mbas

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In 2007, I left Cisco after two brutal years in high-touch TAC.  I honestly hated the job, but it was an amazing learning experience.  I draw on my TAC experience every single day.  A buddy of mine got a job at a Gold Partner, offered to bring me in, and I jumped on the opportunity.  Things didn’t go so well, and in 2009, I was laid off and looking for a job again.  That’s when another buddy (buddies help!) called me and told me of an opportunity at Juniper.

I knew little about Juniper.  We had a Juniper SSL box in the network I used to manage, but the routers were mostly for service provider networks.  When I was at TAC, I had one case where a major outage was caused by misconfiguration of a Juniper BGP peer.  But otherwise, I didn’t know a thing.

The opportunity was to be the “network architect” for Juniper’s corporate network.  In other words, to work in internal IT at a network vendor.  It seemed like a good career move, but little did I know I would be thrust the corporate politics at the director-level instead of technical challenges.  I ended up spending six tumultuous years there, with several highlights:

  • My boss disappeared on medical leave on my very first day.
  • I was re-assigned to a Sr. Director who was an applications person and not knowledgeable in networking.  He viewed the network a bit like Col. Kendrick, the Marine, viewed the Navy in the movie A Few Good Men:  “Every time we gotta go some place to fight, you fellas always give us a ride.”
  • I proposed and got buy-off for a program to ensure we actually ran our own gear internally and to ensure we built solid network architectures.
  • I subsequently had the program taken away from me.
  • I found out a job posting with the identical title and JD to mine was listed on Juniper’s public site without my knowledge.
  • My manager was changed to a person two pay grades below me in another country without even informing me.  (Someone noticed it in the directory and told me.)
  • I quit in disgust, without any other job.
  • I was talked into staying.
  • After another year or misery, I was demoted two pay grades myself.
  • I focused on doing the best job I could ended up getting re-promoted to director and left on good terms.

Some of the above was my own fault, much of it was dysfunctional management, some of it was the stupidity we all know lurks in every good size company.  I actually bear Juniper no resentment at all.

I worked at Juniper in the pre-Mist days, and in the midst of the fiscal crisis that began in 2008.  We went from CEO Kevin Johnson’s rah-rah “Mission10” pep rallies that we would be the “next $10B company” (uh, no), to draconian OpEx cuts when a pump-and-dump “activist investor” took over our board.

At the time I was there, Juniper made some mistakes.  NetScreen firewalls had done well for us, but then we made the decision to kill the NetScreen in favor of the JunOS-based SRX.  This is the classic mistake of product management–replace a successful, popular product with a made-from-scratch product with no feature parity.  There were some good arguments to do SRX, but it was done abruptly which signalled EOL to NetScreen customers, and SRX didn’t even have a WebUI.

We also did QFabric while I was there.  We installed one of these beasts in a data center on campus.  I have no idea if they improved it, but the initial versions took a full day to upgrade.  Imagine taking a day-long outage on your data center just to do an upgrade!

Another product that didn’t work out was Space.  JunOS Space came out at the time when the iPhone was still new.  Juniper borrowed the idea.  Instead of building an NMS product, we’d build a platform, and then software developers could build apps on top of it.  Cisco might be able to get away with that approach, but Juniper didn’t have enough of the networking market to attract developers.

In addition, a bunch of other acquisitions fizzled out, including Trapeze, our WAN accelerator, our load balancer.

All that said, Juniper had some fine products when I worked there.  (And believe me, my current employer has had many failures too.)  I got my JNCIE-SP, working on MX routers, which were a really good platform.  I thought the EX switches were decent.  And the operating system was nicely done.  Funnily enough, I worked a solid year on the JNCIE and promptly went to Cisco.  I never renewed it and now it’s expired.

I left after meeting with a strategy VP and explaining our mission to use Juniper’s corporate network to demonstrate how to build an enterprise network to our customers.  She looked at me (and the CIO) and said, “Juniper is done with enterprise networking.  I’m not interested.”  I left after that.  In her defense, Mist was years off and she couldn’t have seen it coming.

She was right, in that Juniper certainly had a core SP market.  Juniper came about at the time when Cisco was still selling 7500’s and 12000’s to its service provider customers, dated platforms running a dated OS.  Juniper did such a nice job with their platform that Cisco had to turn around and build the CRS-1 and IOS-XR, both of which had, ehm, similarities to Juniper’s products.  Juniper really couldn’t crack the enterprise market while I was there.  The lack of a credible wireless solution was always a problem.  Obviously Mist changed the game for them.

Juniper always felt like a scrappy anti-Cisco when I was there, but it was fast becoming corporatized and taken over by the MBAs.  Many old-schoolers would tell me how different things were in the startup days.  It still always had the attitude of an anti-Cisco.  One of our engineers ALWAYS referred to Cisco devices as “Crisco boxes”, and when I announced I was returning to Cisco, a long-time IT guy called me an “asshole”.  A couple funny stories around this:

A customer came in to our office for training and looked in the window of one the data centers nearby.  He saw it was packed with Cisco gear and subsequently published a video on social media captioned “Juniper uses Cisco.”  He didn’t realize that we leased the building from another company called Ariba, and the data center was theirs, not ours.  In fact, we worked very hard to not run Cisco in our internal network.  Juniper subsequently asked Ariba to block out the window.

