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You Keep Using That Word…

What makes a commodity, a “commodity?”  Is this word now on the very long list of words we have made meaningless in our industry?  Many times, when I’m out and about talking to folk in our industry, I get the sense that they think commodity means “cheap” or “I can order it from Amazon now without the help of an expert.”  So let’s explore this a little bit in this post..

The Value of a Commodity

Lots of things are commodities.  Lettuce, toothpaste, and bubble gum are all examples.  These things are mostly inexpensive and easily acquired.    However “cheap” and “easy to get” are not the only qualifiers for what constitutes a commodity.  What people want out of a commodity product is well understood.  The utility, or value, of a commodity is easily realized by the user.  The value is so well understood, and so easily extracted, with little effort or money, that it’s nearly impossible to innovate meaningfully in a given space.  When I put that quarter into the gum-ball machine, I know exactly what I’m getting and I know the reward for putting that quarter into the machine will arrive quickly.

The thing about networking, and infrastructure in general, is that the value is still not well understood or easily extracted.  There are no 100G transceivers in gum-ball machines waiting to be dispensed for a quarter.  Even if you could do that, how easily could you realize the value of that transceiver?  Similarly, there are no ethernet switches in those machines.  In fact, not even the value of “cloud services” is easily extracted.  What this means is that innovation is just not over yet in our field. Why would it be?  It took over 100 years for telephony to be so well understood and easily provided and consumed that I can now make a call from anything in my house that has electricity.  More specifically, I mean, this capability is nearly ubiquitous and isn’t the sole privilege of the affluent technorati.  Even my dad, who wears camouflage sweatpants when he goes out to eat, and thinks HD televisions should be perfectly square, can use his smartphone without asking me for help.  Most of the time.

We have a while to go before infrastructure really is a commodity for the organizations and people that consume it.  One sure sign that we are not there yet is the never ending list of certification programs offered by hardware, software, and cloud providers.  What certification really means, when looked at in the context of “the short T”, is that people are certified translators.  They translate between the needs of the business, and the idioms of the underlying systems and services.  It might be hard to imagine infrastructure ever evolving enough to not require these expert translators, but that time will come.

In the meantime, the core value of many of these systems and services is not directly manageable or easily extracted.  In networking, we still need that rosetta stone.  That’s just a fact.

The User Experience Hump

In a previous life, I had a manager that was extremely frugal.  Price-per-port was the only thing that mattered to him.  When his network engineers wanted tools, like sniffers or centralized management software, he was famous for saying things like “Why would I buy a tool to make your job easier?  You are the tool.”  He used to joke about carrying around vials filled with the tears of his network engineers.

Well, one fine day, this manager purchased a certain vendor’s products that had a feature in them that allowed users to put all their changes into a device at once before any of them would have an effect.  Additionally you could validate the changes on the device to some extent before saving them, thus providing a way to reduce operator error a little more.  Operators could review all these changes together and then save them all at once.

Several years later when considering quotes between this vendor and the more traditional vendor, this manager made an unexpected decision.  We had network requirements for a new project.  The traditional vendor was actually far more economical.  More ports, more features, more functionality, too.  However, when pressed to go with the traditional vendor, the manager responded, “Yeah, yeah.. but I get yelled at less because my guys are checking their work before they save it.  It’s only 20 racks or so, just buy two of [the newer vendor's] switches for each rack.”

As an industry, we need to get past the UX hump.  We need to acknowledge that ultimately, it’s the only thing that matters.  ”Network” is long, long overdue for a better user experience.  What is wanted from the network, precisely, is becoming well understood.  Traditionally it’s been nearly impossible to make this easily extracted and directly manageable.  An entire industry has been built around network alchemy due to the seemingly infinite number of “snowflake” network products and the limits of the components used to build them.  Alchemists must bend, twist, and mix to meet the needs of the business.

The UX of Commodity Networking

A great collapse is coming, and it will be the collapse of idiosyncratic networking.  It will be the first real sign that the network is evolving towards true commodity status.  This will be a major turning point for our industry, and it means the focus will shift towards the experience of the user.  When this happens, any “innovation” that does not bring to the surface, in a directly manageable and easily accessible way, the core value of the network, is meaningless.

Intuitive networking will be as easy as putting a quarter into the machine and turning the knob.  When that tiny plastic bubble falls into your hands, you’ll have a network that manages it’s own topology and the workloads that ride over it.  User Experience will be brought into the modern day, out of the stone ages.

We’re not there yet, though.  Networking isn’t a commodity because there’s still work to do.  While prices are going down, the next phase will be a hard turn towards user experience.

[Fun fact:  Most "IE" level certifications require you to recertify every two years.  What this means is that you will waste months of your life pouring over thousands of pages of text, memorizing lots of useless facts, and spending hundreds of dollars on exams.  That's why, this year, I started letting my certifications expire.  One gone, two more to go.  Learn Python, it's less pages and it's way more fun.]

[Fun fact #2: If you're reading this Dad, there's nothing wrong with camouflage sweatpants.  TVs should not be square though, you need to get over that.]







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More Stories By Michael Bushong

The best marketing efforts leverage deep technology understanding with a highly-approachable means of communicating. Plexxi's Vice President of Marketing Michael Bushong has acquired these skills having spent 12 years at Juniper Networks where he led product management, product strategy and product marketing organizations for Juniper's flagship operating system, Junos. Michael spent the last several years at Juniper leading their SDN efforts across both service provider and enterprise markets. Prior to Juniper, Michael spent time at database supplier Sybase, and ASIC design tool companies Synopsis and Magma Design Automation. Michael's undergraduate work at the University of California Berkeley in advanced fluid mechanics and heat transfer lend new meaning to the marketing phrase "This isn't rocket science."

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