The Man in the White Suit

I know this is a technical blog, but I’ve always agreed with those that believe the best way to deliver a message is through a story. As imaginative and creative as I feel I can sometimes be, writing fiction just isn’t one of my strong points. So, rather than tell you an original story of my own I’m going to relate to you the story of The Man in the White Suit, in the hope it will get my message across. Some of you could be as old as (or older than) me and remember the black and white film (from 1951). This story shook my foundations when I saw it as a young boy and understood its implications. Today, I hope to use it to support the friends I haven’t made yet and perhaps give you all a fresh perspective on our industry and its direction today.

The story centres around a character called Sidney Stratton, a research chemist who tries and eventually succeeds in inventing a fibre which never wears out and which also repels dirt. The fibre is used to make a suit worn by Stratton in most of the film; it is bright white as the fibre cannot be dyed. Initially hailed as a genius, his life is soon put in danger as mill owners (this was the 50′s you know) and trade unions alike begin to understand the implications of his discovery and its likely devastating future impact on their business and livelihoods.

I’m no longer the naïve and relatively simple thinking boy who watched that film many years ago, and I certainly have a more sophisticated understanding of “how the world works.” But its message and commentary still resonate with me today. I’ve seen my fair share of revolutions, financial crashes, international crisis and social change. As a teenager in the UK during the 80′s, I watched as the UK Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher tore apart the industries (and trade unions) of old and reshaped a nation. We are mostly adaptable, new work replaces the old, and the world is normally a better place for the majority. Perhaps change isn’t so bad; it’s progress.

Talking of which, I don’t know about you, but I’ve found the networking field pretty stale for a number of years. To keep myself interested, I’ve focussed on load balancing, application delivery and similar subjects. I’m sure others find similar ways to make networking more interesting, specialising in security or voice perhaps. However, the more I’ve learned about application level technologies such as HTTP, web services and APIs and what’s possible with a good load balancer through proxying and programming, the more I’ve struggled to understand why nothing seems to have changed or gotten any easier (quite the opposite with ITIL, etc.) in this field. The technology, the protocols and the capability have been around for years – many years. Compared to most other sectors of the IT industry, the rate of development and change has been staggeringly low.

What might benefit the network professional certainly isn’t seen of benefit by big business. No one seems to want to fix what’s broken or truly improve our lot – certainly not the large dominant industry players or even the academics and standards bodies. It’s probably unfair to suppose it’s all about greed, self-preservation and maintaining the status quo…but then, perhaps it is? We’re all losing right now whatever the reasons.

Personally, I’d prefer steady, incremental change to something like the painful, sometimes brutal revolution of Thatcher’s, but no change – that I can’t stand. Thanks to a growing minority, our industry is finally changing, looking fresh and feeling exciting; it’s in the news and buzzing. Despite all your weariness about SDN and the coming loss of the cosy contentment of your vendor’s comfort blanket, I think now is a great time to be in networking, and I for one embrace the coming change. I won’t fear The Man in the White Suit. I just hope he makes it.

I plan to give you an idea of what should and could be possible today (but is actually network fiction) in future posts. In doing so, I hope to whet your appetite and ignite your enthusiasm once again for networking technology…and for change.

-Some thoughts on SDN and virtualisation’s effects on the employment market can be found here: You’ve Changed – SDN’s Casualties

Steven Iveson

Steven Iveson

Steven Iveson, the last of four children of the seventies, was born in London and has never been too far from a shooting, bombing or riot. He's now grateful to live in a small town in East Yorkshire in the north east of England with his wife Sam and their four children. He's worked in the IT industry for over 15 years in a variety of roles, predominantly in data centre environments. Working with switches and routers pretty much from the start he now also has a thirst for application delivery, SDN, virtualisation and related products and technologies. He's published a number of F5 Networks related books and is a regular contributor at DevCentral.
Steven Iveson
Steven Iveson
  • Stephen skinner

    Great post, for me SDN is already being labelled as a game changer by some people , without really knowing its form, some posts I read are making out that SDN will be so big we won’t need IP any more,… yes it’s going to be fun to watch the way networking will change , but the end of the day, packets are packets..you need some sort of intelligence to get them from a to b, you still need to design systems to organise these packets of information into logical units, even if the logical units can float from one physical thing to another..
    For me SDN is just another MPLS, just another Ethernet , just another tool I can use to link systems together .
    If I can do some real funky, crazy(in today’s thinking) stuff with SDN, then bring it on, yes please , i am more then ready to,use it.
    but if I can only use it consolidate today’s tech or program my network management better then, ho-hum…. I’ll get to it when we do the next round of end-of-life replacements..I think it’s very interesting topic and I to hear more from you about what SDN can do , but at the same time i believe in putting my very sensible hat on and remembering how much the server teams have changed since ESXi came out…..a bit , but not that much, there still there..still have jobs..still complaining that its the networks fault ;)…. Keep calm and carry on!!

