& cplSiteName &

Making Things Simpler

Jeff Finkelstein
6/16/2014
100%
0%

    “The way to build a complex system that works is to build it from very simple systems that work.” – Kevin Kelly, founding editor of Wired Magazine

In many ways, we are most comfortable with complexity. As engineers, we enjoy the process of creating, modifying, re-creating, and maybe at some point in time actually producing something that works. We find that more often than not we enjoy the process more than the creation itself. So we undertake the analysis, re-analysis, re-re-analysis, of solving a given problem and often find the most complex, sometimes most costly, often difficult, solution as it appeals to the problem solver in us all.

I often remember the following cartoon when I am faced with solving a technology problem…

Back in the good old days when I was involved in developing UNIX kernels, we often played games with code trying intentionally to make it as obfuscated as possible. We even gave prizes out for whoever could write the most unreadable code. We considered it a fun way to solve problems and also impress our peers with our programming skills.

What we lost in the process was that there were people actually using our software and that others in the future would have to maintain it. As I look back at code I wrote in the 80s, I have no idea what I was trying to do unless there were some semblance of comments scattered haphazardly throughout the code. It was fun back then, but today I would not be happy having to need to make a code change.

As engineers, we need to maintain the balance between simple solutions and complex answers. Occam's Razor has proven true all too many times for us to ignore it and yet at times we do. We become so enamored of our favorite shiny object that we develop an amazingly transparent blindness to others' blind spots, to anything other than what has become the new toy in our toy box. However, we do know we cannot completely depend on it. We may build large, complex, and even unwieldy, solutions to posed problems, but very often we are solving for things that have never even been presented as a concern.

For my architecture team, we maintain five simple rules:

1. Simple, modular architectures always win
2. Centralize what you can, distribute what you must
3. Silicon matters for scale, availability, and resilience
4. Automate anything that can be automated
5. Support open standards

The more complexity we introduce into an already complex ecosystem creates a difficult road to navigate over time. Each change creates a ping-pong effect that often touches remote pieces of the design in our minds, never to be impacted. But in some small way they are changed enough to cause havoc that we end up spending much time troubleshooting.

Back in my last column, I spent time discussing the delineation between network layers in the cable modem termination system (CMTS) functional block diagram that I've been using for a few articles to show how this simplification may help. Putting the physical layer components (and possibly MAC) into a remote device helps with the scale issues at hand while also simplifying the architecture. (See Embracing Technological Change and Learning From Mistakes.)

There are many ways to solve the same problems using monolithic architectures that are completely sound both technically and financially. But do they get us where we want in the long run? How do we simplify even more? What can we do to not only break the functional blocks and layers apart further, but also provide a communication path between them?

Enter SDN and NFV…

While they are our industry's current shiny objects, if we treat them as another tool in our toolbox they do provide a framework for achieving this goal. I am often involved in discussions about how they can be used to solve almost every imaginable issue simply by decomposing functions or using OpenFlow (or other protocols) as a standard communication mechanism. Realistically, both SDN and NFV are finding their way through the complex organism we call our network. But, in order for them to flourish in our technological world, we need some quick wins to show how they may help.

So what are they? I like to look for ways to reduce the complexity both in design and configuration. As we add more devices, paths, circuits, flows, routes, etc, we make things more complex. As we are required to configure more equipment with device-specific configurations using unique command line interfaces, we simply increase the complexity.

So how can we simplify things? One way is to use an abstraction that allows us to define things in such a way that it is applicable to multiple physical manifestations. Rather than force us to integrate device and service-level provisioning, is there a way to focus on the services and let the devices provision themselves? To me, it is a holy grail in network design and management; but through standardization we are getting much closer.

