Network Management – How to get started

Network Management Skills

In the last few years, I’ve noticed that I’m a little different. It’s not just because I wear coloured socks or my hair looks like I style after Albert Einstein.  I noticed that I’ve developed a different skill set than the majority of my pre-sales or post-sales network professional peers. What skills you ask?  Network Management and Operations.

Why I choose to develop Network Management skills

About five years ago, I took a look at the market and thought ” This stuff is complicated “.  Earth shattering observation, right?   It sounds simple, but then I started looking at some of the tools we had at the time and I realized that NMS tools could really help to automate not only the information gathering, but also the configuration tasks in our networks.  At the time, we had a cool little tool called 3Com Network Director.  It ran on a single PC. No web interface and it really only managed 3Com gear. But it was better than running CLI commands all day long. And the monitoring aspects really helped my customers identify and resolve problems quickly.  This was a moment of inspiration for me.  I choose to develop skills in network management and operations.

Let me say that again.

I choose to develop skills in network management and operations. 

I didn’t choose to develop skills in 3ND, or IMC, or Solarwinds, Cisco Prime, or any of the various other tools. Overtime, I’ve gained experience on all of those products, but I would say my true value is having gone through the process to develop skills in the sub disciplines of network management. Learning a product is only a very small part of the whole domain. 

What does that mean? 

It’s easy to learn a product. They have bells and whistles. Click this check box. fill in this box. etc..    Those skills are important. But they don’t help us understand how to apply the product to resolve our customers business challenges. They don’t help us understand when not to click that box. And they don’t help us to design a network management strategy, or to consult with our customers on operational efficiencies and what can be done to help increase their networks stability, to reduce the MTTR times, or to mitigate pressures put on the operations team. Learning the domain knowledge has helped me to understand WHY we have developed the product features and what they are to be used for.

My Learning Roadmap

To put it simply, I consumed everything I could on the subject. It’s amazing how much free information is out there if you set your mind on finding it. If anyone’s looking to increase their skills in this area, I’ve put together the following list of resources that have really helped me in this domain. I’ve tried to keep this out of vendor specific products, but I’m sure you’ll find that any product you choose will probably have training and learning resources around it as well. This is in NO way inclusive, there are a lot of resource out there. I highly encourage everyone to read, watch, and listen to as many of them as you can and to think about them critically.

Free Resource

Solarwinds SCP training  The Solarwinds SCP training is online and free. What I really liked about this training is that it’s really focused on network management, netman protocols, and the operational aspects of network management. There are, of course, some product specific aspects to the training, but in general this is a really good primer on network management in general. Oh… did I mention there’s a bunch of videos as well?  Great stuff to rip and put on your tablet when you’re stuck on a plane and you’ve seen all the movies. 

Solarwinds has also provided a bunch of whitepapers going further in depth on network management specific subjects which are a great reference.  If you’re interested there’s also the Solarwinds Certified Professional certification if you’re looking for a way to validate your knowledge.

The Information Technology Infrastructure Library  (ITIL) is a compilation of IT service management practices compiled over the last 30 years. There’s a lot of great stuff in here. The books are expensive though.  There is an entire industry that’s sprung up around ITSM.  If you have some commute time to spare, I would highly suggest typing in the words “ITSM” into your favourite Podcast app and sit back and listen. 

If you’re interested, there’s also the ITILv3 Foundations certification if you’re looking for a way to validate your knowledge.

Blogs and Podcast

Social Media is a great way to learn how people apply ITIL concepts to the real world. I particularly like http://www.itskeptic.org as it’s got a great following of a bunch of smart people who disagree on a regular basis. You never know when the customer you’re going into is operating in a traditional ITIL based ops model, perhaps they are using the Microsoft OperationsFramework, or perhaps they’ve moved on to Agile and DevOps. It’s good to have at least a cursory knowledge in all of this approaches to IT operations, to mention traditional Network Management Frameworks like FCAPS and eTOM

Paid resources

Books are a great way to learn about network management and operations. Here’s my  abbreviated reading list. These are the reference books that sit on my shelf within easy reach. 

Network Maturity Model – This book is actually a academic thesis focused on trying to extend the CMMI models to network specific capabilities maturity models. Of course, network operations is part of the capabilities of an organization, so there’s a lot of great content in here.  The book is definitely academic, but it’s got a LOT of great content in it, assuming you can get through all of the required footnotes and pointers to other academic works. 

