Daily Archives: November 14, 2012

On Network Engineers and Industry Eccentrics

On Network Engineers

Alan Cohen, former marketing VP at Nicira Networks (until just after it was acquired by VMware), wrote an engrossing piece on the rise and fall of “human IT middleware.” His article deals broadly with how system and network administrators are being displaced by software developers in an IT hierarchy reordered by datacenter virtualization, automation, and cloud computing.

Previously, the future of the networking professional has been discussed and debated in a number of forums. In early 2011, back in the veritable dark ages before the ascent of software-defined networking (SDN), Ziyad Basheer, writing at Greg Ferro’s EtherealMind, wondered about how automation tools would affect network administrators. In June of this year, Derick Winkworth (aka CloudToad), in his last column at Packet Pushers before he joined Juniper Networks, opined on the rise of network-systems engineers

Also at Packet Pushers, Ethan Banks subsequently argued that network engineers could survive the onslaught of SDN if they could adapt and master new skills, such as virtualization and network programmability.  Ivan Pepelnjak, though he sounded a more skeptical note on SDN, made a similar point with the aid of his “magic graphs.” 

Regardless of when SDN conquers the enterprise, the consensus is that now is  not the time for complacency. The message: Never stop learning, never stop evolving, and stay apprised of relevant developments. 

On Industry Eccentrics 

Another story this week led me to take a different stroll down memory lane. As I read about the truly bizarre case of John McAfee, recounted in news articles and in recollections of those who knew him, I was reminded of notable eccentrics in the networking industry.

Some of you wizened industry veterans might recall Cabletron Systems, from which Enterasys was derived, run in its idiosyncratic heyday by founders Bob Levine and Craig Benson.   There’s an old Inc. article from 1991, still available online, that captures some of the madness that was Cabletron. Here’s a snippet on Levine: 

He is, after all, prone to excess. Want to know how Levine has spent his newfound wealth? He bought a tank. A real one, with a howitzer on top and turrets that spin around. Last summer, for kicks, he chased a pizza-delivery boy, and the following day while “four-wheeling in the woods,” he ran smack into a tree. He emerged with one less tooth and a concussion. The buddy with him got 17 stitches. Levine also owns 15 guns, which he has, on occasion, used to shoot up his own sprinkler system. His 67-foot Hatteras is named Soldier of Fortune. Some people swear they’ve seen the magazine of the same name lying on his desk. “I’m not a mercenary or anything,” he says with a smile. “But if business ever goes bad. . . . “

Here’s an excerpt from the same article on Benson, who later served as Governor of New Hampshire

Last summer Benson joined 40 employees for a Sunday boat trip. Afterward he ordered two of them fired immediately. One had not even started yet. “I hated him,” says Benson, who was eventually persuaded to give the new hire a chance. At sales meetings, reports Kenneth Levine, it’s standard to conduct private polls on who will go next.

You cannot make this stuff up. Well, I couldn’t.

Lest you think networking’s only colorful characters were Cabletron’s dynamic duo, I’d like to reference Henry T. Nicholas III, Broadcom’s founder and former CEO. He even had a Vanity Fair article written about him, though ultimately the lurid charges against Nicholas were dropped.

Cisco’s Chambers Sends Messages on Canada, ZTE

Cisco Systems reported its fiscal first-quarter earnings yesterday. While the market responded favorably, both in after-hours trading and in regular trading early today, some analysts questioned whether Cisco has embarked on an extended period of smooth sailing or is merely experiencing calm before further storms.

That particular vein of prognostication, while interesting, is not what I want to address today. Instead, I want to draw attention to comments made in the last couple days by Cisco CEO John Chambers, both in interviews and on Cisco’s earnings call. 

As we know, Cisco possesses a vast cash hoard, most of which sits offshore.  It’s no secret that Chambers and the Cisco board of directors would like to see the U.S. government provide a repatriation-tax holiday. That was unlikely to happen before a U.S. presidential election, but now that the voting has occurred and the ballots have been counted, Cisco and other U.S.-headquartered companies with massive amounts of offshore cash might be anxious for some near-term tax relief.

Oh, Canada? 

In a series of interviews this week, Cisco’s Chambers repeatedly extolled the virtues of Canada as a potential destination for a large portion of Cisco’s cash holdings.  Chambers says Canada is the world’s “easiest place to do business,” citing the country’s federal corporate-tax rate of 15 percent and its “great education system.” 

Now, Chambers could sincere about what he says about Canada — as a Canadian, I certainly have nothing against the place, and I would welcome Cisco investments in the country — but I think Chambers has other motives. He’s talking about moving money to Canada, but he hasn’t done it yet. When people talk before they do something, they’re often sending messages, either explicit or implicit. In this case, Chambers is speaking to the U.S. government. He’s saying: “Hey, if you don’t give me my tax holiday, I’m not going to repatriate my cash to the U.S. Instead, I’m going to take a huge pile of it to Canada, where I get a better deal from the government.”  

If the U.S. government doesn’t budge, would he actually follow through on a Canadian cash expedition? It’s possible, I suppose, but Canada, while offering lower federal levels of corporate taxation and an education system that Chambers lauds, doesn’t match the U.S. in the range of investment opportunities it would offer. How many Canadian companies, for example, would Cisco wish to acquire?  Answer: Not many — and, no, Research in Motion (RIM) would not be among them. 

China Questions

Yes, Cisco could hire some Canadian engineers, provide early-stage funding to startup companies, and spend some money on relevant research initiatives at Canadian universities. But that would not require tens of billions of dollars. So, while Chambers is talking about Canada, he’s actually talking to his own government in Washington, D.C. 

Now, let’s shift our focus to China, another country mentioned by Chambers on the Cisco earnings call. Cisco’s sales in China were flat in the first quarter, but the company’s leadership team knows that China will be critical to Cisco’s future growth. Despite the national-security concerns that have inhibited expansion by Huawei and ZTE in the United States, Chambers does not foresee a trade war with China, which has amplified recent rhetoric about what it perceives as Western protectionism

ZTE: Back in Cisco’s Good Books?

As for Huawei, Chambers said Cisco is more than holding is own competitively against China’s largest networking company. What’s more — and this is the interesting part — Chambers said he sees ZTE as more a partner than a competitor, and indicated that he’s open to “expanding that relationship.” If one considers ZTE’s product portfolio in relation to Huawei’s, what Chambers says make sense. But there’s another aspect to this story (as there often is). 

Some of you with relatively good intermediate-term memory will recall that Reuters reported on October 8 that Cisco had ended a longstanding sales partnership with ZTE “after an internal investigation into allegations that the Chinese telecommunications equipment maker sold Cisco networking gear to Iran.” What’s more, Cisco spokesman John Earnhardt issued the following unambiguous statement to Bloomberg: “Cisco has no current relationship with ZTE.” 

Then again, the Guardian reported the following day that Cisco had “curtailed” its seven-year partnership with ZTE. So, you know, things change, and perhaps they are changing again.