The AWS VPC and the Network Engineer

by Jeff Loughridge

Amazon AWS is doing amazing things with its IaaS platform. As a networking guy, I find the networking features very impressive. AWS made a wise choice in using Layer 3 as the networking foundation. I suppose AWS engineers recognize what should be a widely held belief in networking–Layer 2 does not scale. The connection of the VPC to corporate data centers presents a compelling value proposition for customer interested in offloading work to the cloud. What I want to focus on in this post is how the integration of cloud and corporate network affects the network engineer.

I design IP networks for my clients. I know my way around basic Linux system administration and can probably figure most things out with patience and Google. I respect talented sys admins who understand the service that the IP network provides to their systems and can communicate simple network conditions (e.g., “I can’t ping the default gateway”). Who will be integrating the VPC and the corporate network? Clearly, both network engineers and sys admins will be involved. You wouldn’t want a sys admin making critical IP design decisions any more than you’d want me standing up a hadoop cluster.

Network engineers will have to adapt their thinking to the virtualized environment. This is a new way of thinking about moving packets. Networking components in the physical world are about as un-elastic resources as possible. I would argue more so than servers. Getting to a point in which network engineers can grasp the flexibility in VPC is going to require investment on their part in learning–the same way learning IS-IS would for an engineer who knows OSPF.

Educating network engineers in VPC networks is in Amazon’s best interests. It’s going to be guys like me who will get calls from potential clients wanting to tie their VPC into their network. The existing documentation does little to further that goal. I had to reach the VPC guide several times before obtaining a degree of comfort. Elastic Network Interfaces? Implied routers? Subnet routing tables? These concepts are not intuitive for network engineers.

Here’s how I recommend that Amazon could educate my networking brethren.

  1. Write a guide on the VPC intended for network engineers. Think about how Juniper write JUNOS documentation for engineers with an Cisco background. This is a very effective way to quickly get smart folks up-to-speed.
  2. Document use cases & recommended architectures for VPC that involve VPC to VPC and VPC to data center connectivity. Cisco excels in this area with its Cisco Validated Designs. Mimic their approach. Today, the documentation is limited to connecting a VPC gateway to a router with IPsec. This barely scratches the surface of how customers will use the networking capabilities of the VPC.
  3. Create online training that steps through the configuration of a VPC. Adding a hands-on component with “actual” VPCs shouldn’t be that difficult for a company that does virtualization at a massive scale.
  4. Talk to internal and external networking savvy engineers. I’ve met some sharp engineers who work on Amazon’s backbone. By engaging them and engineers outside of Amazon, the company could gain valuable insight on networking.

Migrating to the VPC should be as frictionless as possible for businesses. The accelerated set-up of a stable and scalable VPC will translate into more revenue for Amazon.

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