Fundamentals of EMS, NMS, and OSS/BSS – This books is wonderful. It covers all aspects of traditional telecom management from FCAPS to eTOM, as well as looking at OSS/BSS architectures which usually exist only in Service Provider networks. Great information in here.  My biggest problem with this book is the font size. I have glasses and it’s tiny.  Worth the effort to make it through, but plan on multiple reading sessions. This is not a book you’re going to get through in one sitting.

Network Management Fundamentals – Cisco Press book that’s a great read. A lot of information in here is covered in some of the other books. What I like about this is that it written as an introduction to network management for people already working in the field. This is not an academic text.

Network Management: Accounting and Performance Strategies – Cisco Press book again. This one focuses strictly on performance management, focusing a lot on Netflow and how it can be applied to accounting and performance in large network.  

Performance and Fault Management – Cisco Press Book again. This is an older book, so the technologies discussed may not be as relevant as they once were. The nice thing though is that we’re talking about operational models and processes here, so the principles still apply. 

VoIP Performance Management and Optimization – Last Cisco Press book. This book looks at the operational aspects of VoIP/IP Telephone/Unified Communications networks specifically. There are a lot of very detailed recommendations in here that can be leveraged to give customer guidance on what they should be doing and what they should be monitoring. This book has helped me a few times when working with customer who have chosen to implement a dual-vendor strategy and want to have HP Intelligent Management Center managing and monitoring there Cisco Callmanager environment in addition to their network.

The Phoenix Project – This book is written as a novel to teach people about the DevOps movement. This is a MUST read for anyone interested in IT operations and the current trends in the industry. It also will help get a first hand accounting of what many customers go through. Read it. Read it. Read it.

The Visible Ops – From the same authors of the Phoenix Project. This book tries to tie DevOps and ITIL together. Interesting read. Many people see DevOps and ITIL as two opposites of the spectrum. Most have had a bad ITIL experience and now the pendulum swings in the other direction. Finding a happy middle is a good goal. I’m not sure they’ve hit the mark, but it’s a start.

Network Management: Principals and Practice – Expensive book. Good information, but the technology is also quite dated. Concepts and knowledge is great. Good diagrams, but it’s sometimes hard to get through the hubs and token ring.

Domain Related Knowledge

Network Management is really about ensuring stability and helping the business to meet their operational requirements with the greatest efficiency possible. In that light, it’s important to understand what some of those operational burdens are. In recent years, businesses have had a ton of GRC (governance, risk, and compliance) requirements put on the operations teams that threaten to break an already overloaded team.   On the bright side, I believe that although they have been forced into these requirements through legislation and governance like SOX, COSO, PCI-DSS, HIPPA, Gramm-Leach-Bliley, etc.  have actually forced network operations teams to get much tighter on their controls, forcing us into more stable and secure networks. 

note: This list is US specific, if international readers can post some examples in the comments section, I would be happy to add them to the list of references.

In my experience, one of the issues with GRC requirements in general is that they are very rarely descriptive of what actually needs to be done. They have generic statements like “monitor network access”  or ” secure the it assets”.  

ISACA noticed this and put together the COBIT framework which is a very detailed list of over 30 high-level processes and over 200 specific IT control objectives. Most of the GRC requirements can be mapped to specific COBIT objectives. COBIT is a good thing to be familiar with. 

 Next Steps

As we move forward in IT, operations and orchestration skills are starting to become some of the hottest requirements in IT. 

Whether it’s products like HP’s Cloudsystem, or industry wide projects like OpenStack, CloudStack or Eucalyptus, having solid Operational knowledge and skills is going to be a requirement for anyone seeking the coveted Trusted IT Advisor role in any customer. 

For anyone looking to gain or just brush up on their network management specific skills.

I would recommend

  • Solarwinds videos as a place to get started with the basics of network management
  • become familiar with the basics of COBIT and GRC in general..  Doing some reading on the various GRC requirements that apply to your specific regions and customers is also a great way to change the conversation from speeds and feeds to the challenges of the business. 
  • Read on OpenStack
  • Learn about ITIL and DevOps

Social Media is always a great way to stay current as well. One of the biggest challenges of operations is the best way to learn it is to do it. Unfortunately, many of the really good Network professionals, whether pre-sales or professional services, don’t get an opportunity as they are usually hands-off or on turning over the keys to an ops team after the project has been delivered. Socialmedia helps to connect to the daily challenges of people who are living in the trenches. 

Get some ITSM experience. If you don’t work in a company where you get to babysit the same environment, you can always do what I did and experiment with it at home.

Anyone else have any suggestions on how to get up to speed? Feel free to comment below!

