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Bad Packets: The network manager's line between Us and Them

The role of network managers in large corporations is evolving. They are becoming less involved in technology, less skilled in educating themselves about it, and less aware of details from the field. The Ethernet wall drop may be the last place in-house network managers have any real power.

E-mail Wes Simonds

To most of today's network managers, defining Us and Them is easy enough.

"Nobody in the company can get access to the Web, you say? Well, we've looked into it, and this problem isn't with Us, it's with Them. So we?ve opened a tier-one trouble ticket with Them and as soon as They get in touch with Us, we'll let you know that the problem is fixed."

In this paradigm, the demarcation point between Us and Them is typically the CSU/DSU connecting the company to leased copper or fiber lines and ultimately to the Internet.

Gartner Group sees this radically changing over time, though. Gartner's latest vision, unveiled to me at their Networking Beyond the Enterprise conference in San Francisco, concerns the notion of the network jack as the new demarcation point.

That's right - in this shiny new future, the Ethernet wall drop is the last place in-house network managers have any real power.

Us, therefore, is limited to what you see in the cubes and rooms. Them is what's happening in the walls, in the cabling, in the routers, in the switches, and of course in the fiber and out onto the Internet. Us is what end-users can see. Them is the home of virtually all the sophistication and real technological savvy. Us is ultimately pretty boring. Them is where the security, the services, and very probably the fun is.

The role of network managers in large corporations evolves dramatically in this scenario. They become less involved in technology itself, less skilled in educating themselves about it, less aware of details from the field - less aware of the real work, in short.

Network managers become more like those professional buyers you hear about in places like Macy's: they don't make anything, they don't install anything, and they don't fix anything. And you suspect they don't really know anything. They just buy from lots of other companies.

How will this shift sit with the network manager of today? Well, most of the network guys I know are quite happily geeks at heart. They sincerely enjoy technology. More subtly, they relish the sense of power that comes from being able to make the technology do what it's supposed to do and, pursuing the matter further, the sense of enlightenment that comes from knowing useful things other people don't know - from being authorities in their fields. Network managers have earned the sigil of the digital illuminati, and are often, if only to a professionally justified degree, control freaks.

Now, this portrayal of your average network manager is obviously in a certain amount of conflict with Gartner's perspective. Gartner seems to feel that technological know-how of in-house people is all very nice, but network service provision costs will fall, the technical competency and responsiveness of outsourced services will rise - and eventually the enterprise will conclude it's just not worth the bother of maintaining an in-house network team designed to field all the relevant issues.

Will it happen? Well, I've got no crystal balls handy, but it seems to me that Gartner is underestimating the influence of the installed base - not the installed base of technology, but the installed base of network managers themselves. While they continue to wield influence I am dubious they will allow themselves to be pink-slipped in favor of a suite of specialist firms.

Rather than allow this to happen, I already see the opposite becoming true. I tend to see network managers acquiring greater technical knowledge, in more areas, and being increasingly ready and able to build relevant new skills to make themselves more inarguably indispensable.

In fact, a significant fraction of the network administrators I know already have understated policies that cover virtually everything. The official party line doesn't admit this, of course. The official party line is usually that the network/IS team will only support items that fall on a designated list, but if it comes down to maintaining diplomatic relations with senior staff, this policy mutates instantly into something like:

"If it uses ones and zeroes, and even if it doesn't, we can make it go. We support routers. We support switches. We support cabling. We support servers. We support phones. We support security. We support dial-up. We support DOS, Windows, Mac OS, Linux, IRIX, and Amiga OS. We support Crays. We support Palms. We support magic eight balls. We support riding mowers and barbershop chairs and lightsabers and those goofy machines from Citizen Kane that spat out tickertape to report stock market changes. Carburetor troubles? We're here for you. Come to us if you can?t get Lotus Notes to talk to your MP3 player via infrared. We support this. We support that. By Q1 2002, we will be supporting the other."

That's a lot of bother, true, and a lot of responsibility, but it's also a lot of power. It's the power of ultimate control, the power to be the Supreme Court of technology: the last stop in the chain, the point at which the buck stops.

What does Gartner's vision offer network managers instead?

The power, when something goes wrong, to make phone calls and complain about it to someone else who might fix it.

The power to think of themselves ultimately not as managers but as users.

Well, we'll see...but I've got my doubts.

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