The greatest thing about being a reporter is that you get to hear stories from people from all walks of life. In the world of networking, that means people high up on the management chain as well as those in the trenches. Both have unique perspectives on the way IT works and the challenges involved in keeping a business running.
I recently spoke with Tom Gonzales, a network administrator who has been "at it" since 1984. His first computers to support: the IBM PCjr and the Apple Mac IIsi. Back then, he says, he was a lot more involved with the programming side of things.
Today he is a senior network administrator at the Colorado State Employees Credit Union in Denver. He's a jack-of-all-trades, as comfortable talking about compliance issues (since he works in the finance industry) as he is about the pros and cons of Mozilla's Firefox browser.
Gonzales has been my go-to guy for many years - one of the people in the field who I regularly consult to get a handle on how different technologies are being received or what trends are causing ripples in the industry. He's always got an interesting take, being the one who has to sell his organisation on the benefits or drawbacks of various technologies.
Lately, the bane of his existence has been data protection and security. "Reliable, easy-to-use-and-restore backups are a cruel joke. Vendors promise to deliver this, but I have yet to experience it," he says.
Gonzales looks at security as a game that will never be won. "It's always an evolving game of detente - advantage hacker, now advantage security admin, then oops, advantage hacker again. It's an endless cycle," he says.
Even if you know how to solve the problem, getting budget approval to do so is difficult. "As a network admin, it's easy to see the value in a product or service. Being able to articulate that value is another story. 'Selling it' is the hard part," he says.
Gonzales convinces senior executives of the benefits of products he believes in by educating them. He accompanies his budget requests with white papers and other printed materials. "The ability to measure and produce the results promised is critical for board member confidence and to gain future approvals," he says.
Recently, he received funding to improve data storage. Gonzales says he's seen a move to distributed data and wanted to make sure his organisation kept pace. To that end, he has started to roll out a storage area network, a project he calls "pretty scary and exciting." He's also doing work with converged voice and data networks. However, he is dreading IPv6, the next-generation protocol after IPv4, which is being thrust into the spotlight because of the address demands of advanced networking. "I know it promises to help with address space issues and has been built with security in mind, but I don't think the transition will be smooth," he says.
While Gonzales is reluctant to be called "an expert" on networking, he does like to be counted on by his users. "I love it whenever my peers call me to help with problems," he adds.
And whatever comes his way, Gonzales always seems ready to face it. He says he thrives when things are at their worst and doesn't understand people in IT who gripe at high user expectations. "I know the user expectation today is that the network is just supposed to work no matter what they do - like a utility such as phone or water - and they think IT's responsibility is to make the network unbreakable." Ever optimistic, Gonzales adds, "That may seem like a negative, but I actually see it as a positive. Why shouldn't we in IT strive to make the network work no matter how bad the users try to mess it up?"