@netmanchris

HP Discover 2013

It’s that time of the year again.  HP Discover 2013 is happening this weekend in Las Vegas and I’m actually sitting in a hotel room wondering just how hot it’s going to get outside while I write this. 

 

I’ve actually been involved in HP Discover, previous known as TechForum, since 2010 in one way or another, but this is the first year where I’m officially involved as part of the HP Networking Technical Marketing organization.

Without letting any secrets out, it’s going to be a good show for us, but I’m really looking forward to checking out the HP Discover Zone, not to mention the various things that are going on at the HP Innovation Theatre

Some of the official blogs have covered a bit on session highlights  as well as the who’s who role call for the Social Media program. 

 

What I love about Discover

Learn about HP

Hewlett Packard is a HUGE company. To put this in context, HP has more employees than the top 26 smallest Countries. Not cities. Countries.  As you can imagine, it’s tough to keep up to date on all the things that are happening across the entire company. HP Discover is a place where we all come together and the curious can learn about what the other parts of the companies are doing, not to mention meet some great people. 

Learn about HP’s Partners 

The fact that the largest IT companies of the world are represented there as well as partner’s is wonderful. We get a up close and personal with VMware, Microsoft, Citrix, Brocade and many others, large and small, who have something to show. Pretty amazing to see all this technology in one place. It’s a phenomenal place to learn about what’s going on in the whole industry for someone who’s willing to brave the show floor and engage with the people who have come out to educate people about their products and services. It truly is a place to Discover. ( <- see what I did there? ).

 

Talking with Customers

The one session I did want to mention is HOL 2809 , HP Intelligent Management Center custom scripting,  I”m co-presenting with Aaron Paxon @neelix and Lindsay Hill @northlandboy.  I’m very excited about this presentation, not just because I’m presenting with some great guys, but because it really represents to me the beauty of the SoMe community. 

Lindsay is an HP partner, Aaron is an HP customer, and I’m an HP employee.

We’ve spent the last few month getting together the session abstract working over email, twitter, google+ and even the phone!  Amazing how technology can bring us all together. I’m hoping that everyone who shows up for our session gets a good show, but also walks away with something they can use. 

 

What I hope to get from the week

 

My goals for this year are, in no order of importance, the following

  • Meet as many people as possible
  • Visit as many people on the HP Discover Zone as possible
  • Learn more about vCloud and Azure
  • Blog and Tweet about what’ going on.

As this is the first major event in my new role, it’s going to be great to see the show from an insider’s perspective. I’m not sure how much I’m going to be able to deliver on my goals, but at least it’s going to be a great learning experience and that, after all, is the thing I love the most. 

 

Hope to see you all there,

 

@netmanchris

ADHD – Tools that keep me sane

So month ago, I wrote this first piece on ADHD and got an amazing amount of feedback. I also promised that I would put together a list of the tools that I use to help work with my predispositions rather than against them. ( I refuse to use the word handicap ).

So I started writing this piece, and then I got distracted. ( No surprises here, right? )

UPDATE: By Request, Here’s a quick video that goes through the actual workflow of how I use these three tools together.

An introduction to OPML

So the real unifier for everything I do is a little technology called OPML.   When you break it down, t’s just a specific kind of XML, which at the end of the day makes it plain text with some headers.

The Flow

As anyone who’s blessed with ADHD can tell you, it’s all about the flow. Not to get to philosophical, but for me, the biggest part of taking advantage of my ADHD is really about learning how to massage and direct the distractions into productivity. There’s no point in trying to stop water when it’s flowing down hill, but you can nudge it, direct it, and get it to go where you want by working with it. OPML allows me to do that.

In my previous role as a pre-sales engineer, and now as a technical marketing engineer, I have to do a LOT of presentations. Sometimes I’m presenting my own content. Sometimes I’m presenting others content. And now, I’m creating content for others to present. In the new role, I also find myself having to create a lot of documents. For me, the process is all about putting together the framework for the piece of content that I’m working on.  Once I’ve got that down, it’s actually pretty easy to just fill out the sections as you’ll see below.

My workflow

There are a lot of APPs that allow the import and export of OPML. The ones below are just the ones that I’ve really attached myself to. They might not be perfect for everyone, but they do work for me. If there’s interest in this ( comment below please! ) I can expand more on any of these tools. To be honest, I probably scratch the surface of the functionality in each of them. But I think that’s actually what I like the most about this combination.

They are easy to use.

The tools help me get my ideas out.

They don’t get in the way of it. 

