In this interview, Network Engineer Andrew Coleman aka Roger Wilco shares his experience with the Pica8 training course and the GNS3 community. It also dives into the role of white box switching in SDN and open networking environments.
SDxCentral: What is your current role?
Coleman: Currently, I’m a freelance network contractor. I started out the networking world by working for a regional WISP, so a lot of the work I do currently is enterprise wireless deployments (indoor/outdoor, and multi-km backhaul shots), and some municipal projects. I’ve also been a sub-contractor on projects involving equipment installs in CLECs for several carriers, as well as designing regular campus networks.
What network engineering communities are you involved with?
Coleman: I’m heavily involved with the community at GNS3. The rest of the time, I’m either busy with work, reading as many different books on networking as I can lay my grubby mitts on, and running labs to constantly try and stay ahead of the curve. Lately it seems like I’m spending more time asking questions directly on vendor community sites directly, than any other particular communities.
We understand in some network engineering communities, you are referred to as “Roger Wilco.” What’s the story behind that interesting handle?
Coleman: Hahaha! Yeah, that one is kind of a double reference. The first is that it’s USAF shorthand for “Roger. Will comply” (I come from a military family). The second is that it’s the name of the main character of the old Space Quest series from Sierra Online. He’s kind of a loveable goof, who falls backwards into success, so I can relate. If you spot someone online with a handle that’s a character from the old Sierra Online or LucasArts games, it’s probably me.
How did you get involved with GNS3?
Coleman: That’s actually a long story. To keep this a bit brief, I’m constantly trying to find better ways to do things, learn something new, or just make my life a bit easier. I stumbled across GNS3 almost by accident, and noticed that not only could I use IOS images off my routers for creating and swapping labs with friends and coworkers, but it also had the promise to run non-Cisco virtual machines, and tie a bunch or hypervisors together. From that point, I was hooked.
I first signed up at the site because I really didn’t understand QEUM or KVM all that well, and I keep struggling to do what I wanted, and then after being helped by A LOT of really sharp and kind people in that community, I decided that I wanted to give back. Out of the blue, I received an email from Mark Blackwell saying that he noticed I was posting a lot, and was wondering if I’d volunteer to be a mod. I jumped at the chance, and the rest is history.
I’ve always been a fan of checking out anything that’s coming down the pipeline, since any extra arrows I can have in my quiver is a big plus. Like many other people have already pointed out, SDN and Open Networking Driving having the potential to drive down hardware costs, a variety of automation options, being able to maximize network utilization and centralize management, as well as its Linux underpinnings are all quite appealing.
Obviously the big target right now is ToR data center deployments, but Mid/Large enterprise networks are a good fit for a number of the “DC-centric” features, as well. I also found a white paper from Pica8, which mentioned possible use cases for deploying SDN switches at the service/customer edge, so I’m quite interested to see the push they make for it, and how carrier adoption could play out.
How could they have helped you solve problems in a difficult network environment you’ve built in the past? How did you solve the problems instead?
Coleman: With the build-outs from around 2002-2003, we would deploy both wired and wireless service to very large apartment complexes. The prices for white box hardware aren’t quite as low as I’d like to see for that type of environment, but I feel like the added flexibility when using them as part of the wired service could’ve been a nice offset. One white box feature I would’ve killed for back then is the ability to train support staff on a standards-based device OS, and then later take that exact same OS, but migrate it to newer hardware. I can remember more than a few times where we’d be deploying equipment from 18 different vendors, and just training the field techs on how to configure/troubleshoot them all was a bigger headache than it should’ve been.
With the more recent deployments, like enterprise campus networks, I would certainly be mindful of the possibility to replace old or failing access/distribution layer switches with SDN-capable hardware.
It would definitely play a role on any future deployments I design. With the price/performance parity I’ve been seeing with comparable switch models from closed networking vendors, the automation capabilities, and the flexibility I mentioned previously, it just makes sense to me.
Why did you decide to take the Pica8 training course? What role do you think white box switching will play in SDN and open networking environments?
Coleman: Being a moderator over at GNS3, I had heard of the Academy courses coming down the pipeline, so I already knew it was going to be available. I had previously met Calvin Chai and Steve Garrison from Pica8 in the forums (and blew up their inboxes with questions), so when they contacted me asking about the possibility of taking the training, and testing out some loaner equipment, I pounced.
As far as white box switching in SDN, being able to drop in a BMS, quickly provision it to run in standard L2/L3 mode, and then make the transition to a hybrid mode or pure OVS/OF mode is a great feature on its own. Pica8 has implemented this with their unique CrossFlow technology, which I find very valuable. The shear amount of freedom that SDN and Open Networking vendors are providing is very refreshing, and I just wish this could’ve happened sooner.
How familiar were you with Pica8’s white box switching technology prior to taking the training course?
Coleman: Other than reading the data sheets, and checking out the documentation a bit, the course was the first time I actually got some hands on time with PicOS and one of their white-box switches.
Tell us more about your experience with the Pica8 switch.
Coleman: I’ve had a lot of fun with it. In L2/L3 mode, it has a very JunOS-like CLI interface, which helped me rapidly get up to speed, so I could immediately start trying out as many features in that mode as possible. Once you switch to using OVS/OF mode, you’re back at the bash prompt in Debian, and can configure OVS like you’d expect to, as well as install and use all the linux tools you’re familiar with
Since the course covered OVS/OpenFlow mode extensively, I tested PicOS with several of the available open-source SDN controllers, but I tended to gravitate more towards HPE-VAN, simply because I can use FlowMaker with it. I’m not very handy yet, when it comes to programming/scripting, so I found having a ready-to-go tool to be very beneficial for me. If you prefer ODL, Floodlight, or Ryu, those also work well with PicOS.
Where would you have gotten your training otherwise?
Coleman: I probably would’ve just picked up one of their preloaded switches from somewhere, purchased a license bundle, and then spent a lot of spare time in the lab trying all the features out, seeing how far I can push things.
I’m glad I did take the course, since not only is David Bombal a great instructor (and really great guy), but it also helped me get to the point where I felt a lot more comfortable with configuring OVS/OF in PicOS. I’m hoping there could be a future Deep Dive course, to really get into the guts of the thing.
And if the folks at Pica8 decided “Eh. We don’t really need that switch back. You can keep it, and here’s some licenses to boot..”, then even better! *hint hint*
How did the course better equip you to tackle new or difficult networking environments?
Coleman: The course really opened my eyes to the potentials of SDN in general, and white-box switching in particular. Before I took the courses, I had been keeping up with SDN developments, but it took getting some real hands-on time to fully appreciate what I can do with it.
How do you plan to build on what you learned in the course?
Coleman: There are a lot of big players are making the push to SDN, so I feel that it’s well worth my time to learn as much as possible about it, and then just practice until it’s second nature.
What’s on deck next to make you a bigger rock star?
Coleman: I’ve always seen myself more like a roadie. If I’ve done my job right, the network will “just work”, the services the users need the network for would take center stage, and you’d never know I was even there.
Beyond that, I’ll just keep learning as many new skills as I can.