The annual Cisco Live conference in Europe brings together thousands of Cisco customers, partners, and employees to learn about and explore the latest Cisco technologies. Characterized by its interactive labs, demos, and live streaming, the event requires the rapid creation and reiteration of a powerful network. To build and operate it, Cisco engineers converge onsite from all across the company.
The team of individuals responsible for the network, which has grown every year as the size and complexity of the network has grown, ranges from early-in-career associate systems engineers to experienced CCIEs, technical leaders, and distinguished engineers. Many of these people return every year. Let me take you on a walk down memory lane, to demonstrate how the team has changed at each level over time.
The switch to automation
When the team first began building out the network for Cisco Live in Europe, the Network Operations Center (NOC) was a relatively small team and operated in a heavily siloed manner. There was no centralized automation, which meant a lot of configuration by hand and per device. This manual configuration approach brought challenges that were compounded by the fact that the Cisco Live network was very dynamic, often needing last-minute changes either driven by stakeholder needs or venue oddities. The team was very reactive and, because there wasn’t pervasive network visibility or strong holistic automation, this led to long hours.
In 2015, we needed to redesign the data center for Cisco Live Europe. I led this project. If I had to add a new VLAN, it meant manually configuring four switches, four UCS fabrics, and 16 compute hosts. Carefully applying the necessary commands on all of the devices took a good 20 minutes – while the network was running. I didn’t want to ever do that again. So, since I had been spreading the message of automation at Cisco Live in various breakout sessions, it was time to practice what I preached. I began to build scripts that would automate the whole process.
At the 2016 Cisco Live, none of the configuration had to be applied by hand. Instead of taking 20 minutes to configure one VLAN, four new VLANs were created in two minutes. This successful use of automation was addictive. The next year, since we were using a similar data center architecture, I spent more time building scripts to monitor the health of the data center, the services running in it and the network itself. This allowed all of us to proactively mitigate potential issues, such as routing table changes, DHCP pool exhaustion, interfaces going into an error-disabled state and devices becoming unreachable.
Growth in a shifting landscape
Over the years, both Cisco Live and the network operations team have grown. Eight years ago, there were about 5,000 attendees and a team of 35 operations engineers. At the 2018 Cisco Live in Barcelona, there were about 15,000 attendees and a team of 70 network operations engineers, many of whom were new to Cisco and participating in the NOC for the first time. Each one of them played an important role in delivering an automation-centric, production-class network; many of them had feedback for how we can do better next year. It’s interesting to note that while the size of the event has tripled in eight years, the NOC team has only doubled. The capacity of the network, as well as the number of services, will continue to increase, and because of increased use of automation, the NOC team can more than keep up.
Network interactions are changing – from manual configuration to driven by automation and orchestration and now highly intent-focused. However, what will not change is the need for engineers at every skill level. Junior engineers will use more web-based portals or Application Programming Interface (API) invocations to interact with the network. They’ll use the terminal less. Senior engineers will use web-based tools, too, but they will be simulating new network designs and architectures. They will also use APIs to build custom integrations that tie the network tightly to the core business, creating a true digital differentiator. And as the landscape continues to shift and change, the value of the network engineer is higher than ever.
To learn more about how you can take your networking career to the next level, explore our course on Designing and Implementing Cisco Network Programmability. Or if you’re a software developer, learn more about the network in Developing with Cisco Network Programmability.