIE) in November.

In the next article in the series, Recertification Pain, I look at the biennial penance we all inherit for passing our CCIEs–the dreaded recertification.  I give my thoughts on improving the process, not that anybody is listening.