Practical Lessons You Can Learn From Network Pros
Much of what we get right out of the box, off the shelves of CompUSA and BestBuy, started somewhere up in 'the enterprise,' and found its way down to us as a way to differentiate between all the low-end products on the market.
There are a lot of things that don't scale up very well, and there are few places that's more obvious than in the world of networking.
On the "problems with up-scaling" side, let's take that handy Web interface you manage your wireless AP with. It's great for you when there's only one AP to manage, and it might have a few convenience features that would make a dozen or so livable. But think about having to deal with several dozen, or a few hundred. That Web interface is suddenly sort of a drag.
So if you want to know the difference between your off-the-shelf Linksys AP and something Cisco's selling to the suits under the Aeronet moniker, don't focus so much on the hardware. That's a fine red herring for the gearheads and bbs bloviators to chase around, but it's just one part of the equation. Those differences are going to blur more and more over time, too, because, believe it or not, network capacity is a solved problem for all but the most rapidly growing organizations.
How about things that scale down well? In networking, that's lots of things. In fact, that's part of what keeps life interesting for those of us who aren't sitting around in the NOC contemplating how grand our many and varied responsibilities are. Much of what we get right out of the box, off the shelves of CompUSA and BestBuy, started somewhere up in "the enterprise," and found its way down as a way to differentiate between all the low-end products on the market. Consider network-aware printers, networked storage devices, high-speed switches, and occasionally features in our favorite security software.
I once had to deal with a SOHO "network printer solution" that wasn't really a networked printer solution, worked only half the time (people had to shout from desk to desk that they were printing or half the computers in the office would lock up for a minute or two while the print clients sorted themselves out), and cost more than $100 for three serial connectors and "special cables" that looked for all the world like your basic "bumblebee/christmas tree" two-pair phone cord.
These days? There are respectable SOHO laser printers that don't cost too much more than my three serial adapters and phone cable and come with the network interface built in. Why not? The company that makes the thing probably recouped its research and development while it was selling that tech as the Next Big Thing to bigger outfits ... now it's a few pennies worth of parts and a couple of developer hours to sort out the installation wizard, and it gives the product a feature its competitors don't have for all of a fiscal quarter ... or maybe just a week or two. Ten years ago, that sort of functionality notched the price of some gear into the stratosphere, at least for us small fry.
Something else that scales down pretty well is knowledge. Your SOHO network might not be fending off regular DoS attacks, and you aren't supporting hundreds of users with as many or more servers and workstations, but if you watch the enterprise space, you can learn something whether it's a sense of what's coming next or how you should be thinking when it comes to security or basic management considerations. Is a lot of the stuff enterprise users deal with overkill for a small network? Yes. Should you live your life in the same state of paranoia an enterprise IT security chief lives in? Nah. I don't know about you, but the closest we have to "social engineering" or "penetration testing" in my house is my 3-year-old's fascination with the DVD cabinet.
But when I'm wearing my other hat, as the editor of a site all about enterprise networking, I find there's plenty for me to mull from the articles my writers over there are churning out, even if "five nines" usually just means that 3-year-old is cheating at poker again.
Case in point: Network printing. Remember how I mentioned how important it is for device management to be scalable among enterprise users? Something that makes enterprise admins' eyes light up when it comes to printers on their networks is ensuring that they can get drivers to their networked clients. When I assigned a story explaining how to use Linux and its CUPS printing system to push drivers out to Windows clients, I read the article, posted it, then made a note to double back and look into that for my own network. There wasn't a profound short-term benefit in it. At least, not the same benefit an admin staring down a few hundred clients would receive, but over the life of my network I'll be glad I taught my server a new trick that makes bringing up a new Windows machine, or inviting others to use my network when the stop by with their laptops, that much easier.
How about security? It's a big issue among enterprise users both because of casual drive-by system cracking attempts and more determined efforts to steal information or exploit a single vulnerable system of little importance to get a foothold to go to work on a more critical system further upstream and inside the firewall. Do most of us deal with that? Nope. Not usually. But we all like peace of mind. So maybe an article considering the merits of Windows, Linux or Unix that was written with enterprise admins in mind will worry about a bit more than we need to, but when it offers an insight like this one:
You don't have to stretch your imagination too far to realize that what's sauce for the corporate goose is probably also sauce for your SOHO gander. If you've been wondering whether to make that file server your small business has grown into an old Windows box or maybe a chance to experiment with Linux or OpenSolaris, there's some useful wisdom from someone who wasn't worrying about how you store your mp3 stash when he wrote that article.
One more example? Let's loop back around to where we started, with wireless security. Enterprise users have a lot more headaches and worries than we do, but they have quite a few of the same tools we do to address those headaches and need to know about the strengths and weaknesses of assorted wireless security protocols you probably use on your own WLAN. And they have a professional interest in getting to the bottom of outrageous security myths so they can figure out what will keep their networks safe.
Should you go out and get a Cisco certification to run your own WLAN? Or spend all your time poring over articles written for an enterprise audience? No, you shouldn't. Life's too short, and most of our needs are pretty simple. But it never hurts to skim the headlines now and then, see what the pros are talking about, and look for ways that you can benefit from knowledge much bigger outfits pay a premium to know.Add to del.icio.us | DiggThis
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