Rethinking the Network

Marten Terpstra

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Brainrules: a Different Kind of Attachment

If you are looking at new ways to architect your network, take a step outside the box. Understand what your customers need

I don't read nearly as much as I should. On plane rides I tend to grab a Vince Flynn, James Patterson or David Baldacci, they are usually enough to entertain me on the way there and back. One of the more interesting books I have read in recent years that does not include murderers, spies and explosions, is "Brainrules" by John Medina. A rather good leadership seminar at my previous employer had this on its reading list, and I tore through it.

Brain ScanJohn Medina is a molecular biologist and in his book he describes how our brain works by breaking it down into several areas, each describing a major function of the brain, coupled with some suggestions on how to improve or impact that function after understanding how it works. There are many fascinating facts and studies in the book, but two specific items stuck with me. One, the brain is incapable of multitasking. We all love to think we are extremely efficient multitaskers, Medina shows our brain just cannot do it. It's context switching rapidly. And not very efficiently.

The second and more fundamental item that has stuck with me is one of paying attention, memory and retention of information. When it comes to learning and retaining information, having a explicit personal emotional attachment to the information provided greatly improves our ability to retain and recall the information provided. Brainrules also explains why we have a typical attention span of about 10 minutes, before our brain needs to be poked with something that brings our attention back. Our brain has an amazing ability to retain information, but like me, I am sure you cannot keep up with the sheer amount of information thrown at you day after day. We all kind of know it, but having an emotional attachment makes information more readily retrievable. Your brain works best by associating information, specifically if there are emotions attached.

The combination of these two pieces of information explained in Brainrules can provide some excellent guidance for all of us that regularly do presentations, seminars, webinars, etc. A while ago I tried to use this in a small (not very scientific) experiment. I introduced a new networking product to an audience of customers and potential customers, and one of the features of this product was its speed and ability to recover traffic after software, link or card failures. Before I started my presentation, I asked everyone to picture in their mind their most loaded network switch, that one switch that carries more than its fair share of important application load. Then I asked everyone to think about the last time that switch failed, and failed badly. As in losing sleep, driving to work at some ridiculous hour of the night kind of bad. We have all had at least one of those, mine involved several 10s of thousands of DSL subscribers in the Atlanta area, on a Friday evening. Maybe the FCC report said 120,000 subscribers, it has been a long time.

During the presentation, I spread the failure recovery features throughout the presentation, and any time I explained some portion of the failure recovery feature set, I pointed the audience back at that memory (my 10 minute brain poke). To this day (and I no longer work for the company I presented for) some of those customers explain to me how the failure recovery features of the switch really stuck with them. Even when they cannot remember how many 10GE ports it supports.

Outside of the obvious suggestion of presenting information that strikes an emotional note with the audience, the same has to be true for our ongoing discussion on how the network will change as much as it will in the next few years. We all have very strong feelings about how our networks are constructed, how our networks are operated, and who is in charge of what. Things will change, networks will be constructed differently, managed differently and roles and responsibilities will change. We have to have those discussions with appropriate emotional involvement.

If you are looking at new ways to architect your network, take a step outside the box. Understand what your customers (the applications) need. Understand what your operations teams need. Realize the pain of debugging, provisioning and tweaking and tuning. Remember the sleepless nights. Or the lost weekends. Or just the sheer stress and wasted time solving things that the network solution really should have done for you. Its the only way the deluge of new information will stick, its the only way we will create something new that will stick.

As for my painful memory, I bet it would not surprise you if I told you that a memory leak was at the root of the outage. And the memory is vivid enough that I remember the actual code. And the fix. One line. Of course it was one line.

The post Brainrules: a Different Kind of Attachment appeared first on Plexxi.

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Marten Terpstra is a Product Management Director at Plexxi Inc. Marten has extensive knowledge of the architecture, design, deployment and management of enterprise and carrier networks.