Business · Cloud

Riverbed extends into the cloud

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One of the most critical, but often overlooked components in a system is that of the network. Enterprises continue to spend considerable amounts of money on network optimization as part of their core infrastructure. Traditionally, enterprises have controlled much of the network between applications components. Most of the time the different tiers of an application were collocated in the same data center or across multiple data centers and dedicated network connections that the enterprise had control of.

The advent of cloud changed all of that. Now, different tiers of an application may be spread across different locations, running on systems that the enterprise does not control. This lack of control provides a new challenge to network management.

In addition to applications moving, so does the data. As applications and data move beyond the bounds of the enterprise data center, so does the need to address the increasingly dispersed network performance requirements. The question is: How do you still address network performance management with you no longer control the underlying systems and network infrastructure components?

Riverbed is no stranger to Network performance management. Their products are widely used across enterprises today. At Tech Field Day’sCloud Field Day 3, I had the chance to meet up with the Riverbed team to discuss how they are extending their technology to address the changing requirements that cloud brings.

EXTENDING NETWORK PERFORMANCE TO CLOUD

Traditionally network performance management involved hardware appliances that would sit at the edges of your applications or data centers. Unfortunately, in a cloud-based world, the enterprise does not have access to the cloud data center nor network egress points.

Network optimization in cloud requires an entirely different approach. Add to this that application services are moving toward ephemeral behaviors and one can quickly see how this becomes a moving target.

Riverbed takes a somewhat traditional approach to how they address the network performance management problem in the cloud. Riverbed gives the enterprise the option to run their software as either a ‘sidecar’ to the application or as part of the cloud-based container.

EXTENDING THE DATA CENTER OR EMBRACING CLOUD?

There are two schools of thought on how one engages a mixed environment of traditional data center assets along with cloud. The first is to look at extending the existing data center so that the cloud is viewed as simply another data center. The second approach is to change the perspective where the constraints are reduced to the application…or better yet service level. The latter is a construct that is typical in cloud-native applications.

Today, Riverbed has taken the former approach. They view the cloud as another data center in your network. To this point, Riverbed’s SteelFusion product works as if the cloud is another data center in the network. Unfortunately, this only works when you have consolidated your cloud-based resources into specific locations.

Most enterprises are looking at a very fragmented approach to their use of cloud-based resources today. A given application may consume resources across multiple cloud providers and locations due to specific resource requirements. This shows up in how enterprises are embracing a multi-cloud strategy. Unfortunately, consolidation of cloud-based resources works against one of the core value propositions to cloud; the ability to leverage different cloud solutions, resources and tools.

UNDERSTANDING THE RIVERBED PORTFOLIO

During the session with the Riverbed team, it was challenging to understand how the different components of their portfolio work together to address the varied enterprise requirements. The portfolio does contain extensions to existing products that start to bring cloud into the network fold. Riverbed also discussed their Steelhead SaaS product, but it was unclear how it fits into a cloud native application model. On the upside, Riverbed is already supporting multiple cloud services by allowing their SteelConnect Manager product to connect to both Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Microsoft Azure. On AWS, SteelConnect Manager can run as an AWS VPC.

Understanding the changing enterprise requirements will become increasingly more difficult as the persona of the Riverbed buyer changes. Historically, the Riverbed customer was a network administrator or infrastructure team member. As enterprises move to cloud, the buyer changes to the developer and possibly the business user in some cases. These new personas are looking for quick access to resources and tools in an easy to consume way. This is very similar to how existing cloud resources are consumed. These new personas are not accustomed to working with infrastructure nor do they have an interest in doing so.

PROVIDING CLARITY FOR THE CHANGING CLOUD CUSTOMER

Messaging and solutions geared to these new personas of buyers need to be clear and concise. Unfortunately, the session with the Riverbed team was very much focused on their traditional customer; the Network administrator. At times, they seemed to be somewhat confused by questions that addressed cloud native application architectures.

One positive indicator is that Riverbed acknowledged that the end-user experience is really what matters, not network performance. In Riverbed parlance, they call this End User Experience Management (EUEM). In a cloud-based world, this will guide the Riverbed team well as they consider what serves as their North Star.

As enterprise embrace cloud-based architectures more fully, so will the need for Riverbed’s model that drives their product portfolio, architecture and go-to-market strategy. Based on the current state, they have made some inroads, but have a long way to go.

Further Reading: The difference between hybrid and multi-cloud for the enterprise

Network

Upgrading to a mesh wifi network

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After several folks asked about a recent tweet I posted about upgrading my home wifi network to a mesh network, I thought I would spend a few words to describe the before and after.

UNDERSTANDING THE BASELINE

Before discussing the details about the wifi networks and implementation, it is important to first set a baseline. As with most decisions, they are not made in a vacuum nor are they made independent of other variables and/or factors. In my case, one of the core factors to understand is that I live in the Apple ecosystem. If I lived in a Windows and/or Android ecosystem, the circumstances would not have been the same. And therefore, past decisions would likely have been different.

MOVING TO MULTIPLE WIFI ACCESS POINTS

Considering that I live in the Apple ecosystem, it made logical sense (at the time) to consider an Apple AirPort Extreme base station as my wifi access point. At the time, one AirPort Extreme base station provided solid coverage to my entire home. In addition, the Apple ecosystem with management software included in the Mac OS made the management really simple.

