What does VisiCalc and SDN Have in Common?

I was listening to an episode on Planet Money last week regarding the first spreadsheet program called VisiCalc. If you listen to the podcast there is a discussion of the accounting profession before and after the creation of the spreadsheet. Before the creation of the program VisiCalc a spreadsheet was really a spreadsheet.   “If you ran a business, your accountant would put in all your expenses, all your revenues, and you’d get this really detailed picture of how the business worked. But even making a tiny tweak was a huge hassle.” Teams of accounts and bookkeepers would spend days reworking sheets of papers to maintain the accuracy of the books.

Prior to the invention of the modern computer based spreadsheet program, bookkeeping was a tedious, manual workflow process. There was no agility in process of keeping books; it was a break fix process. If the account or business made an error or change, everything had to change and it could take day to fix. The daily workflow was based on the objective of keeping the books accurate, it was not a forward looking process of projection, modeling, analysis, and planning. Enter the $99 VisiCalc program and the world of accounting was changed forever.

When the software hit the market under the name VisiCalc, Sneider became the first registered owner, spreadsheet user number one. The program could do in seconds what it used to take a person an entire day to do. This of course, poses a certain risk if your job is doing those calculations. And in fact, lots of bookkeepers and accounting clerks were replaced by spreadsheet software. But the number of jobs for accountants? Surprisingly, that actually increased. Here’s why – people started asking accountants like Sneider to do more. What if I hired more employees? What if I charged a little less for my product? What if I borrowed more money? Software made answering questions like these cheap and easy. Accountants became more valuable. They weren’t just adding up numbers, they were thinking creatively about business. And it went way beyond accountants.

It was not until I heard this story on the radio that I realized I had heard this story before. I do remember VisiCalc as I had a copy for my Atari 800, but I am referring to recently being told by two Plexxi customers how their workflow is different after SDN. The first customer sent an email to our support group, because they we using our controller to model different forwarding topologies in the network. They were trying different configurations to achieve a specific performance outcome. Our controller was calculating various topologies and producing a result, none of which met the customer’s objective and that is why they wanted assistance. The network was operational and this was not a customer outage issue. The customer was deploying more network switches and was modeling, prototyping various configurations before pushing a button to have them implemented. When Google started talking publically about their SDN efforts, one of the main benefits they described was:

High fidelity test environment: The entire backbone is emulated in software which not only helps in testing and verification but also in running “what-if” scenarios.

I was sitting with another customer a few weeks ago that has a good size network deployment (>1300x10G host ports and >30k VMs).  We were discussing the network and they said what is different about SDN, is what they do on a daily basis, the day after they deployed a Plexxi network. I am paraphrasing, but the comments centered around not having to rely on specially trained people primarily dedicated to daily break/fix activities. After moving to a controller-based architecture, the daily workflow of the specially trained people is different. They focus more on optimizing and tuning the network as a resource pool. They have more time to commit to what if scenarios and workflow planning and spend less time configuring ports and typing in CLS. Just as the modern spreadsheet made answering questions about the future operating model of the company easier, the modern controller can do the same about the network. What was once discreet configuration, debugging and analytical functions, are now harnessed under the power of compute and network engineers have more tools to use in the modern controller to elevate their daily workflow and become far more valuable to the organization.





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