As I have written previously, I have started work after many months of long service leave, and evaluating where I am going with my career. I am about a month into a six month contract working at a non-profit with three or four hundred employees, focusing on social services. The organization previously outsourced all of its ICT functions, but for various reasons the outsourced organization was let go, and three IT staff were hired. I was hired on a contract as a network engineer to evaluate their current network, and to design and implement a replacement which will better serve current needs, plus cater for future amalgamation of some related non-profits.
One month in, and I am loving the job. It is low-pressure, low-stress, and perhaps due to the nature of the work they do, or maybe out of appreciation for the better service our little team in providing, the clients are nice people with whom it is a real pleasure to work. In fact, were it an option to continue in the role on an ongoing basis, I would jump at it.
Which leads me to the point of this post. The last project I worked on in my previous job was the design and implementation (although I left before implementation began) of a University Data Center deployment, using Nexus 7010s, Nexus 5020s and Nexus 2K FEXes and the deployment of new Catalyst 6509 core switches. Multiple 10-Gig links over dark fibre, VDC, VSS, VPC and many other new and interesting acronyms. In my new role, the existing network consists of seven main and 20-odd subsidiary sites with ADSL links, using Draytek routers connected via PPTP tunnels. Many sites of up to 40 or 50 users only have ADSL services with 384 kbps upload speeds. The switches across the sites are unmanaged (or have never had any management configured) and a chaotic mix of Netgear, ASUS, D-Link and more; all stuff you can pick up from the home electronics shop. Knowledge of traffic patterns and requirements were totally non-existent. Having led a relatively sheltered life in higher education, where I thought I knew what tight budgets were, I was initially dismayed by what I surveyed before me.
However, I am now starting to enjoy the challenge of designing a replacement network. Everything from racks and cables to active equipment and carrier services are in the remit. One of the concerns, of course is the low budget, both capital and operational, so I am looking at LAN LITE Cisco L2 switches and other (relatively) low spec equipment to keep costs down. As there is not going to be a network engineer on staff after I complete my contract, front and center in my mind is producing an easily manageable network. I am talking with carriers to provide better bandwidth options, private network options to eliminate the inter-site VPNs, and for the carrier to manage the network including the CPE routers at each site, meaning that only L2 needs to be managed by support staff in the ICT team on an ongoing basis. And I need to document the current and future network for non-networking people.
I know that this experience may be run-of-the-mill for many of you reading, especially those of you who do contracting or consulting, but for me it has been an exercise not so much in changing gear, as mentioned in the title of the post, but rather an adjustment in mindset. I am not using the term “changing down a gear” to imply that small shops or anything less than a maxed-out Nexus 7K is somehow less worthy. Having been ensconced in a larger organization, I have been designing and implementing networks knowing that I or someone with my skill set will be managing the finished product (as much as any networking project is ever truly finished). I have been free to look at all of the bells and whistles and complex configurations available at the CLI. To build in complexity that can be obtuse when looked at by the outsider; using some cool new feature not because it is strictly needed, but because it is there and it might be cool or useful. The kind of thing that the uncharitable may describe as the attempt to my justify ongoing existence by building an inscrutable and opaque solution.
Rather, the gear change is that I find that I have to think much more carefully about the choices I make, rather than rushing headlong into the shiny end of the Cisco product catalogue. Which switchport security options? How about error disable recovery? Are things like wired 802.1x, dynamic ARP inspection or DHCP snooping going to be more trouble than they are worth if something breaks six months down the track? What kind of inexpensive or free management and reporting tools can I deploy that will be helpful to non-networking professionals and which are also easy to maintain in and of themselves? I suppose I have really learned to appreciate that I have to figure out what are the true needs of the organization as distinct from my own indulgent technological onanism. With bigger margins in budgets and advanced technical solutions, sometimes “needs analysis” can be an empty phrase, subordinated to engineering self-indulgence.
I have another month before my proposed budget is looked at by the board, then three months to procure and implement. I really am hoping to do well and impress, and to learn skills which will help me in a future consulting or contracting role. In the meantime, funny as it sounds, I have come up with some positive lessons from the current implementation which I originally derided internally as “primitive” when I came on board. The Draytek routers, of which I have previously had next to no knowledge have turned out to be surprisingly good little boxes. I find the interface horrible and frustrating, and the lack of diagnostics was less than helpful, but I am quite impressed with a unit that can do what it does for around AU$300. Having to re-learn NAT after coming from a place with a whole public /16 was also a surprisingly positive experience.
I started the job with some trepidation for reasons I outlined in my previous post, and there was some initial regret on the downsizing of the lumps of metal and plastic I was used to; and although the song goes “if you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with”, I am afraid I will never love unmanaged hubs and switches. I suppose I have had the opposite experience moving out of higher education than Mrs. Y had (listen to the start of Episode 95). I certainly was not overwhelmed by complexity – the compete reverse. Changing down a gear has had its own challenges; ones I have eagerly embraced so far. And on a side note, my work-life balance is in fact infinitely better so far.
As a newbie in the world of experiencing new sites and variable budgets, what would your advice be in changing down a gear, or for that matter, up a gear?