My work flow basically falls into the following

  • Capture the idea
  • Create the structure
  • Finish the content

I purposely didn’t order these as a numbered list because sometimes it just doesn’t work out as a linear process. On some projects, I’m handed someone else’s content and I end up having to edit or rebuild it. The beauty about the process for me is that I can jump in the water anywhere I want and still end up where I want to be.

Capture the ideas

MindNode

MindNode is a mind-mapping software. For a long time, I heard about mind-mapping, but I really didn’t see how, or why I could use it.  It always felt to me like there wasn’t really a point in just putting things on  (digital) paper. I’m in networking, so I have a VERY vidid imaginary world in my head. And if it’s clear in my head. Why put it on paper right?

So why the mind-map?

Because it gets all the ideas and sections out and let’s you start manipulating them. Turning them this way and that, and replacing them wherever it makes sense.

This chaos is actually how my brain processes normally. (I know – It’s kind of a scary place, right?)  What I’ve found is that by simply putting all the information together on one place, I get to start using my visual processing skills and I start to use the ADHD superhuman ability to make intuitive jumps and I start to understand the relationships between all the items on the page.

And often, they are not what I would have thought when I had the picture in my mind. This is the coolest part. It’s funny how much you can see that you didn’t see when you use your mind’s eye.

The other thing that’ super cool about MindNode for me is that it’s available both for iOS and OSX – Complete with iCloud sync’ing capabilities. This means that I can work where I want, with whatever device I happen to have in front of me.

If I could ask for one more thing ( and I did ask the developer for this! ) it would be for the iOS version to have the ability to create hyperlinks on the nodes. This is invaluable for me on the OSX version as I can link out to other pieces of content that I want to use as reference or source material for whatever it is that I’m working on.

Oh well. Life can’t be perfect, right?

Once I’ve got everything in MindNode and all the chaos is on paper, it’s time to start pulling some structure out of the void.  So at this point, I export from MindNode into OPML format and I’m good to move to the next step.

Screen Shot 2013 06 01 at 4 53 35 PM

Create the structure

Outliner

Outliner is, as the name suggests, an outlining software. As opposed to MindNode which is sometimes just random semi-connected thoughts splattered on a page, Outliner forces me to work in a linear format. But not completely linear. 🙂

What I love about Outliner is it allows me to take entire sections, or nodes and their sub-nodes, and allows me to drag and drop it wherever I feel it belongs in the outline. I found this software about 3 years ago and I can tell you that my presentations instantly became better. By breaking out of powerpoint and just looking at the raw outline, I was able to see that there was often breaks in the flow of the presentation that were negatively affecting the audience’s ability to consume the message I was there to give.

A story is a series of connected events, but if you tell it in the wrong order, it doesn’t make sense as the audience doesn’t have the right background information to understand where you are in timeline. A presentation is the same way.

I can’t tell you the number of times that I grabbed a presentation that someone else created and then used outliner to make it flow in a much more logical sense.

So taking the OPML version of the mind map I created in MindNode above, I can now import it directly into Outliner and start to drag and drop the nodes around until the logical flow makes sense in terms of the content I’m creating.  You can also add notes, not to mention hyperlinks, etc.. in here which is a nice touch.

Screen Shot 2013 06 01 at 5 42 59 PM

Outliner is available only as an iOS application. But they have also provided a web app to be able to access your projects from a “real” computer.   I have to admit, it would be nice to have a “full” OSX application for the downtime when I’m on a plane, but to be honest, the iPad version is really nice and been able to use the touch interface to drag and drop the nodes on the outline around is actually a big deal for me.

Having ADHD means that anything that lets me keep moving is a good thing.  I can’t tell you the number of passengers who sat beside me that were very glad my fingers were flying around my iPad rather than my foot tapping the entire flight. They should all really be sending CarbonFin a donation I think.

Once I’ve got the the outline to the point where I’m happy with it, I export back into OPML again and then… on to the next step. The actual document creation.

Finish the content

Powerpoint

Honestly at this point, I just start building based on the outline. There is a way to export the outline into word somehow, but I’ve never found it difficult enough to worry about it. If I had to reverse engineer the outline. I usually put the slide number in the node header and then just drag and drop whole sections around. Perhaps a little manual, but it works for me.

Scrivener

Scrivener is something I discovered just a few weeks ago and, although I’m still learning the in’s and out’s of the tool, it’s really amazing so far. It’s got SOOOO many possibilities for me that it’s now fully integrated into my workflow. Again, OPML is the key that makes this all work together.

