It was a chilly and blustery night in late November, and wrapped in a warm blanket, I sleepily watched my favorite show streaming from Netflix and listened to the rain tap against the living room windows. Thanksgiving dinner was delicious as usual, and the house was quiet after our guests left for the night.
The kids were in bed, the dishes were done. My wife was curled up on the other end of the couch reading from her Kindle. On Netflix, Mal was making a witty comment to Zoe suggesting that his bad-boy space-smuggler exterior was really a front for the noble hero he kept hidden inside.
Then my cell phone began vibrating and flashing like some evil alarm clock from my high school days. A quick glance at the screen showed that it was a tenant from one of my rental properties across town.
The news wasn’t good. No hot water for the second floor apartment, and a pool of water beneath the water heater in the basement.
Even worse, this was my fault. A couple months earlier, I noticed the installation date on that same water heater. It was on year 12 of a 6 year tank. I even remember making a mental note that it could go at any time.
Did I take any action? Nope, because that would have cost time and money. Instead I stuffed it into the deepest recesses of my mind.
Among the many lessons I’ve learned about being a property owner and landlord, one stands out as clear as day:
Don’t put off minor maintenance.
That water heater needed to be replaced, and though that’s not a very big job, I ignored it. I also ignored funny sounds emanating from a dishwasher only to have it conk out with a large pool of water on the kitchen floor. In August I ignored changing filters in a forced hot air heating system only to have tenants complain months later about a funny smell coming from the vents. And out of sheer laziness I didn’t bother installing a $2 drain screen in a second floor bathtub only to have to pay a plumber $300 to snake out a mass of nasty hair that looked like a drowned squirrel.
These were all minor, inexpensive maintenance tasks that could’ve been quickly and cheaply resolved. Instead, ignoring them resulted in bigger and more expensive problems that always seemed to happen at the worst possible time.
The parallels with networking are pretty obvious.
Our networks are like old houses that need regular attention. Even a brand-new, high-end, expertly configured network needs a little care from time-to-time. And just like with rental properties, regular maintenance on networks is the easiest and cheapest way to avoid the big problems.
You know that cable in rack 4 that you made in a hurry, broke the tab, and put a little tape on it so it stayed in the switch port? You should probably take care of that before the cable falls out and you lose connection to your domain controllers.
Remember how you were going to disable port 80 and default credentials on your Cisco APs but didn’t get around to it because someone brought in yummy cider donuts that day? You should probably take care of that before that weird helpdesk guy takes down wireless in the C-suite.
Think of all those access switches in IDF 1 and IDF 2 that are begging for a code upgrade. You should probably take care of that before the bug in the version they’re currently running takes down the east wing.
These are real examples of routine network maintenance tasks that I put off over the years. Thankfully none of them turned into something worse, but I’m sure we’ve all worked on an emergency situation that was caused by something that regular maintenance would’ve caught and fixed.
Of course there are those meltdowns that routine maintenance really can’t account for, but in my experience, the fires we’re putting out are much too often a result of deferred maintenance. And typically it’s simple maintenance.
For me, the problem boils down to laziness and tedium. First, I’m kinda lazy. My wife would disagree because of all the stuff I do, but I have to push myself to get things done. I’ve been known to get caught up in silly office banter or some other irrelevant task simply so I didn’t have to go to the data center to clean up those messy fiber runs. After all, I’d have to first hunt down a ladder and schlep it across campus, find some Velcro cable ties, and get my fleece from my car. Ugh.
Second, I’m inclined to avoid the tedious jobs. I’d much rather work on a cool new global WAN design than go putz around in IDFs for a week upgrading code on switches. I’d rather do something more interesting but less needful while avoiding tasks that are less interesting but more needful.
Our networks need our regular attention, but I’m not talking about midnight rip-and-replace projects. I’m talking about those small tasks that are quick, easy, sometimes tedious, but also necessary for stability.
I like my networks like I like my Thanksgiving evening: sleepy, quiet, and without emergencies that are ultimately my own fault. Don’t put off minor maintenance.