Networking and the World Series: 10 lessons baseball teaches us about networking

After an exciting World Series, network managers can learn a lot from baseball.

As a baseball fan based in Boston, I spent a lot of time watching baseball the last few weeks as the playoffs and, ultimately, the World Series progressed. (And yes, as a life-long Red Sox fan, I was very happy with the final outcome last week!) I've always enjoyed the thinking aspect of baseball. The up-front analysis, the in-game adjustments, the on-the-fly reactions, even the post-game second guessing - it’s all fascinating to me.

With this as background, you'll understand why I now find myself matching baseball to networking -- two "games" aptly described by the old phrase, "A moment to learn. A lifetime to master."

Here is my Top Ten list of things baseball can teach us about networking:

10. All the thinking is done BEFORE the ball is pitched. The up-front network design and deployment dictates all the network can and, often, will do as traffic starts to flow. What technology is applied? How to configure the network/device? What services are activated? These and more questions must be answered in order to establish the best possible starting point. Picture fielders not positioned properly given the batter, base runners, outs, count, pitch, etc. The best network design takes everything - or everything imagined - into account before the first bit is transmitted.

9. Every pitch has everyone moving - batter, runners, fielders. The entire network springs into action as bits start flowing. Policies are processed. Directions are given. Resources are distributed. Backups are established. Connections are activated. Exchanges are made. All in the name of moving information from original source to authorized destination. More concert than a collection of parts, every piece depends on every other piece - sometimes as direct participant under the right circumstances, sometimes as backup when something goes wrong. And as we all know, in baseball and in networking, something will go wrong!

8. You never know what will happen next. Despite the best-laid plans (and most thorough of practices), one cannot predict every possible network scenario. New traffic volumes can emerge from nowhere. New flows can be established randomly. New resources can appear suddenly. New threats can arise in just a moment. A network must be designed, deployed, operated, and policed in such a way as to handle the extraordinary (e.g., the peak demand period, the surprise demand spike, the lost connection...), all the while obeying the rules dictated, ultimately, by physics on the technical side and the budget on the financial side.

7. Obstructions happen! No matter how well your network is configured and operated, blockages will happen. The network is a shared and limited resource. There is only room for so much traffic, so many users, so many applications. At some point, collisions are inevitable and failures or slowdowns result. Natural network bottlenecks, such as lower-speed WAN connections, security systems, overloaded switches/routers, data center interconnections, can all can at times be called for obstruction when blocking user traffic. It is up to the network -- and network operator -- to minimize collisions or, at least, minimize the negative impact of collisions.

6. Working together results in the right call. For too long, major IT functions (e.g., networks, date centers, applications) have operated as silos -- making plans and deploying systems on their own. As networking and computing environments grow more tightly coupled, it is critical for IT functions to work closer together when making the call on new systems and changes to existing systems. As we learned from Game 1 of the World Series (and the TV replay), making the right call is more important than who makes the call. As the chief umpire told them, "Our job is to get the call right! We all got together and made the right call."

5. Resources must be managed carefully and applied accurately. Network budgets are not limitless. Bandwidth is not infinite. Devices are not all-powerful. The network operator (The Manager) must make the most of available -- and affordable -- networking resources at just the right time. Looking beyond the network, precious connected resources must also be utilized for maximum effect. Over-utilize a resource (The Relief Pitcher) or underutilize a resource (The Pinch Hitter), and the networking game could be lost.

4. There is true value in analytics. Networking is Moneyball! It's combining resources in order to maximize return for your investment. In essence, 1 + 1 = 3... or 4... or more. Networking, as much as baseball, is a numbers game. Uptime. Latency. Volume. Bandwidth. Throughput. All and more must be combined to pass judgment on the network and its many components. Witness the surge in interest in analytics within the software-defined networking arena. Without analytics feeding into the SDN environment, all the automation and APIs in the world won't deliver on their full potential.

3. Things will change, but expectations stay the same. End users don't care how it happens, they just want to run their applications and access their data whenever and wherever necessary. Sounds so simple, doesn't it? The IT organization knows differently. In order to deliver on those same "simple" expectations, the infrastructure must continuously adapt to new loads, flows, threats, regulations... a seemingly endless list of new challenges. How does the network keep winning? New devices are added. New services are activated. New policies are enforced. New connections are made. New practices are established. The trick is to make changes within the network, while maintaining consistent high-quality service through the network. To the end user, it's about wins -- not how the wins are accomplished.

2. Smarts are more important than speed. Raw speed is certainly a fine quality to look for in any system. But who can afford all the speed they need everywhere in their network? And even if you can afford to apply the fastest router or switch or WAN service available to you, will it be enough under all circumstances? In this age of hyperactive exchanges, hellacious volumes, and heightened threats, speed is no cure-all. The network must be smart. It must intelligently control access and use of finite high-value networking and networked resources. Whether it's across the network, on the bases, or in the outfield, I'll take intelligence over speed.

1. There are no ties. You win or lose. You are safe or out. Your network meets demand -- or not. Connects resources -- or not. Satisfies users -- or not. Protects assets - or not. Adapts readily -- or not. Serves the business - or not. Your network may not win every game, but it is expected to win most of the time. And it is certainly expected to win the big games.

With all the above said, networking is not at all like baseball in one defining way. With networking, there is no saying, "Wait 'til next year!"

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