In the excellent work done at CableLabs, with MSO and vendor support, on Converged Cable Access Platform (CCAP) and DOCSIS 3.1, we are seeing a real-world impact through the use of YANG models for device and service abstraction, and NETCONF for configuring devices. In many ways, this is the beginning of a whole new way to view the cable ecosystem. We are no longer encumbered with doing things as we have always done them; it is a completely new way to envision how we may be able to manage our networks.

Stay tuned for future blog posts and ruminations on ways to think about N2GCable, i.e. the next-next generation of cable we are now entering…

— Jeff Finkelstein, Executive Director of Strategic Architecture, Cox Communications

(8)  | 
Comment  | 
Print  | 
Newest First  |  Oldest First  |  Threaded View        ADD A COMMENT
brookseven
50%
50%
brookseven,
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/18/2014 | 12:26:41 PM
Re: Abstraction as a language
I think the biggest challenge here is age.  I don't mean the age of people, but instead the age of products and services.

My experience with this is that things become difficult once a product or service exists for a period of time.  There becomes dependency on what I will call quirks in behavior.  This kind of kruft creeps in over time.

Why do I bring this up.  The kind of systems architecture discussion here is most valid about brand new things.  Do we have that in a network service?  FiOS was about as brand new as a service as I have been involved with.  Even there we had TIRKS.

So my question is...Can you define the entire current network as a single abstraction?  If not, I think that you will end up with issues around interconnecting the old and new.  I have had success in encapsulating the old and treating it as a block.  But old products are grumpy and have personalities.  They get mad when you try to get them to do things that they were never intended to do.

seven
nasimson
50%
50%
nasimson,
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/17/2014 | 11:29:17 PM
Re: Abstraction as a language
Thanks Mike. Now that I get it, I think it's an area where industry associations should play a greater and active role in defining and standardizing these abstractions and specifications.
@mbushong
50%
50%
@mbushong,
User Rank: Moderator
6/17/2014 | 10:10:02 PM
Re: Abstraction as a language
We tend to think of edge policy in very networking-centric terms: VLANs, ACLs, QOS, whatever. These are all constructs that help us specify how traffic traverses (or does not) the network. 

If the future is about converged infrastructure (including applications), the most meaningful abstractions are probably not networking constructs. What you might want is a set of abstractions relevant across all infrastructure. 

If the abstractions are in support of applications, the abstractions themselves could be expressed in application terms. For example, it might be interesting to label an application as HIPAA-compliant. Individual infrastructure elements would then translate this policy into behavior (isolating traffic on the network, for instance). You could specify things like application response times, loss thresholds, compliance requirements (like PCI), access restrictions, auditability requirements, etc.

Note that this would all need to be done in a way that is somewhat higher-level than the underlying compute, storage, and networking, and obviously in a way that is at least open access (like open source) if not standard.

Mike Bushong (@mbushong)

Plexxi
nasimson
50%
50%
nasimson,
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/17/2014 | 9:49:22 PM
Re: Abstraction as a language
> Maybe we need to be presenting policy as a derivative of applications SLAs? @Mike: Can you please elaborate the above a little? Thanks in advance.
nasimson
50%
50%
nasimson,
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/17/2014 | 9:41:00 PM
lot of insights
A great wow article! Only the other day, I was thinking of this image to put it in my work space so that we don't repeat these mistakes. To learn from the insights there in, and not to let these slip over from over time, I think I need to read it every once in a while.
Duh!
50%
50%
Duh!,
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/17/2014 | 10:16:30 AM
One more rule
Excellent points.

As a network architect, I have adapted a rule from software engineering.  Since it is complementary to the five rules that Jeff writes about, I'd simply add it to his list.

6. Strong cohesion within subsystems, loose coupling between subsystems.

Which means that subsystems should be kept small and simple by insisting that all their functions be the set of operations on a single, self-contained object.  And that interfaces between subsystems be kept simple.  When a subsystem gets too complex to understand, or has too many moving parts... you're doing it wrong.   When an interface gets too chatty or has a state explosion... you're doing it wrong.  Redraw your subsystem boundaries and start again.

 
danielcawrey
50%
50%
danielcawrey,
User Rank: Light Sabre
6/16/2014 | 5:28:19 PM
Re: Abstraction as a language
I can see a future where many systems will need multiple networks, not just one or two. Being able to rethink VLAN architecture with a more software-defined component I think is a step towards this. 