Scrivener is really intended to be for writing long form documents, and it seems that it’s probably more aimed at writing novels and such. But I find it great for writing technical documentation. Most technical documents are split into sections anyways.  If you are working on a documenting a solution, the ability to split everything into individual sections is invaluable.

Imagine writing a document on a user access control solution?  You have at least the following sections

  • Windows Active Directory Integration
  • RADIUS Configuration
  • Policy Configuration
  • Device Configuration ( and each device type could have it’s own specific configuration)
  • dot1x supplicant configuration
Instead of writing a single monolithic tome, why not write small manageable chunks. Or document-lets as I’ve taken to calling them.

Screen Shot 2013 06 02 at 10 01 01 PM

Scrivener: The Pros

There’s a few features that I really like about scrivener

  • Drag and drop sections – scrivener allows you to treat a document more like a file system. You can put sections of the document in a folder. You can split the section into mini pieces which can be completed one by one. You can also move the sections, or individual pieces around if you decide that they don’t belong in the order you want them to anymore.
  • Research Section – At the bottom of every scrivener project, there’s a reference section. This is a place where you can import all sorts of things. Like PDFs, other documents, etc.. I also find this a very useful place to keep pieces of text that I’m going to reuse over a longer period of time.  The nice thing is any document can be converted into a scrivener template, along with all the reference material. So if you find yourself, like me, having to reuse pieces of material repeatedly, this is a really nice touch.
  • Import – Scrivener allows you to import from a lot of different sources. OPML (obviously!), but also word, pdf, etc.  If it’s OPML, then the folders and document-lets are automatically created for you. If it’s word, you can just click on a place in the document and then split the document where your cursor lies. This makes it very easy to grab an existing document and quickly reverse engineer the outline. Then I can export into OPML and move back to step 2 to see if the outline even makes sense. If it doesn’t, I can drag and drop the document-lets around into what makes more sense for me.
  • Export – Scrivener allows you to export into a TON of different formats. From classics like Microsoft Word or RTF, to MultiMarkdown, or even directly to ePUB or kindle. The ability to export to all these different formats is going to be really really useful in my current role. I can’t tell you how easy it was to create a ePUB version of the document I was working on and see it minutes later on my iPad. Very cool.
  • Export – The export is so powerful it requires two mentions. Remember the different folders and individual mini pieces I mentioned above? During the export, there are a TON of options, many of which I haven’t begin to explore yet. But one of the great ones is the ability to select only the folder or mini document-lets that I want and export only those.  This is really cool in that it let’s me produce three or four different pieces of material out of the same base-content. No crazy editing, cutting and pasting around between different Microsoft word documents for me anymore. And the fact that I can export the same way into MultiMarkdown means that I can then apply the style anyway I want.

Scrivener: The Cons

Now scrivener isn’t perfect. Here’s the short list of the issues that I have with it so far. Obviously, there’s nothing here that breaks it for me, but it is some things that you are going to have to deal with if you join me on this path.

  • Table of Contents: The application needs a TON of work on the table of contents functionality. It might be there somewhere, but it’s no intuitive. I also searched the forums, which are very well monitored by experts BTW, and it also seemed to be a point of contention for others.
  • Export: The export is awesome. But the one thing which it doesn’t do is export the style. I’m not talking about the fonts and the colours. That’s all great. I’m talking about the document metadata that classifies different text as a Title, heading 1, heading 2, heading 3, body, etc.  You know, the stuff that word uses to make the auto table of contents?  The nice thing is that there’s a fairly easy way to deal with this as long as you keep your formatting consistent throughout your work.

Final thoughts

There’s a lot of people in the world who are struggling to fight their ADHD. Like many people out there, I struggled for years before I was diagnosed. My report cards read like a page out of a Psychiatric Diagnostics book. Can’t sit still. Easily Distracted. Distracts others. Lack of Focus. Talks to much. Constant outburst in class. I had a lot of anger and I definitely had adrenaline addiction issues. Then I was faced with a diagnosis of ADHD and I made a decision to learn as much as I could about the condition. It’s not a disease. It’s not a issue, or problem. It’s just a different way of being.

Like almost everything in life, there’s a good side and a bad side. In my reading, I found a lot of examples of people who not only got by, but excelled BECAUSE of their ADHD, it was just a matter of finding the right perspective, and then creating a framework that allows us to mitigate our weaknesses, and that applies force multipliers to our strengths.  The work flow that I’ve put into place does just that for me.

I tried for years to get organized like everyone else. It didn’t work. Now, I use what works for me. I found a process that works with my flow, and not against it. And that’s a good thing.

@netmanchris