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Cisco Renews Focus on Network Engineers

As Cisco expanded beyond switching and routing, network engineers had to put up with buggy code and a loss of innovation. The company is finally showing network engineers they haven’t been forgotten.

But I believe Cisco’s focus is shifting back to the customer. And not just any customer, but the ones that makes up its core business: those who run value-added networks. This change has been building for a while. For instance, Flip is dead and Linksys has gone to Belkin. While Scientific-Atlanta is still on the books due to Cisco's interest in the global video market, rumors that Cisco considered selling it are a Google search away. More substantial changes appeared during Cisco Live in Orlando, where I felt like my old Cisco was back.

Here’s why.

The first customer-focused announcement was that of the Nexus 7700, which boasts front-to-back airflow, along with the F3 line card announcement. True front-to-back airflow is a big deal in big data center design. The 7700 is also providing a way forward for shops needing to aggregate lots of 40-GbE and 100-GbE ports in a single chassis. Meanwhile, the F3's unique ASIC hearkens to the customer need for a single line card that can do it all.

The next big piece of news was that of Nexus Validation Testing. NVT is a new software testing program within Cisco designed to improve quality assurance. The NVT process builds network topologies like a customer would build them, configures software features like a customer would configure them and then tests code. Failures in the testing process prevent the code from being released to the public.

If you're wondering how Cisco did testing before, my understanding is that features were tested individually, and not in the context of a fully built network infrastructure with several features deployed simultaneously. While the old process could detect specific bugs in individual features, the new process can detect the sorts of bugs that only appear in a complex production network environment. The result is that NX-OS (and eventually other operating systems in Cisco's lineup) will have been thoroughly tested in customer-like environments and the bugs resolved before being made available to customers. No longer will customer networks be doing Cisco's QA work for dot-zero releases.

Cisco also demonstrated its Virtual Internet Routing Lab. While not officially released yet, VIRL lets networking teams mock up a network topology and run data through it to validate designs, test features, and so on. My understanding is that it will come in three flavors: cloud-based, appliance-based and stand-alone installation (on a system with lots and lots of RAM). VIRL supports models that run various flavors of IOS, as well as NX-OS. And while strictly a rumor, I've heard from several different folks that a free version aimed at engineers working on certifications is likely.

Detractors will point out that perhaps front-to-back airflow should have showed up with the first iteration of the Nexus 7000 line. And perhaps mocking up customer networks to validate new network operating system code is an obvious QA step to take before releasing the code to customers. And maybe VIRL has been a long time coming. Those are reasonable criticisms. But my point here isn't to beat up Cisco for early design decisions or for how long it's taken for NVT and VIRL to become realities. Rather, I'm elated to be able to say that Cisco is heading in the right direction for its customers. Yes, it's a big ship to turn, but Cisco is listening to feedback and making the changes needed.

Ethan Banks, CCIE #20655, is a hands-on networking practitioner who has designed, built and maintained networks for higher education, state government, financial institutions, and technology corporations. Ethan is also a host of the Packet Pushers Podcast. The technical ... View Full Bio

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