Ultimately, I think that network engineering is more going to be able compartmentalizing certain aspects of a system. Does anyone else see that type of architecture coming?
@mbushong
50%
50%
@mbushong,
User Rank: Moderator
6/16/2014 | 10:13:48 AM
Abstraction as a language
The needfor abstraction is absolutely a great way to siplify things going forward. We should be aware that these abstractions will eventually serve as the lingua france between infrastructure that current exists in separate silos. This begs for some real thought to be put into anything that resembles a policy abstraction. Should things be expressed in terms of networking constructs? Or in terms of storage or compute requirements? Maybe we need to be presenting policy as a derivative of applications SLAs? 

The point is not to advocate one or the other here, but rather to suggest that even abstraction needs to be thought about. Because it is being done within the context of networking today, we could very well end up with a reimagining of VLANs and ACLs, a good step for sure but certainly not a long-lasting evolutionary step.

Mike Bushong (@mbushong)

Plexxi
Educational Resources
sponsor supplied content
Educational Resources Archive
More Blogs from Column
In the second of a three-part series, OpenCloud's Jeff Gordon delves deeper into the driving forces for adopting a converged service layer.
Edge computing is a compelling option for telcos looking to balance tightening finances with increasing demands for bandwidth and processing speed. 
The conclusions of a new survey, commissioned by OpenCloud and conducted by Heavy Reading, suggests that the move towards converged service layers is now well underway.
WiFi is offering a challenge to the network-centric cellular status quo and that's something that mobile network operator CEOs recognize, believes Devicescape CEO Dave Fraser.
NFV can bring operational headaches as well as operational gains, argues Andy Huckridge.
From The Founder
The independent evaluation of Nokia's key virtual network functions (VNFs) was a defining moment for the Finnish giant.
Flash Poll
Live Streaming Video
Charting the CSP’s Future
Six different communications service providers join to debate their visions of the future CSP, following a landmark presentation from AT&T on its massive virtualization efforts and a look back on where the telecom industry has been and where it’s going from two industry veterans.
LRTV Documentaries
Leading Lights 2016 Highlights

5|25|16   |   02:26   |   (1) comment


Some of the high points from this year's Leading Lights awards dinner at the Hotel Ella in Austin, Texas.
LRTV Documentaries
Light Reading Hall of Fame 2016

5|23|16   |   05:43   |   (0) comments


Find out who has been welcomed into Light Reading's Hall of Fame this year.
LRTV Custom TV
ZTE TM Forum Highlights

5|23|16   |     |   (0) comments


ZTE showcased its new ICT solutions at TM Forum in Nice.
LRTV Interviews
Gamma's MD on the Emergence of UC2

5|20|16   |     |   (0) comments


Gamma Communications Managing Director David Macfarlane believes the unified communications (UC) market has reached a tipping point.
LRTV Custom TV
The Ultimate 5-Minute Guide to Digital Customer Engagement

5|20|16   |     |   (0) comments


In this short video, you will hear all about how Digital Customer Engagement is the key to meeting customer expectations, keeping them happy, and maximizing revenue. VP Product & Marketing at Pontis, Ofer Razon, breaks down for us the five essential capabilities for successful Digital Customer Engagement. Don’t miss!
LRTV Custom TV
NFV in 2016: Part 1 – NFV Use Cases Get Real

5|19|16   |   05:57   |   (0) comments


Consensus is building around the key use cases for NFV, including managed IP services at the network edge and on customer premises, which can generate new revenues from enterprises/SMBs and consumers; Evolved Packet Core to support LTE migration; and adjacent technologies, such as TAS and IMS, to support VoLTE and next-generation charging and policy control ...
LRTV Custom TV
Nokia's Steve Vogelsang on NFV – Part 3

