Networks: How Do You Know Who Is Qualified?

 

How do you know who is qualified to design, build, and maintain your network?

May 30, 2012. By Justin Franks

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This is directed towards IT managers, IT executives, and Network Engineers/Architects of large and small organizations.

 

It is important to understand that Telecommunications is the foundation of networking. Everything related to the Internet has come from the Telecommunications industry. Concepts and fundamentals from telecommunications were simply applied to the Internet. Every “new” Internet technology is simply an adoption of an older telecommunications principle. So, a true network engineer is actually a telecommunications engineer. A true network engineer does not limit their knowledge to a particular vendor, the Internet, routers or switches. A true network engineer will consider all types of networking techniques and technologies in their design options. Some of these may include radio networks, cellular networks, telephone networks, cable TV networks, utility networks as in electrical power, satellite networks, Internet networks, private computer networks, etc… Within these various networks are various organizations; Government, military, financial, educational, public, private, etc…

All of these networks can transmit binary data by way of conversion. So when interviewing people and trying to ascertain their experience level of network engineering please remember to include other types of networks besides the Internet. Because the Internet is not always the most practical way to move data from point A to point B. However, in this document we will focus on Internet related networking.

 

As they say, nothing beats experience. Let’s think about an experienced Jedi Knight or Samurai warrior. Not only are they trained in fighting tactics and weapons but they have years and years of experience behind them. That is why they are able to reach the status of Jedi or Samurai. Now, they may not know about the latest and greatest swords. They may not know all of the features of the new light sabers. They may not know who designed the Samurai sword or where the steel came from or even how old it is. Heck, they may have not even learned exactly how a light saber works. But put it in their hands and let them get a feel for it and they will be able to take on just about any challenge.

 

Who qualifies who? The problem is that most managers and executives are not very technical. So what happens is that they rely on technical people to qualify other technical people. Why is this a problem? It is a problem because most technical people often place much more emphasis on granular knowledge than experience. Why? Because they love technology. They love all the new toys, gadgets, bells and whistles. They want the coolest, fastest, and newest things even though it may not be practical or reasonable to use a certain piece of hardware or software. But hey, it’s cool, right? So let’s find a way to use it even though we don’t really need it.

“What!? You don’t know the features of the new Light Saber 2100?”

“No, sorry.”

“What is your name?”

“Yoda.”

“And what is your background?”

“Many years Jedi I have been. Many wars, many battle. Knowledge of the force I possess.”

“Well Yoda, I don’t think you are a good fit for the Sr. Jedi position. We really need someone who is up to speed on the 2100.”

*Later that day management and executives ask*

“So, how was the interview with Yoda?”

“It was ok. But he knew nothing about the Light Saber 2100. Any Sr. Jedi should know about it.”

“Thanks for the report. Keep looking for a Sr. Jedi, ok? We really need one.”

*The next day*

“Thanks for coming in to see us. So, do you know about the new 2100?”

“Sure do, every button and every contour. I even helped the maker design some of the Application-specific integrated circuit (ASICs).”

“No kidding!”

“Yup. I even have a L2100 certificate.”

“Do you know about the force?”

“Yeah, I read all about it. I even went to Force School. So I know about all the force levels.”

“Have you ever been in any battles or wars?”

“Yup, 500 simulated battles. My score was over 95% on every one. Three real battles and one real war.”

“Did you ever have to kill anyone in real life?”

“…almost… they were lucky that my LCG (Laser Cell Generator) had a glitch just above the titanium coupling that holds the ER (Electromagnetic Ramrod) in place.”

“Yeah, I heard those can be problematic…”

*Later that day*

“I found the perfect Sr. Jedi for us!”

“Great! Tell us about them.”

“They helped design the L2100, have a L2100 certificate AND went to Force School, top of the class.”

“Experience?”

“Five-hundred simulated battles, all over 95% score! Three real battles and one real war!”

“Perfect, looks like we found our Sr. Jedi. From now on we only want people with L2100 certificates, ok?”

“Agreed.”

