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Engineer uses Cisco DNA Center to combat network challenges

Durham County hopes Cisco DNA Center and network automation create efficient, seamless experiences for IT managers and users, after redesigning its data center with Cisco's ACI.

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Network Evolution: Interest in 5G wireless networks ramps up

How do four engineers become network management rock stars? According to Seth Price, the senior network engineer for Durham County, N.C., the road to fame means removing complexity, increasing network automation and shifting management to a single controller to enable an efficient and seamless network experience for users. That's the goal as he redesigns the county's network.

Durham County government includes 2,000 employees who use the network to provide support services for more than 280,000 residents. A little more than two years ago, Price was tasked with redesigning the network from scratch. He used Cisco's Application Centric Infrastructure, the vendor's version of software-defined networking, to rebuild the county's core data center network, and he is now at work to extend the ACI fabric, using Cisco DNA Center management software, to county offices and facilities that include a library and a security operations center.

When he's not busy creating new network configuration tactics, Price is outside as much as possible, balancing work and life with exercise, golf or new adventures like deep-sea fishing. We caught up with Price to hear more about Durham County's ACI project, Cisco DNA Center and his thoughts on where the networking profession is headed.

Editor's note: This interview was edited for length and clarity.

How did your ACI project get started?

Seth Price, senior network engineer, Durham County, N.C.Seth Price

Seth Price: We were at the point where [the data center network] was due for a lifecycle replacement, and I was given the opportunity to say, 'OK, starting from this point forward, how do we want to redesign and carry Durham County into the future?'

So I selected the Cisco software-defined ACI product and designed and implemented it for the Durham County data center. It's been in production for about a year and a half now. We've continued to build upon that to make the management of the network at Durham County much more efficient, including automation and a central point of orchestration.

What were some of the challenges you faced migrating to the software-defined environment?

Price: First of all, it was so new. So many people had heard the acronym, maybe read some stories about what software-defined networking was, but they were having a hard time grasping how to manage a network in that environment.

We've done things the same way for 30-some years with the way that we manage data centers and networks, in general. What [ACI] brought to the table was a brand-new way of doing things. Not only were some of the networking components vastly different, but the terminology was too.

One of the biggest challenges was educating myself and those around me not only on how we were going to implement this, but how it was going to make Durham County better. We have different teams here that are kind of siloed off. I think for the migration, one of the biggest challenges was just getting everybody on board.

What does it mean to be 'application-centric'?

Price: In the network world, we've just cared about, 'OK, can this network talk to this network? What ports need to be open? How do we secure it?' But as far as having visibility into the applications running on the network, it's always been very limited without additional software services. With an application-centric model, we're able to take a step back and not worry so much about network requirements, but worry about application requirements. That is a big change from a network engineer perspective.

On top of that fabric, we're able to group our endpoints and our servers into application needs rather than network needs. We've always been very specific on routing within the network. Now we're able to group services, servers and applications together in a way that makes sense where we don't really care about what network they're associated with, what [virtual LAN] they're associated with. Then the great thing is that we can monitor that application's health from within the main console in ACI.

Cisco has been trying to build its use case for ACI for the last year or so. What makes it work for you?

Price: I find whenever I talk to any other engineers, any other peers [about ACI], there still seems to be a lot of fear. It goes back to, 'Well, we've always done things the same way. We know how to get into an [Secure Socket Shell] session or a console session on a switch. We know how to program them. We know the language well. We can script things against them to kind of automate things.' It's very predictable and comfortable.

This kind of blows that up. A lot of people don't really even start looking at ACI unless they have a lifecycle replacement. My recommendation is: Gather the knowledge. This is the future. This is where everything is going. This is where Cisco, in general, and other vendors are putting all of their resources into development, in this technology.

So how do you see the ACI project shaping the network serving county offices?

Price: Cisco's intent-based networking all revolves around its DNA Center. It's taking that same type of model in the data center and now bringing it out to the enterprise. The Cisco DNA Center is going to be the software-defined controller for the enterprise network.

We have 50 sites with a bunch of switches and a bunch of routers, and different pieces of gear out there, wireless controllers all over the place. When we have issues or requests, more often they're not in the data center. So DNA Center is going to be that central point of automation and orchestration for the county.

The Cisco DNA Center has hooks directly into ACI. What I'm going to be able to do is -- from a user's laptop, desktop, whatever they may be using, once they connect into the network, they'll have a policy associated for them. Their user ID and the device they're connecting with will carry through the enterprise and into the data center. Not only that, but I'll be able to manage all of the network elements, all the network devices from a single point of orchestration, rather than from device to device, site by site. The other thing that Cisco DNA Center allows us to do is have a single point where we can upgrade all of our devices in the network with a couple clicks.

DNA Center gives us a more holistic view of the enterprise network, rather than thinking of a bunch of switches and a bunch of routers and a bunch of sites. It offers a big advantage for an organization like Durham County because we don't have a huge staff.

This whole automated process is going to make us look like rock stars, to be honest with you.

How did you first get into networking?

Price: At the beginning of my junior year of high school my guidance counselor told me he had an opportunity for a co-op program. It actually was a job with the state of Michigan as a computer technician. In my junior year, I would go to school for three hours, then I would go to the program, and I would work the rest of the day. I would get paid, but I'd also get graded. I kept that position through college as well. I spent a lot of my time working with the network administrators and engineers, and I quickly moved into roles of being able to assist on network configuration engineering and troubleshooting.

I've heard a lot of schools, including my old school, dropped their co-op programs. I was very disappointed, because it was really the start of my career having the opportunity to do something like that.

What are you doing when you're not thinking about networking?

Price: It's important to have outlets -- as an engineer or anyone, really, who works in any type of stressful job, to have an outlet where you can disconnect. I just got back from a deep-sea fishing trip with a bunch of buddies off the Outer Banks of North Carolina. We caught a bunch of tuna, so that was a lot of fun. I enjoy anything that gets me outside and where I can be active.

This was last published in February 2018

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