5|19|16   |     |   (0) comments


Steve Vogelsang discusses the challenges of operational transformation and how Nokia helps its customers. Join Steve at the Big Communications Event in Austin the morning of May 24, on his keynote and optical networking panel.
LRTV Interviews
Level 3: Why UC Is In Demand

5|17|16   |   04:12   |   (1) comment


Andrew Edison, Level 3's senior VP of sales, EMEA region, talks about the drivers of growth in the unified communications services market.
LRTV Custom TV
ARM's OPNFV Action

5|17|16   |     |   (0) comments


At the ARM booth at MWC 2016, Joe Kidder and Bob Monkman speak to Light Reading about OPNFV and their upcoming action.
LRTV Custom TV
Nokia's Steve Vogelsang on NFV – Part 2

5|16|16   |     |   (0) comments


Steve Vogelsang gives advice to service providers on how to move to NFV. Join Steve at the Big Communications Event in Austin the morning of May 24, on his keynote and optical networking panel.
LRTV Interviews
Interoute CTO on NFV's Maturity

5|13|16   |   06:46   |   (1) comment


Matt Finnie, CTO at international operator Interoute, explains how NFV has made life easier in terms of logistics and how Interoute can now enable a 'software-defined moment' for its customers.
LRTV Huawei Video Resource Center
UBBS 2016 Highlights

5|12|16   |     |   (0) comments


Highlights of Huawei's UBBS event in Hong Kong.
Upcoming Live Events
September 13-14, 2016, The Curtis Hotel, Denver, CO
December 6-8, 2016,
June 16-18, 2017, Austin Convention Center, Austin, TX
All Upcoming Live Events
Infographics
A new survey conducted by Heavy Reading and TM Forum shows that CSPs around the world see the move to digital operations as a necessary part of their overall virtualization strategies.
Hot Topics
DT: Telcos Must Escape Vendor Prison
Iain Morris, News Editor, 5/24/2016
AT&T to Start 5G 'Friendly' Trial by 2016 End
Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, 5/24/2016
WiCipedia: Short Skirts & Back-Up Plans
Eryn Leavens, Special Features & Copy Editor, 5/20/2016
Eurobites: Be More European, EU Tells Streaming Services
Paul Rainford, Assistant Editor, Europe, 5/20/2016
AT&T's Margaret Chiosi Retires
Ray Le Maistre, Editor-in-chief, 5/25/2016
Like Us on Facebook
Twitter Feed
BETWEEN THE CEOs - Executive Interviews
In this latest installment of the CEO Chat series, Craig Labovitz, co-founder and CEO of Deepfield, sits down with Light Reading's Steve Saunders in Light Reading's New York City office to discuss how Deepfield fits in with the big data trend and more.
Grant van Rooyen, president and CEO of Cologix, sits down with Steve Saunders, founder and CEO of Light Reading, in the vendor's New Jersey facility to offer an inside look at the company's success story and discuss the importance of security in the telecom industry.
Animals with Phones
Live Digital Audio

Our world has evolved through innovation from the Industrial Revolution of the 1740s to the information age, and it is now entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, driven by technology. Technology is driving a paradigm shift in the way digital solutions deliver a connected world, changing the way we live, communicate and provide solutions. It can have a powerful impact on how we tackle some of the world’s most pressing problems. In this radio show, Caroline Dowling, President of Communications Infrastructure & Enterprise Computing at Flex, will join Women in Comms Director Sarah Thomas to discuss the impact technology has on society and how it can be a game-changer across the globe; improving lives and creating a smarter world. Dowling, a Cork, Ireland, native and graduate of Harvard Business School's Advanced Management Program, will also discuss her experience managing an international team focused on innovation in an age of high-speed change.