 

Just like anything else, when it comes to networks experience is king. Don’t get me wrong, formal education and certificates are great. Do network certificates really qualify a person? No. They help to qualify a person but they do not qualify a person. We all know that the purpose of formal education and certificates is to help train ones thinking ability and help them grasp fundamental concepts. The best of both worlds is someone who has formal education as well as deep and broad experience. But finding those types of people is very rare. And when technical people encounter others who may be a threat to their position, well, they don’t always give glowing reports to management and executives. I cannot tell you how many times a CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, the most advanced networking certificate one can possess) has given me bad advice, bad configurations and approached a problem/solution poorly. Certificates don’t mean much if the individual does not have depth of real world hands on experience.

 

If you are a manager, executive or decision maker how can you determine who is qualified? Simple, you need to ask questions that expose ones experience, not their technical knowledge. Don’t be afraid. You can interview extremely technical people without relying on other technical people to qualify them. Still don’t believe me? Consider this, you want to hire an Architect to design and build your home. But you yourself are not an Architect. So how can you determine their ability? You need to ask them questions about their past projects then get references and referrals, right? Same with network engineers and architects. Still don’t know what to ask? Relax. The first thing you need to know is that there are three types of network categories today. A network engineer or architect typically specializes in one of the three types of networks.

1.     ISP (Internet Service Provider) networks. As in networks that supply internet access to individuals and organizations. ISP’s also interconnect with other ISPs (known as peering). ISP’s may also be called the “backbone” of the internet. ISP networks are the largest and most complex networks to design and manage. Without ISPs the Internet would not exist.

2.     Data Center networks. As in networks that supply service to most if not all of the data center occupants which can be hundreds or thousands of various companies. Data Centers are buildings designed to house computer equipment for one or many companies. Some data centers are private and for use by one organization. Some are public and are shared by multiple organizations. Data Center networks connect to ISP’s which in turn connect the Data Center to the internet “backbone.” That way all of the data center occupants can connect to the internet by way of the Data Center network… which is in turn connected to one or more ISP’s. Data Center networks are the second most complicated types of networks to design and build. The reason is because of how critical they are not just to one organization but to potentially thousands of organizations. Without Data Centers (private or public) there would be no information flowing across the internet. Websites, email accounts, online games, etc... all need a place to “live” on the internet. They “live” in Data Centers.

3.     Enterprise networks. Most networks are Enterprise networks. So it goes without saying that if most networks are Enterprise networks  then most network engineers and architects are Enterprise network engineers and architects. Say you have an office in one city. Well, the office needs a network so all of the computers can talk to each other and access the internet. So you build an office network to facilitate everything. Then say you have another office that is located far away. Now you need to somehow connect the two offices. So your Enterprise network is not just one office, but all offices in all locations tied together as well as internet access for each location. Enterprise networks can be very simple or extremely complex. It all depends on the size of the enterprise/organization and its needs. They can be as simple as a single location small home office network. Or as complex as a large international organization that has 200 offices across 4 countries that all need to be interconnected. Not only that but an Enterprise network is responsible for an organizations data sources (databases) and data access (servers and applications).

 

Let’s illustrate this with some simple pictures.

 

This is a typical Enterprise network. Enterprise networks interconnect various locations. They can also be used to interconnect the organization with other organizations they have relationships with. All organizations can connect to each other via the red private lines or via the black public lines. The black public lines connect them via the Internet. The red lines do not connect them via the internet. The black lines also provide Internet access for the organization. Private lines are rare and only used in special situations if practical. The lines represent communication links which can be wired or wireless. Enterprise networks are filled with lots and lots of small devices which are used to support the everyday business of the Enterprise. Laptops, phones, smart phones, video phones, desktops, printers, etc…

A typical Enterprise network Engineer / Architect needs:

Advanced level experience in:

·        Routers and switches and their communication protocols.

·        Internet communication protocols

·        Network management tools and techniques

·        Data circuits and cabling

·        Network Hardware and software configuration

·        Network Security

·        Voice and Video

·        Network performance optimization and monitoring

·        Network backup and disaster recovery

·        Mobile devices

Intermediate level experience in:

·        DNS (Doman Name Service) (DNS is an important part of network design. Not critical, but important. Many overlook this.)

·        Working with ISPs (Internet Service Providers)

·        Cloud computing (Cloud computing requires complex and flexible networks. One must understand how to integrate the network into the cloud.)