At some point, however, the size of my home increased and so did the need for a broader wifi network. Apple’s AirPort Extreme base stations allow the ability to create an extended network across multiple access points. The fact that you could create a wireless bridge across two AirPort Extreme base stations was also handy for those devices that didn’t have wireless capabilities. That’s all great. That is, until it isn’t great.

As Apple stopped regularly updating their AirPort devices, the quality of service consistently degraded. First, it was access points that lost connection to other access points. Then performance became an issue. Eventually, it got to the point where performance felt really lagging…especially if another device was streaming on the network. Now keep in mind that my Internet connection is a 150Mbps broadband connection which should provide plenty of bandwidth. Add to that the management required to keep things working and one can see how frustrating it can get.

THE SHIFT TO MESH

For some time, I have been toying with the idea of replacing the three connected Apple AirPort Extreme base stations with a modern mesh network that focused on performance while still keeping things simple. After doing a fair amount of research, it came down to two products: Eero & Google Wifi. Both products had solid reports from users. In the end, I opted for the Google Wifi 3-node system over the Eero for one simple reason: Cost. The three unit Eero system is significantly more expensive than the equivalent 3-node Google Wifi system. And the specs seemed pretty similar.

In my situation, the three wifi units are setup as: 1) Primary, connected directly to cable modem. The second port connects to a switch which connects to other devices that perform better via wired over wireless connections (Smart TVs, DVR, Apple TV, DVD Player, etc). 2) Wireless mesh. And 3) Wired wifi mesh. The last one is closer to my home office which has a wired connection to the core switch in order to provide greater performance while still supporting the wifi mesh. Installation and setup was very quick and easy to do.

EARLY REPORTS ARE IN

Granted the devices have been operational almost 24 hours. However, since installing the new devices, I have seen a marked improvement in wifi stability and performance. I can also see how much bandwidth is being used by different devices and address as needed. Even my wife noted that the Google wifi access points are less obtrusive than then Apple AirPort Extreme base stations. Although only one of the three is visible as the other two sit behind things and out of view. Even when everyone is at home on their devices, I have not noticed a single blip in performance like in the past. In addition, moving around the house between access points also seems quicker and seamless. This is important for those (like us) that live in semi-rural areas where cell coverage is spotty and wifi calling is required.

Only time will tell, but so far I am very pleased with the change.

Business · CIO

Understanding the Network Effect in IT

When discussing the combination of Information Technology (IT) & network, one quickly runs to thinking about cabling, connectors, switches, hubs and routers. However, there is another type of network that has nothing to do with technology yet directly impacts the effectiveness of an IT organization. This type of network involves people, empathy, credibility and humility.

THE NETWORK EFFECT

Many enterprise organizations believe that the Chief Information Officer (CIO) or the senior most person in IT is the key person that engages with the rest of the company. That is only slightly correct as it ignores the impact from the rest of the IT organization. And it is this impact that actually has a more significant bearing on how those outside of the IT organization view the organization itself. What is at work here is the Network Effect.

How does the network effect affect IT? Let us assume that the CIO spends all 40 hours each week engaging with those outside of IT. Yet, their staff of 100 only spends 20% of their time engaging outside of IT. That would equate to (100 staff x 20% of time x 40 hrs/wk) 800 hours each week or 20x more time than the CIO.

While it is important for the CIO to carry a consistent and appropriate message when engaging with those outside of IT, the same is true for rest of the IT organization. The more people that engage with folks outside of IT, the greater the network effect. And from a numbers perspective, the impact is significant. So is the risk.

UPSIDES AND DOWNSIDES

Creating a consistent message and culture is a critical objective for any leader, not just the CIO. However, when it comes to IT, there are other factors that can turn a positive opportunity into a negative experience.

Most leaders understand the importance of credibility and empathy. This is especially true when considering the support nature of an IT organization. When moving further into the organization, these qualities are often less developed or immature. As a consequence, a potentially positive interaction can quickly turn negative in the form of diminishing credibility for the entire organization.

Each organization is unique in their culture, leadership, and way they engage. Whether it be the CIO or their staff, one should never lose sight of the big picture as it provides the context and guidance for everyone in the company. It is easy to get caught up in the situation and lose sight of the overall situation. Even the smallest actions can have a demonstrable impact.

Too often, IT folks try to mask transparency and quickly run toward solutions centered around their frame of reference which often comes from a siloed perspective. As such, they lack empathy in the user’s situation and how it relates to the big picture.

THE SOFT SKILLS

In IT, we tend to focus on the hard skills of technology with less emphasis on the softer side. Yet, it is those soft skills that can quickly turn a situation into either a positive or negative one. Showing genuine empathy to a situation without placing blame creates a very different perspective.

In the end, whether you are a CIO, leader of an IT organization or individual contributor, it is important to understand the impact of your actions and the actions of your staff. Even those interactions that may seem innocuous can have a resounding and lasting effect. It can lead to building credibility or tearing it down. And credibility is what provides the foundation for relationships, yet we often do not think about how our actions build or diminish it. Hence, the network effect creates a level of opportunity and challenge.