One time we solicited a proposal from one of our largest service provider customers to host a data center for us.  The SP came back to us with an architecture which was 100% Cisco.  Cisco switches, Cisco routers, Cisco firewalls.  I told the SP I would never deploy our DC on Cisco gear.  What if a major bug hit Cisco devices causing outages and our data center went down too?  What if we got hacked due to a Cisco PSIRT and it became public?

The SP didn’t care.  We were their customer, but they were also ours.  They used Cisco in their data center, and had no desire to re-tool for another vendor.  I escalated all the way to the CEO, who agreed with me, and the deal was scuttled.  Ironically, I used this story in my Cisco interviews when asked for an example of a time when I had taken a strong stand on something.

I work at Cisco now, and even ran the competitive team for a while.  Competition is healthy and makes us all better.  I actually value our competition.  Obviously my job is to win deals against them, but I have friends who work at Juniper and I have friends who work at HPE.  We’re all engineers doing our jobs, and I wish them no ill will.  I always respected Juniper, their engineering, and their scrappy attitude.  While I know some of this will be retained as they get absorbed into a large corporation, it’s definitely the end of an era, for the industry and for me.

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There’s a lot of talk about networking simplicity these days.  There’s been a lot of talk about networking simplicity, in fact, for as long as I can remember.  The drive to simplify networking has certainly been the catalyst for many new products, most (but not all) unsuccessful.  Sometimes we forget that networking has some inherent complexities (a large distributed system with multiple os’s, protocols, media types), but that much of the complexity can be attributed to humans and their choices.  IPv4 is a good example of this.

When I got into network engineering, I had assumed that network protocols were handed down from God and were immaculate in their perfection.  Reading Radia Perlman’s classic book Interconnections changed my understanding.  Aside from her ability to explain complex topics with utter clarity, Perlman also exposed the human side of protocol development.  Protocols are the result of committees, power politics, and the limitations of human personality.  Some protocols are obviously flawed.  Some flaws get fixed, but widely deployed protocols, like IPv4, are hard to fix.  Of course, v6 does remedy many of the problems of v4, but it’s still IP.

My vote for simplest protocol goes to AppleTalk.  When I was a young network guy, I mostly worked on Mac networks.  This was in the beige-box era before Jobs made Apple “cool” again.  The computers may have been lame, but Apple really had the best networking available in the 1990’s.  I’ve written about my love for LocalTalk, and its eminently flexible alternative PhoneNet in the past.  But the AppleTalk protocol suite was phenomenal as well.

N.B.  My description of AppleTalk protocol mechanics is largely from memory.  Even the Wikipedia article is a bit sparse on details.  So please don’t shoot me if I misremember something.

In the first place, you didn’t need to do anything to set up an AppleTalk network.  You just connected the computers together and switched either the printer or modem port into a network port.  Auto-configuration was flawless.  Without any DHCP server, AppleTalk devices figured out what network they were on, and acquired an address.  This was done by first probing for a router on the network, and then randomly grabbing an address.  The host then broadcast its address, and if another host was already using it, it would back off and try another one.  AppleTalk addresses consisted of a two byte network address which was equivalent to the “network” portion of an IP subnet, and a one-byte host address (equivalent to the “host” portion of an IP subnet.)  If this host portion of the address is only one byte, aren’t you limited to 255 (or so) addresses?  No!  AppleTalk (Phase 2) allowed aggregation of contiguous networks into “cable ranges”.  So I could have a cable range of 60001-60011, multiple networks on the same media, and now I could have 2530 end stations, at least in theory.

Routers did need some minimal configuration, and support for dynamic routing protocols was a bit light.  Once the router was up and running, it would create “zones” in the end-user’s computer in an application called “Chooser”.  They might see “1st floor”, “2nd floor”, “3rd floor”, for example, or “finance”, “HR”, “accounting”.  However you chose to divide things.  If they clicked on zone, they would see all of the AppleTalk file shares and printers.  You didn’t need to point end stations at their “default gateway”.  They simply discovered their router by broadcasting for it upon start up.

AppleTalk networks were a breeze to set up and simple to administer.  Were there downsides?  The biggest one was the chattiness of the protocols.  Auto-configuration was accomplished by using a lot of broadcast traffic, and in those days bandwidth was at a premium.  (I believe PhoneNet was around 200 Kbps or so.)  Still, I administered several large AppleTalk networks and was never able to quantify any performance hit from the broadcasts.  Like any network, it required at least some thinking to contain network (cable range) sizes.

AppleTalk was done away with as the Internet arose and IP became the dominant protocol.  For hosts on LocalTalk/PhoneNet networks, which did not support IP, we initially tunneled it over AppleTalk.  Ethernet-connected Macs had a native IP stack.  The worst thing about AppleTalk was the flaky protocol stack (called OpenTransport) in System 7.5, but this was a flaw in implementation, not protocol design.

I’ll end with my favorite Radia Perlman quote:  “We need more people in this industry who hate computers.”  If we did, more protocols might look like AppleTalk, and industry MBAs would need something else to talk about.