NetBox Heroes: IP Fabric lifts the lid on network data and valuable plugins for NetBox users

If you’re familiar with the NetBox Heroes podcast series, you know we typically interview one guest per episode. But in the latest installment of NetBox Heroes, we did something a bit different. We had the pleasure of speaking with two network pros: Alex Gittings and Daren Fulwell from IP Fabric, a provider of network assurance solutions to enterprise customers. These networking veterans are not only well versed in network topics, but they are also well known in the NetBox community, with expertise in areas like network observability and network data. 

Daren Fulwell, a network automation evangelist at IP Fabric, has been working in the networking industry since the 1980s. “I’ve been kicking around IT since I was a kid,” Fulwell notes. “Same as most, but that was the ‘80s, so it was a little different.” Fulwell’s career has spanned operational roles in enterprise and service provider networks, all the way up to customer facing roles. Now, he’s helping evangelize network automation and network observability with IP Fabric.

Joining Fulwell on the podcast was Alex Gittings, a solutions architect at IP Fabric who got into networking after hosting LAN parties at his house. “That’s when I realized, I could do this as a job.” Pursuing IT in higher education, Gittings went to college to earn his computer networks degree with a focus on the Cisco curriculum. “I was lucky,” Gittings says. “I did so well in the first two years that I ended up getting an internship working with a Cisco Systems team that tested customer networks before they purchased them.” After graduating, Gittings worked as a professional services consultant at a systems integrator. 

There, he bumped into Fulwell. “That’s when I got to work with IP Fabric as a customer, selling products to my customers and seeing what it did for them in the automation space. Then, I got the opportunity to move over to IP Fabric and it’s been great ever since.”

Throughout their seasoned careers, Fulwell and Gittings stress the importance of learning everything you can about everything that you can. “That breadth of understanding is useful because you can bring information, thoughts, and processes from different areas together to reach an appropriate solution for consumers of the network,” Fulwell explains. On the flip side, he says pragmatism is just as important. “There are always trade-offs to be made. It’s valuable to appreciate and understand what the results of those trade-offs are so you can make a decision.” For Gittings, an important lesson he’s learned is to make sure your requirements are defined. Requirements always change over time, he says, so “having regular touchpoints to keep you on track is incredibly valuable.” 

Talking tech: Network Data and intended vs observed states

You may have heard of the phrase network data, but you might not fully understand what that means. “Since we’re in the business of network data, we have this conversation frequently,” Fulwell says. “We’re always talking with customers about what network data means and how it’s beneficial to them.” Traditionally, Fulwell and Gittings say network data used to be two things: documentation and monitoring data. However, due to the complexity of modern networks, that’s no longer good enough. “It was fine when you had a few routers and switches because you could manage that in your head. Now, the problem is we don’t have networks that are that simple anymore.” 

Facing this newfound complexity, Fulwell and Gittings explain that success in the network data field comes from understanding why and how networks “hang together.” This is because “there are two aspects to network data,” Fulwell states. The first is about what you want the network to look like – the intended state. The other is the observed state – what’s actually in the network and why it looks the way it does. “You have to be clever and measure one against each other,” he says. Gittings agrees. “You can’t make an informed decision without the additional context that is network data,” he says. “It’s really about making key informed decisions so that you can achieve something more efficiently, whether that’s automation or troubleshooting. It’s all related.” 

Understanding this big picture is important because a network is not just a collection of individual devices. It’s a distributed system. This means, if you make a change at one end of it, you’re likely impacting things at the other end. Without contextual data, “it’s almost impossible to see what that impact is going to be,” Fulwell explains. “Network data is about the relationships between nodes within the network and the topology. It’s about how the network is functioning as a whole.” 

Because the operational or observed state of the network is never aligned with the intended state, it creates a plethora of challenges for a networking team. That’s where tools like IP Fabric or NetBox come in, helping companies map and compare these different data sets. “There needs to be some common ground between the two platforms,” Gittings says. Increasingly, as companies pursue their journey toward network automation, they are beginning to recognize the importance of observing the network data, the operational state of the network, and tackling problems at the intersection of this.”

IP Fabric’s new NetBox plugin: bridging the gap between intended and observed states

Businesses weren’t always networked like they are today. Industry standards have steadily evolved, and networking professionals and companies have had to adjust to keep pace. For Gittings, this shift created an opportunity to help NetBox and IP Fabric users. “A lot of our customers are looking to take information from our IP Fabric platform and push it into NetBox. The key question is, ‘do you want to push everything?’ More often than not, they don’t. They want to synchronize. This has been a challenge for customers using IP Fabric and NetBox together.”

“Now there’s a solution for bringing the two platforms together: a new plugin created by Gittings and built directly into the NetBox platform. The plugin fetches information from IP Fabric while doing all of the processing that comes with it, all within the underlying architecture of NetBox. “This plugin is the common architecture we’ve been talking about,” says podcast host Kris Beevers. “It’s what’s needed to bridge the gap and apply policy at the intersection of intended network data or network state and observed network state.”

Where to next?

With Gittings’ plugin gaining momentum and solving important problems for companies, there’s a seemingly obvious question for Fulwell and Gittings: where to next? “The plan is to make this plugin available to whoever wants to try it out,” Fulwell says. “We’re working on getting a lab license so that we can make it available to members of the NetBox community. This way, they can spin up an instance of IP Fabric and use the plugin to push the contents of that through their NetBox instances within the lab environment.” 

This plugin is just one example of how collaboration between IP Fabric and NetBox is helping the networking industry evolve to handle ever greater complexity. We can’t wait to see where it takes users.

Click here to watch the full NetBox Heroes episode and check out more NetBox Heroes podcasts to hear from awesome networking professionals in our community! 

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