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Coders and developers: The new heroes of the network?

Cisco is moving towards a software-based future. We chatted to Susie Wee, founder and leader of Cisco developer and innovation programme, DevNet, to find out how she is helping to enable this change

This article can also be found in the Premium Editorial Download: Computer Weekly: When is it best to stick with paper?

As more than one observer was heard to remark at this year’s Cisco Live Europe customer and partner event at Barcelona’s Fira, which has just closed its doors for another year, the day is fast approaching when everyone will have to stop referring to Cisco as a networking supplier, and start calling it a software company.

The news announcements came thick and fast, and at every turn, they were software-defined. From the extension of its intent-based networking (IBN) platform to the edge of the enterprise to support application innovation around the internet of things (IoT), to the introduction of HyperFlex for Branch, which supports “datacentre-class app performance” in branch offices and remote sites, software is on the march at Cisco, and is now well on its way to becoming firmly established at the core of Cisco’s customers’ networks.

For Susie Wee, founder, executive vice-president and chief technology officer of Cisco’s developer and innovation programme, DevNet, one might argue this makes all the hard work since she set up the scheme in 2014 worthwhile.

“People might ask, why does Cisco have a developer programme?” she says, when she sits down with Computer Weekly during a break in the show’s packed agenda. “Part of it is because there’s a huge shift going on in the industry in which the infrastructure is becoming a programmable software system with APIs [application program interfaces].

“What’s interesting is that that now changes things for the developer community because the way that networking and IT is done changes now you have programmatic capabilities. You can do things like automation at scale, policy-based management, baked-in security, all because you have new software control that you weren’t able to do before,” she says.

Rapid growth

Cisco’s engagement with the developer community actually dates back to the early 2000s, when it ran programmes that enabled developers to build customised features for its voice-over-IP (VoIP) phones.

Over time, this morphed and evolved to include other technologies, before Wee – who studied electrical engineering at MIT in the 1990s before spending over 10 years at HP and rising to CTO of Client Cloud Services – established DevNet as an overarching developer programme in 2014.

In the following four years, the DevNet community has grown rapidly, hitting the 500,000 member milestone last summer, and since then it has added another 50,000 members.

“Really, the heroes in this software transition are the community, because training themselves to have the expertise to run, design, build and deploy networks, and then to take the next step to learn about software and the new way of doing things – it’s not easy stuff, you have to really concentrate,” says Wee.

“The community is evolving, we have more people who are coming to learn, literally, coding 101, learning about the APIs. Others are becoming more advanced as well, so our core group is now actually doing pretty sophisticated things, working on policies and automation, not easy problems, but they’re developing and advancing.”

Community activity

As Cisco’s community of coders grows, and different specialisms and tiers of ability emerge, Wee has been adding new features to DevNet to encourage more community activity.

Last summer, at Cisco Live in Orlando, Florida, she showed off DevNet Exchange, which comprises two components, DevNet Code Exchange – a list of sample code, adaptors, tools and software development kits (SDKs) created by Cisco and the community – and DevNet Ecosystem Exchange – an online portal where developers can share or look up apps created for Cisco’s platforms and products.

“How many lines of code a day does the best coder write? Sometimes it’s a couple of hundred, two hundred, three hundred,” says Wee. “Another answer could be zero. Why? Because that coder knows where to find the code.

“More and more people in our community are starting to share the code that they have written, and so now that the community has hit critical mass, what we have done is curated the code.

“Developers can now submit code to DevNet, and we’ll look at it and approve it and say, yep, this is good code, we recommend it to our community to use it, put it on Code Exchange and point other people towards it. What’s cool is that our community is now evolving, giving back, using our tools and posting their code.”

For example, Joel King of World Wide Technology, a large US Cisco partner, contributed to Code Exchange explaining how to use Ansible to interface to Cisco’s Tetration platform, which provides holistic workload protection in multi-cloud datacentre environments.

King’s repository comprises an Ansible module that retrieves enforcement policy from Tetration and exposes it to an Ansible playbook as variables. This means that the playbook can subsequently apply the policy to network device configuration.

Read more about DevNet

Posting code to Code Exchange does carry a number of requirements, such as providing the right type of open source licensing to ensure other people can actually use what you have written, and other “reasonable things around how you’d want code, specifically shared code, to work”, says Wee.

“But we don’t force the developers because we are taking an open source approach. If something gets really outdated then the community will speak for itself – they’ll stop using it, or they could help it. We’ll keep track of versioning and what works with what and make sure that what is in the Cisco curated list works, but if something becomes out of date then we would take it off and we’ll work with the community on how this comes along.”

For Wee, the very act of uploading, or downloading, code from somewhere like GitHub – to which DevNet Code Exchange ultimately points out – serves the interests of the developer community because it makes you, in her words “a different person”.

“It doesn’t matter if you’re the best coder – you’ve started to think differently, you’ve started to understand how to use the community, you’re not just keeping everything internal, and everything else can grow from there,” she says.

Ready-made products

Meanwhile, Ecosystem Exchange is where DevNet lists qualifying independent software vendor (ISV) solutions so that others can take advantage of fully realised vertical applications that work with Cisco’s products. In the past six months alone, it has added over 100 new solution listings, says Wee.

One of these was created by Eximprod, a Romania-based technology company that provides vertically-focused products and services to electrical utilities.

It released its ES200 product through DevNet Ecosystem Exchange as part of its core work to modernise energy services by improving the security and reliability of electrical grids.

The ES200 comprises a virtualised IoT supervisory control and data acquisition (Scada) remote terminal unit (RTU) gateway for control, measurement and supervision in power distribution, which operates substations and feeders more efficiently using modern, secure automation and communication standards, saving time and money on device and maintenance upgrades.

A part of Cisco, distinct from Cisco

Perhaps part of the success DevNet is seeing at the moment stems from the fact that while it is a part of Cisco, it is allowed a certain amount of freedom to operate distinctly from the wider organisation.

Wee explains: “The approach we have taken is that we’re trying to enable the ecosystem and ensure it is successful, meaning my mandate is not necessarily to sell more Cisco product – although of course we do want that to happen.

“Of course we get people to use our APIs and show them how to use this programmability, but I’m actually focused on making our partners, ISVs and customers successful, and our stuff will come along later,” she says.

To this end, DevNet extends across Cisco’s entire product portfolio, from those parts of the business that are currently generating column inches, like IoT applications for manufacturing, to those more traditional elements of the business that make up for in utility what they may lack in topicality. “We’re really the enabler of this broader Cisco ecosystem,” says Wee.

In the zone

On the show floor at Cisco Live Europe, the DevNet zone offered attendees the opportunity to see some of the community-developed solutions in action, to participate in demos and panels, or even to take a remedial coding class.

For the first time in 2019, participants in DevNet workshops were also able to earn Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert (CCIE) certification credits.

Among some of the things on display this year were an augmented reality application designed to help make setting up and configuring enterprise wireless networks a doddle, helping engineers locate access points and displaying signal strength and other metrics on their smartphones.

Meanwhile a smart mirror provides Amazon Alexa or Google Home-like functionality to act as a smart office assistant, although like Alexa the smart mirror clearly has some work to do on language processing, at first interpreting the question ’How many people in workshop two?’ as a question about the 2004 DreamWorks movie Shrek 2.

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