Interview | Steve Garrison Builds Infoblox for Education

With more than 20 years in the networking industry, Steve Garrison has held a variety of marketing roles where he developed and implemented multi-level global strategies to drive substantial revenue and market share growth. Prior to joining Infoblox where he is vice president of marketing, Steve helped successfully distinguish Force10 Networks among many competitive switching and network infrastructure companies by clearly articulating company and technology differentiators, developing laser-focused branding campaigns and aggressively positioning the company’s contribution to essential network automation efforts. Prior to Force10, Steve held similar positions with Riverstone Networks and
Cabletron Systems, among others. Steve received a B.S. in Ceramic Science from Alfred University and an M.S. in Materials Science and Engineering from MIT. He also holds four patents and was a founder of the Ethernet Alliance. In my view, he’s a smart guy not because he knows a lot (he does), but because he’s so good at communicating what he knows to help others. In this interview, Steve shares his thoughts on education, technology, networking, virtualization, cloud computing and some great advice on how best to proceed.

Victor: Your thoughts on education and technology today?

Steve: Today’s education institutions are leaps and bounds from where they were 15 years ago in their support and use of technology. Every student, administrator and teacher typically has more than 3 IP-enabled devices, such as laptops, smart phones and tablets that they all want to leverage in a myriad of ways to complete assignments, access institutional systems and records, complete research and more.

Beyond support for users accessing the institutions network and systems, many universities monitor campus facilities with software programs and cameras; administrative functions like payment and registration for classes have been digitized; classrooms are connected; e-learning programs are prolific and more. All this requires technology, which is both a blessing and a curse. A blessing because it can simplify administrative processes, facility collaboration across campuses and research institutions and enhance learning experiences. However, it can be a curse for educational institutions’ IT departments because with all these new technologies, there is increasing network complexity.

Victor: Your outlook on the future of technology and education?

Steve: In the future, technology use at today’s educational institutions is only going to get more prolific and network complexity will continue to rise. Already, university IT departments are starting to feel the growing pressure and inability to keep up with the technology and compliance demands using conventional management approaches and manual processes. Now and in the coming years, educational institutions need to adopt more automated commercial systems to meet the growing demand and address complexity issues in their networks.

Victor: Virtualization and Cloud are pretty hyped these days. Why should educational institutions make the move and what are the benefits?

Steve: There are flexibility, power and cost savings advantages to virtualization and cloud initiatives. For example, with virtualization universities have the flexibility to more easily support dynamic workloads and servers for super computing and research purposes and save costs by spinning up these resources without purchasing significant amounts of hardware. Using virtual server instances or software as a service/cloud-based software solution for this can also reduce power consumption and allows a cost constrained institution to time share computer infrastructure.

Victor: I’ve heard that some organizations have encountered some unanticipated problems that have made realizing the benefits of virtualization and cloud more challenging than originally thought. What are these major barriers?

Steve: Network complexity challenges are some of the biggest obstacles for the education sector, and others, to adopting virtualization and cloud. To date, most virtualization and private cloud initiatives have been constrained by the necessary network infrastructure services required to support the virtual infrastructure. For example, virtual instances of servers and machines can be dynamically provisioned, migrated and shut down by a virtual server administrator in minutes. However, the necessary network services to support the virtual cloud infrastructure, such as IP address assignment and management, are still performed largely with manual tools and processes, such as spreadsheets shuffled between various departments, which can result in days of delays for something as simple as assigning an IP address to a virtual machine.

Victor: To that point, where is the education industry really at in terms of virtualizing their environments and reaching the cloud?

Steve: Most education institutions IT departments see that there are computing resource, footprint and cost saving advantages with basic virtualization scenarios and some of the more modern institutions have taken steps to install solutions, but most have more pressing challenges weighing on them to address before broadly adopting virtualization.

Victor: What are the largest pain-points educational institutions are feeling today with their network infrastructure?

Steve: The biggest pain points most education IT departments face are mobility, security and compliance related. For example, education IT departments and networks must support a larger and more diverse set of users who are constantly moving throughout the campus and connecting to the network with different devices. Additionally, network demands, such as PCI for credit card transactions, HIPAA for university hospitals and/or internal policy mandates that span multiple campuses, at some of the most modern expansive universities, make compliance requirements more stringent than in most environments. This is compounded by the fact that at the IT staff at most education institutions is overburdened and must manage multiple disciplines. This multi-functional approach leads to overall lower service quality since each staff member cannot be an expert in every discipline. And, this approach often leads to preventable mistakes when personnel make human errors by working as fast as possible instead of as smart as possible.

Victor: What are some of the measures required to help alleviate these pains?

Steve: The number one most important measure education IT departments can apply is usage of more automation tools and technologies in their networks.  This can help reduce costly errors, help support mobility, security and compliance initiatives, and more. With the exponentially increasing volume of movement and change in the network, there is no room for manual processes, custom scripts and tools or the associated careless keystrokes resulting in errors. More network infrastructure automation is the only way to keep pace with the new dynamic network.

Victor: What do organizations need to know before getting started? What best practices would you recommend? 

Steve: There are several key areas where it’s essential to start building more automation in IT processes so that challenges associated with mobility, compliance, security and virtualization can be addressed:

  • Institutionalize Process – embracing your organization’s best practices and gold standards for configurations will help deliver a consistent stable and predictable network keeping policies intact; as the network becomes more dynamic, the ability to automatically predict responses and sync with real-time updates is very valuable. 
  • Identify “Machine Speed” Needs – Determine the top areas where you need “machine speed” configuration and change in response to VM provisioning and movement or VM life cycle, such as VLAN, VPN, Switch port, access control lists (security filters) and firewall settings.  While a VM server can spin up in a matter of minutes, making all of these changes manually will take hours – and it could change again before you’re done. 
  • Start Where it All Begins in the Network: the IP address – Pick two network configuration tasks that are manual today (i.e. IP address assignment or VLAN configuration) that must change because of a vMotion event, like HA for example.
  • Identify Compliance Requirements – Determine tasks that have to be automated for compliance purposes, such as access control list configurations.

In summary, the days of using Excel spreadsheets to track IP addresses and scripts written by multiple predecessors to make, track and document changes and devices are for most educational IT departments no longer viable. Mobility, compliance, security and uptime requirements, along with the need for great efficiencies due to resource limitations force us to sweat the details.

Luckily, there are great new network infrastructure automation options out there to help them get started and keep education networks functioning optimally, avoid the dreaded ‘outage’ and keep students, teachers and staff connected.

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Victor Rivero tells the story of 21st-century education transformation. He is the editor-in-chief of EdTech Digest, a magazine about education transformed through technology. He has written white papers, articles and features for schools, nonprofits and companies in the education marketplace. Write to: victor@edtechdigest.com

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