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Tuning your network cyborg

IT managers should think carefully about how the human components of the system align with the hardware and software.

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Cyborgs, or cybernetic organisms, are often pictured as individuals with technological prosthetics of some sort -- maybe a bionic limb, or implanted computer chip and, for the most part, they are the stuff of science fiction. And yet, your IT infrastructure can be reasonably referred to as a cyborg in its collective form -- wetware (or humans if you like), software, and hardware are interconnected by various means and performing various functions as a well-defined entity.

Just as you don't work well without a limb or a liver, your network cyborg can under-perform for lack of critical components, effective inter-connects, or proper tuning.

Now, we don't like to think of ourselves as cogs in the machine -- but really the machine is a prosthetic extension of ourselves. To wit, it allows us to perform feats that would otherwise be impossible without an IT infrastructure. In that view, IT managers should think carefully about how the human components of the system align with the hardware and software. For example, the last time you bought a network management solution, did you consider whether it fits the way the people do work in that environment?

Since the dawn of IT, humans have had to learn arcane machine gestures and processes in order to engage the machine -- these "shamanic" invocations mysteriously made things happen and were only partly understood by even those deeply trained in the black arts. That "ancient" priesthood of IT shamans has since devolved into lesser tribes of geeks and hackers as computers have become easier to work with. But still, there remains a tension between how humans tend to do things, and how the machine was built to work.

Today's typical enterprise network environment is still heavily populated with humans (no surprise). And their impact on the overall performance is sometimes overlooked. Logical diagrams only indirectly show wetware or how interaction with humans is accommodated. It might appear as if the only real purpose of a network is moving packets as fast as possible. But humans are inherent to almost any network (i.e. purely machine-to-machine networks are extremely rare).

So, how do humans have direct impact on the network (both positively and negatively)? Consider these examples:

  • Misconfiguration: Performance degradation problems can be caused by inadvertent interaction with network components (ex. a human introducing a hub into a full duplex environment),
  • Limited availability: Humans are only available on an nine-to-five weekday basis while the IT runs 24/7 -- most of the productivity has to happen when the humans are present,
  • Flexibility: Humans are "intelligent" and "adaptive"; IT not so much,
  • Short attention span and inexact: Humans have long response times, low repeatability, and low accuracy in their actions, leading to wasted or lost CPU cycles and network capacity.

Typically, making humans more productive is the very reason the network exists. Unfortunately, networks are not particularly complete on their own -- they rely heavily on their human hosts to employ them effectively and to define how they should work. Unfortunately, there are several critical functions typically fulfilled by humans that act as bottlenecks to the network's overall performance.

For example, if you look at a typical enterprise network, you'll probably see users acting as the application performance monitors. They incidentally monitor the applications they use and their own productivity as a function of the network. In fact, network support centers still report that as much as 85% of their trouble reports originate with a user. Humans doing a machine's job!

And who do they call? A support center filled with more humans, of course – they act as the initial problem assessment and diagnosis "component" of the overall system. In the support world, the 'time to resolve' (TTR) is the primary indicator of effectiveness. And it is usually measured in hours or days -- not particularly efficient.

And when a problem is finally identified (or often when it isn't), support people escalate the trouble ticket to a human network expert -- the engineer then acts as the remediation and provisioning sub-system for the organism, turning things on and off, replacing sub-components and making other changes until the user is satisfied. More inefficiency.

Network performance is less about how well routers and switches are passing packets in any given instant. And more about how much of a bottleneck is posed by the human part of the system. After all, network performance is a function of the predominant bottleneck (see Networks are like onions). If there are not enough engineers, too little time, insufficiently trained support staff, and too many accidents, the overall network infrastructure is unlikely to ever achieve peak performance.

It is a rare environment where these human bottlenecks are not pre-dominant.

The conclusion? Look closely at your network cybernetic organism – not just at how quickly packets are passed. But also look at how user productivity is impacted; and where humans are unnecessarily performing functions that can be taken over by a reliable technology; and where you can augment users, support staff, and network personnel with capabilities that make them ever more efficient at what humans do best – think, plan, resolve and create!

NetworkingChief Scientist for Apparent Networks, Loki Jorgenson, PhD, has been active in computation, physics and mathematics, scientific visualization, and simulation for over 18 years. Trained in computational physics at Queen's and McGill universities, he has published in areas as diverse as philosophy, graphics, educational technologies, statistical mechanics, logic and number theory. Also, he acts as Adjunct Professor of Mathematics at Simon Fraser University where he co-founded the Center for Experimental and Constructive Mathematics (CECM). He has headed research in numerous academic projects from high-performance computing to digital publishing, working closely with private sector partners and government. At Apparent Networks Inc., Jorgenson leads network research in high performance, wireless, VoIP and other application performance, typically through practical collaboration with academic organizations and other thought leaders such as BCnet, Texas A&M, CANARIE, and Internet2.

For more IT articles and tips specific to small and midsized businesses, visit

This was last published in April 2006

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