Beyond Engineering

So you are interested in networking? I don’t mean attending gatherings, handing out business cards, shaking hands and kissing babies. I mean being a network engineer or administrator? Perhaps you just started the journey at a company and feel slightly lost. If you are, then the following paragraphs are meant for you. This is not only meant to be a motivator to continue learning and applying, but here you will find three things to look for or try to work on that can push you upwards in the work place.

Whether you are part of a small team, large team or riding solo there is much more to network engineering. Sure, there are days where it seems like everyone needs a port configured, but there will be times where you can bring forth your ideas into fruition. There will be times where you look around and figure out ways to improve existing infrastructure. You might be interested in pursuing certain software that can improve a process or provide valid insight. You might want to create or update documentation. You might just want to improve certain aspects of a network, such as routing or security. These are all good things to do, time-permitting and team-willing. If you have good ideas bring them up to your team or your manager. This will not only be a good way to learn, but you can excel career-wise by getting involved and pursuing ways to improve your company.

Where am I?
So it’s day one and you are sitting at your desk. I am hoping you were provided some sort of run-book, documentation or diagrams on the networks you support. However if you were not provided anything, think of it as an even better way to familiarize yourself with your environment. I find that having diagrams and everything at your disposal when you first start is nice, but you might not wander around the network until you really need to. When you do not have any of that info, it forces you to look around and build it immediately, especially if you are supporting the environment. Even if you have the documentation, you might want to ensure it is 100% correct.

The first thing to do is obtain a terminal application. You will want to save the IP addresses to the devices you support for future access. Programs like SecureCRT or MobaXterm will be very helpful in organizing yourself. I personally like MobaXterm as I can save SSH, RDP, FTP and other types of sessions. It also has plenty of additional features like saving macros if you run the same commands over and over. I find that the good ones are never free.

Spend some time exploring your network, ensuring you have the needed access and double-checking/creating documentation. There are reasons why CDP and LLDP exist. If you have an accurate picture of your network, you will have a much easier time finding your way around at that 2:00am emergency call. Take a look at a previous entry I wrote regarding documentation for some ideas.

All about the numbers
Knowing how and why devices are connected to each other is definitely a part of the foundation. Another piece in the foundation is the plethora of networks your company might have. As an engineer or administrator, there will be times where you will put all that subnetting to good use. You might be tasked with designing a facility. Is there a standard list of subnets you need to select for certain networks or do you just make them up as you go? Having a place to organize your IP addresses and the many networks you have should be a goal. You want to know what site hosts what networks. This should be in a diagram as well. It will make life easier when you have to add new subnets or build new sites. Even if it is as simple as an Excel sheet, use something to keep track of your subnets. There are many tools out there that serve as IP Address Management programs. I’ve used a few free tools in the past. Some of them might have support and others will require you to be the doctor. There are also the tools that cost money. I have no idea what kind of budgets exist where you are, but shop around. If you find something that looks interesting, bring it up to the team. How is it better than what you currently use? Also, take a look at the existing tools you have in your organization. Some of them might simply need an additional module or license to enable what you are looking for. We are currently using SolarWinds Orion which has a module to keep track of your subnets. It can reach out to the various DHCP servers (even scopes on a router or switch) and discover information. Organize your environment and you find yourself quickly finding what you need and usually memorizing if you visit often. If you do not have a tool, I find obtaining an IP Address Management tool and sharing it with other teams useful. If the server guys have a place to pull an IP from, update information/names and maintain an inventory they would also be much happier.

Deep Dives and Changes
Now that you have things a bit organized and you happen to have some time between tickets or projects, you can explore. My suggestion is to perform a deep dive. This is time consuming depending on how large of an environment you support. However, ensuring you have a healthy network is important. Your organization might have standards that need to apply to your gear. Has it been applied? This is something to look at occasionally:

  • Are your devices on the latest recommended code?
  • Are your standards applied to the devices? Here you are looking for banners, accounts, port descriptions.
  • Are devices being monitored and alerted on? Here is where having a syslog or another solution to send you alerts when issues occurs is important.
  • Are there any existing issues popping up in the logs that you should be aware of?

Taking a look at these items for each of your devices will surely give you a list of to-dos. Some of it you might be able to change right away. Your organization might follow a Change Management process for these types of things. Either way, you now have a few extra items to discuss with the team and bring up for the improvement of the environment.

As a network engineer, I find myself driving at 100 MPH on some days. However, there are other days where I do have some open time (or I pretend there is open time). Those are the times to continue to learn your environment, look for ways to improve processes and even find ways to make better use of the applications you have. Often times I find I am not taking advantage of tools such as Stealthwatch, ISE or even Solarwinds for that matter. Take time to learn your environment and the tools you have. Talk to others. If you are at a place you can talk to other teams, find out if there are any pain points. Just because issues are not reported, does not mean they does not exist. You will find that there are opportunities to improve your org as well as yourself. If you are still in the hunt for that first opportunity, good luck!

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