What Network Engineers And Magicians Have In Common

I was thrilled by the response to our new NetBox Heroes podcast when the first episode went live with Kenneth Garcia a couple weeks ago. Now for the second episode of NetBox Heroes, we hear from another great guest, Kaon Thana, who’s got great advice and has recently put out some awesome contributions to the open source community. Kaon is a staff network engineer at the New York Times. He shares his journey to becoming a network engineer, what his current work looks like, and how he came to use and contribute to NetBox.

Read below for a recap of our conversation, and click here to listen to the full podcast recording.

Getting Started with Networking

Kaon’s start with networking was troubleshooting a common household issue – fixing Wifi or printers. As an associate at a wireless internet provider during college, Kaon would fix these basic IT issues for customers and started learning about switches and how the technology worked. His curiosity was piqued and he started getting his hands in more networking, such as helping installers put microwave links on the rooftop for an ISP. What began as a part-time college gig turned into a full time role as a network engineer with the same company after graduation.

The organization grew and soon he was responsible for provisioning 500 access points on a new building. Kaon quickly learned new scripts or tools to help him scale faster, and thus began his network automation journey. While looking on Reddit for alternatives to Excel for modeling data center racks, he heard about NetBox, and started using it.

After seven years with the ISP, Kaon moved onto a DevOps role at a webcasting company for financial services companies. This exposed him to network security and SysAdmin responsibilities, allowing him to develop additional critical infrastructure skills. Then, after spending a few years as a lead network engineer at a financial services company, Kaon landed the role at the New York Times in 2020.

Advice for Those Pursuing a Networking Career

Kaon had two actionable steps he recommended for individuals who are interested in a career in network engineering:

  1. Get hands on: Find (or create) a networking problem and solve it, Thana says. YouTube videos and books are great to review, but being a lab or real network environment will accelerate your learning.
  2. Use Wireshark: It shows you – down to the protocol level – what is happening on the network.

“To most people, the network is kind of like a magic box,” said Thana. “So as network engineers, it shouldn’t be a magic box to us. We should try to be the magician so we know where the rabbit is hiding.”

Wireshark will tell you that, Thana says. It will show you the TCP handshake. You don’t have to read it from the book. You’ll see the handshake. You’ll see the packets and all the encapsulation from layer one all the way to layer seven.

Network Automation at The New York Times

Kaon is driving network automation across a large and complex network at the New York Times. Like many network engineers, Kaon wears many hats. He and his team are responsible for the classic enterprise network at headquarters; backup for that network; several globally distributed remote sites; a production data center; and even the networks in the facilities where the paper is printed.

“We’ve got one foot in the classic side of network engineering. But at the same time, because we’re a modern company, we have our other foot in more modern, multi-cloud, CI/CD, pipeline, automation, telemetry, and observability,” said Thana. “So you’ve got those two distinct worlds that we kind of have to straddle. So it makes it really fun and interesting and it just always keeps you up, and coming back.”

The New York Times has an automation-first approach, Thana reports. With a mix of legacy and modern technologies, the Times networking team tries to focus its energies on automating where they have the most resources, such as a chunk of switches that are all the same vendor and the same type of switch. As with every company on a network automation journey, there is always more to be done.

The Times currently uses NetBox as its Network Source of Truth. It serves as a dynamic inventory for Ansible playbooks, as well as Python scripting. Kaon has built a “golden config engine” and he uses weighted parameters for compliance checking to catch changes in the network that don’t match what is shown in NetBox. In cases where the team recognizes the network isn’t matching what is reflected in NetBox, they will revert back to what they know the golden config should be.

Kaon’s ChatOps Contribution to NetBox

While using NetBox at the New York Times, there were many times requests came into the networking team’s Slack channel that were purely informational, and didn’t really require expertise or background knowledge to answer. To improve transparency for internal stakeholders looking for straightforward network information, Kaon and his team templatized the common questions and answers and developed a Slack bot connected to NetBox. The simple form could be asked by internal stakeholders to show all the VPN subnets, for example. After finding the tool helpful, Kaon shared it with the NetBox community as well.

Kaon noted the help he has received in the community spurred him to give back as well.

“That’s one reason why I did start tweeting about some solutions I find or blogging,” Thana said. “If somebody else is on my journey from ten years ago, and they had that question and I could help them, that’d be great. That’s why I started that and it’s a great community.”

I couldn’t agree more. Thanks to Kaon for joining me and for being a part of the NetBox community! Listen to the full conversation on the NetBox Heroes podcast.

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