Web Informant #331, 28 May 2003: Self-updating networks




Something happened to my network yesterday. My router updated its firmware, and everything changed. And while unexpected, it was doing what it supposed to do and something that I thought until now was a Good Thing. Welcome to self-updating networks, and welcome to a new era in keeping up with your routers.


My router (a SofaWare SOHO product on my test lab's network) is just the tip of the proverbial iceberg with this trend. There are new Catalyst switches from Cisco that will self-update to the latest firmware when a new switch is inserted in the stack. Other vendors have also jumped on this feature too.


When I first heard about this self-updating feature I was favorably inclined. What could be bad, especially for those network administrators who don't have the time to keep their routers and other core networking gear up to date with the latest patches and fixes? But this feeling was short-lived, especially after I got lost in the configuration menus of my router after it had been auto-updated. Mind you, the Sofaware product is a very easy-to-use router, but the new version of firmware had moved some stuff around just enough to throw me off. Then I realized the trouble that I was in. This isn't a trend that brings all goodness to our lives.


Auto updates aren't always the best thing for you because you can't keep up with the changes. When you start making changes to a smoothly running network, the more that changes the more difficult it is for an administrator to troubleshoot and fix something that breaks. And these automatic changes make it more difficult to document your network during the times of plenty and when everything is working.


You do document your network topology, don’t you? As I used to say when I was a teacher, let me see those hands. Hmm, not as many as I would like.


Network documentation is quickly becoming a lost art. To do it right requires a great deal of discipline and a great deal of time and money. Many of us just can't afford it right now in these times of doing without. But it is during just these times that we need it most.


My friend Bill Alderson at Pine Mountain Group (www.pmg.com) does network documentation for a living (among other things) and he showed me the jumbo-sized drawings and piles of paper that a typical job entails when I caught up with him last month at Interop. If you do your documentation right, you find out all sorts of stuff about your network that you probably need to know. Such as which of your routers are mis-configured. Or WAN links that carry print server traffic. Or VPNs that lead to nowhere. All of this is a way to save money, save bandwidth, and preserve uptime. Only it isn't all that sexy, and isn't something that a CIO can take to the bank with a three-month ROI. And that makes for a tough sell these days.


But the flip side of documenting your network is also maintaining the documents and keeping them up to date with the proper change control procedures. Alderson tells the story of a client who was suitably impressed with all the piles of documentation delivered to his doorstep. (He is a natural storyteller, by the way. If you ever get a chance to catch one of his seminars, do take the time to go. You will come away not only entertained and informed but learning something about networks that you didn't know beforehand.) The client was so happy with all these plus-sized drawings and work that he immediately called his network support team to implement the suggested fixes. This made his documents outdated before the sun had set on them. What this client forgot was how to implement an appropriate change control procedure, and how to keep his precious documents current and contemporaneous with his changes.


Well, I started out talking about self-updating networks. And then have a morality lesson on documentation. Sorry about that. But proceed with caution in the former, and make sure you at least attempt in the next month to start on the latter.


Entire contents copyright 2003 by David Strom, Inc. 

David Strom, dstrom@cmp.com, +1 (516) 562-7151

Port Washington NY 11050

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