·        High availability networking (Redundancy and failover)

·        Telecommunications

·        Working inside Data Centers on equipment owned by the Enterprise

·        The IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force)

·        The IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority)

·        RIR's (Regional Internet Registries)

·        Server Load Balancing (Load balancing requires equal cooperation between network, server and application people)

·        Electrical power systems (Networks run on electricity. Knowledge of power supplies, circuits, backup systems is often overlooked)

·        Fire suppression systems (Sometimes network gear and computers are concentrated into large groups. Fire is a real possibility and is often overlooked)

·        Server operating systems such as Linux, Unix, Windows, Sun/Oracle, IBM (Operating systems interact with the network)

·        Data storage systems (Although data storage is more of a server/systems role, networks facilitate access to the storage.)

 

This is a typical Data Center network. Data Center networks are designed to facilitate large numbers of critical Internet computing systems for various organizations. Some data centers are private and for use by one organization. Some are public and are shared by multiple organizations. Data Center facilities are highly secure buildings specifically designed to house critical computing equipment. Thus 100% uninterrupted power and network services are critical as well as highly optimized network performance. Seamless network failover to another Data Center facility is also required in the event of natural disaster or in the event of suboptimal network performance. The red lines represent logical groups. The green lines represent logical connections.

 

A typical Data Center Network Engineer / Architect needs:

Advanced level experience in:

·        Routers and switches and their communication protocols.

·        Internet communication protocols

·        High availability networking (Redundancy and failover)

·        Working with ISPs (Internet Service Providers)

·        Network management tools and techniques

·        Data circuits and cabling

·        Network Hardware and software configuration

·        Network Security

·        Network intelligence, optimization, and monitoring

·        Network backup and disaster recovery

·        Electrical power systems

·        Server Load Balancing

·        Working inside Data Centers on various networks and systems

Intermediate level experience in:

·        DNS (Doman Name Service) (DNS is an important part of network design. Not critical, but important. Many overlook this.)

·        Cloud computing

·        Data storage systems

·        Networking equipment from various manufacturers

·        The IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force)

·        The IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority)

·        RIR's (Regional Internet Registries)

·        Fire suppression systems (Sometimes network gear and computers are concentrated into large groups. Fire is a real possibility and is often overlooked)

·        Building design and construction

·        Telecommunications

·        Server operating systems such as Linux, Unix, Windows, Sun/Oracle, IBM

Familiarity with:

·        Voice and Video

·        Mobile devices

 

ISP #1 is a typical ISP network. ISP networks are the most complicated networks to design, build and manage and require the broadest amount of knowledge. An ISP network supplies internet access and services to organizations and individuals. As you can see from the diagram below, ISPs interconnect with other ISPs. Sometimes a connection may traverse many ISPS. For example, if an organization or individual who is connected to ISP #7 wants to communicate with an organization or individual who is connected to ISP #5 their communication must pass through various ISPs along the way. Some ISPs are big, some are small, some are fast, some are slow, some have lots of connections to other ISPs, some have few connections to other ISPs. The thick black lines are the “backbones” of the Internet. Since all ISPs are not equal in size and connections this means that Internet backbone segments are of various “strength.”

 

A typical ISP Network Engineer / Architect needs:

Advanced level experience in:

·        Routers and switches and their communication protocols.

·        Internet communication protocols

·        High availability networking (Redundancy and failover)

·        Working with other ISPs

·        Peering and transit

·        Network management tools and techniques

·        Data circuits and cabling

·        Network Hardware and software configuration

·        Network Security

·        Network intelligence, optimization, and monitoring

·        Network backup and disaster recovery

·        Electrical power systems

·        DNS (Doman Name Service)

·        The IANA (Internet Assigned Numbers Authority)

·        RIR's (Regional Internet Registries)

·        The IETF (Internet Engineering Task Force)

·        Telecommunications

·        Government policies and regulations

Intermediate level experience in:

·        Cloud computing

·        Data storage systems

·        Mail and Web servers

·        Server operating systems such as Linux, Unix, Windows, Sun/Oracle, IBM

·        Networking equipment from various manufacturers 

·        Fire suppression systems (Sometimes network gear and computers are concentrated into large groups. Fire is a real possibility and is often overlooked)

Familiarity with:

·        Voice and Video

·        Mobile devices

 

Now that you understand the three main areas of networking lets point out a few things. The first is that they are all a little different. The second is that they are all network engineering and contain the same fundamental concepts. For example, there are various types of architects; those who design residential homes, those who design commercial buildings, and those who design conceptual buildings… but they are all architects. They can all do the others job if necessary. Sure, there will be a slight learning curve if they were to exchange jobs with each other. It would be like giving a Samurai a new sword. They would need a little time to develop a “feel” for the new sword. Thus an experienced network engineer should be able to fill any of the main three areas of networking. Again, how can you tell if they are experienced? By asking questions to draw out their experience. Technical knowledge of granular details in no way makes on person more qualified than another. It would be like asking an experienced architect what the tensile strength of a particular piece of metal or wood is. More than likely the architect will need to reference a book or other source to get that detailed information. However, an architect who just graduated from school and passed their exam may indeed know the tensile strengths of various materials because the information is fresh in their mind. Nonetheless, good architecture and engineering does not require a memory of granular details. It requires a firm grasp on fundamentals, gathering detailed information when necessary and proper thought process. So here are some questions designed to expose fundamentals and thought process. In short, they will expose the experience of a network engineer as well as their competency. Detailed technical questions do NOT indicate ones experience level or competency. Technical details can be looked up in 5 minutes.

 

1.     Please explain some of the networks you have designed/built/managed

a.     Who were they for?

b.     What components did you use to build them?

c.      What techniques did you use to manage them?

d.     What protocols controlled the data flow?

e.     Did you need to work with many ISPs/Data Centers/Enterprises?

f.       How much data flowed through the various networks you’ve been involved with?

g.     What did the networks support? What was their purpose?

2.     How long have you been working with networks?

3.     How do you troubleshoot network problems?

4.     If you had a router or switch and someone asked you to connect it to the network and make it pingable, what information would you need in order to do that?

5.     What is the purpose of routing protocols?

a.     How do some of them function?

b.     Which ones are you experienced with?

6.     Why was the OSI model developed?

a.     Is it useful/helpful? Please explain.

7.     How does the Internet work?

a.     Is it different from a network? Please explain.

b.     What is the fundamental concept of a network?

8.     How do you optimize network performance?

9.     Do you often have to do things that you’ve never done before? (Correct answer: “Yes”)

a.     When you do is it challenging? Please elaborate.

10.            When you order a circuit from an ISP what sorts of things does connect it to?

a.     How does a circuit enable Internet access?

b.     What types of circuits have you worked with?

c.      How are circuits ordered and delivered to facilities?

d.     What types of circuits do ISPs and carriers sell?

11.            How can ISPs on one continent connect to ISPs on another continent?

12.            How do ISPs interconnect with each other?

13.            What are carrier backbones?

a.     Where do they go?

14.            What are peering agreements?

15.            What techniques/designs/processes do you use to avoid downtime?

16.            Is DNS important? Why?

17.            How many network problems have you had to deal with throughout your career?

a.     Please explain some of them.

18.            What carriers have you worked with?

a.     What differentiates a good carrier and a bad carrier?

19.            What are some things that cause poor network performance?

20.            How does a router work?

21.            How does a switch work?

22.            Have you published anything related to networking?

a.     If not then what types of network documents have you written?

23.            How did you gain your networking knowledge?

a.     How do you keep your knowledge up to date?

24.            Do you enjoy networking? Why?

25.            What sorts of methods can be used to connect two remote locations?

a.     To connect multiple locations?

26.            How do IP phones work?

27.            How do traditional phones work?

28.            What is involved in broadcasting a live stream of data?

29.            What is IPv6 and how does it work?

a.     Is it important? Why?

30.            What is the concept behind subnets?

a.     Why are prefixes helpful?

31.            Why is organizing IP address space important?

32.            Is it difficult to setup and configure various routing and switching protocols?

a.     Please explain

33.            What is more important, knowing how to properly configure a particular network device or knowing how to properly design and troubleshoot a network?

a.     Which is easier to learn?

34.            What are some of the most important things to consider when designing, building and managing a:

a.     Enterprise network

b.     Data Center network

c.      ISP network

 

 

 

-Justin Franks

justintfranks@gmail.com