    • http://twitter.com/sjiveson What Lies Beneath

      Thanks Stephen. Whilst I’m interested, SDN per se isn’t something I’m thinking about too deeply right now, but it does signal (I hope) an end to the stagnation of an industry ‘manned’ by mostly creative, intelligent and dedicated people who all deserve a brighter, more satisfying future. Who isn’t tired of taking the first turn (once again) in the blame game?

      I see some amazing possibilities with current technology let alone SDN; I also see a great deal of challenges ahead too. There’s a great deal of inertia, self-interest and doubt to overcome but hopefully the ‘third way’ and some simple and obvious demonstrations with clear and tangible benefits will convince you and others in the industry that whether it’s SDN or some other path we tread, our current one is a dead end.

  • http://twitter.com/bjkirton Ben Kirton

    I agree with your desire to move forward, we all share it. But it asks a question that we already have an answer to.
    Networking moves slowly because if it breaks, everything on top does too. You can’t implement a new version of TCP in you application that is accessible to the general public and have no one support it. It won’t make it through firewalls, clients won’t support it you will end up going back to TCP of old.

    If the whole world needs to support it before it can be used, you will likely choose what already exists. Look at IPv6. So old and yet barely implemented. And that’s including the fact that we are out of IPv4 address in most of the world already.

    Servers are already fragile. If we break the network, imaging all the crying the server guys will do.

    • http://twitter.com/sjiveson What Lies Beneath

      Ben, a year ago I would have pessimistically agreed with you and I’m sure your points resonate with a fair number of those in the industry. Are you really happy to accept that due to the very importance and global nature of what you work with it’s going to be stuck in time and you along with it?

      Where public facing systems are concerned, once a packet enters ‘your domain’ surely you can do what you like with it? You only need to support that ubiquitous, ageing global standard at the front door; as long as you can translate between the old and new where they interface, you’re good. There are millions of VoIP and other network-based internal systems, platforms and products that have never seen the outside of an internal company network, perhaps start there?

      My ADC background informs my opinion; if I can take an IPv6 packet client-side and balance it to an IPv4 host running SCTP server-side over a native VXLAN and modify everything from TCP options to the actual payload and control it all centrally via a home-brewed management interface, all with today’s aged and broken technology, well, what can’t I do?

      Most vendors are happy to foster and encourage opinions such as yours; it’s not their fault there’s no innovation right? Right now anything is possible, whether it’s using SDN or web services (SOA for the network, oh yeah) or something else. Exactly why can’t Cisco build a decent GUI that allows you to drag and drop ACL rules to re-order them, or analyse the hit counts and do it for you? I could go on and on and on. It doesn’t have to be revolutionary, it just needs to be better.

      • http://twitter.com/bjkirton Ben Kirton

        I apologise for the delay in my response, i missed your update but wanted to make sure i said the following.

        I think you are right 100%. I agree whole heartedly and everyday in my technical career i have strived to try and implement the new and better and try and drop the old and no longer relevant.

        Against the nay-sayers and criticism heaped on me by my peers who asked why bother i made sure we were ready for world IPv6 days and published AAAA records for about 8 of the 10 external services (voice just isn’t there yet, internally or externally and the feature loss was not acceptable to the business) for the company i work for. Doing it for clients means a business case that they don’t see a return on and they just don’t care yet.

        I am not a DC engineer so am not doing the type of things you are in those spaces but i spend about 10% of my work time (and more than that in personal time) trying to find products and equipment that is looking to whats next and better.

        I had high hopes for Prime Infrastructure but as yet it is doing little more than it’s predecessors and a lot less than LMS (though in a better way) but is saddled with a completely terrible user interface and feature wise almost nothing better just more. More of the same form other products Cisco is discontinuing.

        AVC is now in the wireless controllers it manages and the routers it also manages but there is no interface for me to dial up the importance of something and have it enact that change on all the devices or choose to block something and have it done. It is still device by device, separate policies for each device with different capabilities that do not line up and no way to proactively alter the network to the requirements of the business.

        SDN has all this promise but it is still a pipe dream and i have seen nothing yet to say that is moving into the real world ay time soon.

        I very much understand where you are coming from and would love to see it get better. Thanks to your hope for the future i will put aside my cynicism and try and again help move the industry forward where i can.

        Thanks for taking the time for the post and for the follow up. It made me realise how bad i had gotten.

        • http://twitter.com/sjiveson What Lies Beneath

          Hi Ben, thanks again for taking the time to comment and in such a detailed fashion. Cisco has not been your friend it would seem. I’m glad I’ve been able to change your mind around the industry as a whole and with everyone pushing towards the same goal and being firm, assertive and demanding with vendors where we have an influence, we’ll get to a better place.

          On a personal note, I was stuck in the same rut myself for far too long. Companies and employers, as customers, don’t help when they standardise on kit from single vendors either. Inflexibility in this regard slowly drains the life out of the market and network staff themselves. Buying a few routers from a different vendor (and saving $$$) for a specific task shouldn’t be an incredibly painful and soul destroying process that risks a career.