& 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
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.
5G is about so much more than just very high bandwidth and low latency – and SDN is going to play a key role in enabling 5G full potential, argues ONF Executive Director Dan Pitt.
To ensure the best possible customer experience, service providers must find ways to make more performance metrics available to users.
How cable operators can prepare to grasp the mobility opportunity.
From The Founder
Download our complete guide to de-risking NFV deployment in 2016, including:
  • An eight-step strategy to deploying NFV safely, based on input from the companies that have already started virtualizing their production networks.
  • Interviews with leading executives at Colt, AT&T, Deutsche Telekom, Cisco, Nokia, ZTE, Ericsson and Heavy Reading.
  • Flash Poll
    Live Streaming Video
    Prepping for the Future: Upskill U Explained
    During this short kick-off video, Doug Webster, Vice President of Service Provider Marketing, Cisco, and Light Reading’s CEO & Founder Steve Saunders give an overview of Upskill U.
    LRTV Interviews
    AT&T Expert on the Key Pillars of UC

    4|29|16   |   03:58   |   (0) comments


    Vishy Gopalakrishnan, AVP of product marketing at AT&T, talks about the three developments that are making unified communications and collaboration secure and reliable for enterprise users.
    LRTV Documentaries
    LRTV Report: Mobile Core Innovation

    4|28|16   |   25:32   |   (0) comments


    Hear from multiple industry experts from Deutsche Telekom, SK Telecom, Heavy Reading, Huawei, Cisco, Ericsson, Nokia, NEC and many more about developments in the mobile core as operators virtualize their IMS and evolved packet core systems and prepare for a 5G world.
    LRTV Huawei Video Resource Center
    NFV World Congress Highlight

    4|26|16   |     |   (0) comments


    The highlight of the NFV World Congress contains exciting telecom news. Join us for an inside look at Huawei's ICT 2020 plan and its latest collaboration with industry leaders.
    LRTV Interviews
    Unified Comms Finds Its Voice

    4|25|16   |   03:44   |   (0) comments


    Peter Quinlan, VP of UCC Product Management at Tata Communications, talks about the evolution of the unified communications and collaboration services sector and how voice is now a big part of current developments.
    LRTV Documentaries
    So... What Do We Do Now?

    4|25|16   |   03:24   |   (0) comments


    After a long hiatus, Max Dingman, the CEO of a GeeGhiz, returns for a motivational board room pep talk.
    LRTV Documentaries
    NAB 2016 Highlights

    4|21|16   |     |   (0) comments


    Light Reading's Cable/Video Practice Leader Alan Breznick climbs down from the slots to tell us about the latest news in broadcast technology at NAB 2016 in Las Vegas.
    Between the CEOs
    CEO Chat: Deepfield's Craig Labovitz

    4|21|16   |     |   (0) comments


    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.
    Shades of Ray
    Leading Lights 2016: Shortlists Announced

    4|20|16   |   0:53   |   (0) comments


    The judging is over and the Leading Lights 2016 shortlists have been published -- you can see who made the cut by clicking on this link.
    LRTV Custom TV
    Introducing MulteFire – Qualcomm at MWC 2016

    4|18|16   |   3.29   |   (0) comments


    MulteFire is the latest option for using LTE in unlicensed spectrum. As oppose to its close 'siblings', LAA and LTE-U, MulteFire operates solely in unlicensed spectrum, which enables it to offer the best of two worlds – LTE-like performance with WiFi-like deployment simplicity. In this interview, Sanjeev Athalye, Sr. Director, Product Management at Qualcomm ...
    Between the CEOs
    CEO Chat: Grant Van Rooyen of Cologix

    4|18|16   |     |   (0) comments


    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.
    LRTV Huawei Video Resource Center
    ONS 2016 – Demonstration of Huawei's NetMatrix Multi-Vendor SDN Orchestrator

    4|15|16   |     |   (0) comments


    This demonstration shows how Huawei's NetMatrix SDN Orchestrator (SDN-O) addresses an operator's core service agility needs for services spanning multi-domain, multivendor networks: it includes a demonstration of:
    - Rapid New Service Design: using YANG to model a complex example of multi-domain, multivendor L3VPN network connectivity service that ...
    LRTV Custom TV
    AT&T Wants to Own North Carolina

    4|15|16   |     |   (1) comment


    Venessa Harrison, president of North Carolina for AT&T, tells how the company will expand its GigaPower service beyond the seven N.C. cities it already serves.

  • This blog, sponsored by AT&T, is the second part of a ten-part series examining next-generation broadband technologies titled "Behind the Speeds."
  • Upcoming Live Events
    May 23, 2016, Austin, TX
    May 23, 2016, Austin Convention Center
    May 24-25, 2016, Austin Convention Center, Austin, TX
    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
    Ultra-Broadband Summit, Hong Kong
    Iain Morris, News Editor, 4/27/2016
    WiCipedia: Woman Cards & Bitch Switches
    Sarah Thomas, Director, Women in Comms, 4/29/2016
    FCC Poised to Re-Regulate Wholesale Access
    Carol Wilson, Editor-at-large, 4/28/2016
    Mitel Asks: What Time of Day Do You Shower?
    Mitch Wagner, West Coast Bureau Chief, Light Reading, 4/25/2016
    GoT Fans Curse HBO (Not Right) Now
    Mari Silbey, Senior Editor, Cable/Video, 4/25/2016
    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

    Of all the tech companies in the Valley, Intel has made the most aggressive commitment to building a diverse and inclusive workplace culture. It's doing so by taking concrete, measurable steps, making a large financial investment and through a commitment to complete transparency about its progress. In this radio show, WiC Director Sarah Thomas will be joined by Shlomit Weiss, Intel's Vice President, Data Center Group, and General Manager of Networking Engineering, who will share with us why Intel is tackling this huge challenge, how and to what effect. She will also discuss her unique experiences leading development of Client SOC development in the past and today leading development of all of the chipmaker's silicon hardware for networking IPs and discrete devices and managing a team of 600 engineers across Israel, Europe and the US.