We recently had the opportunity to sit down with Nick Goldwater, a TAC (Technical Assistance Center) Engineer at Cisco, to discuss the future of Linux in networking and other applications. Read the interview to learn why Nick believes Linux is an essential skill for all engineers interested in networking or programming.
NDG Interviewer: Thank you, Nick, for joining us today. We’re excited to get your insights into the evolving role of Linux in networking and other applications. Can you start by describing what you do at Cisco?
Nick: My name is Nick Goldwater and I’m a TAC engineer for Cisco. I work in the management applications area, currently supporting a brand new product called APIC-EM.
A typical day for me involves getting cases from customers, from application bugs all the way to configuration issues and general questions. What I support is based on Linux. So a lot of the time, I’m in their machines troubleshooting.
NDG Interviewer: Got it, very cool. Why did you start learning Linux in the beginning?
Nick: I first started being interested in Linux back in 2001. I was working at a bank, and I ended up being in the wide area networking group. I was tasked with monitoring all of the remote branches, and I was looking at open-source alternatives to these very expensive applications [that were on the market]. That’s where I first got into Linux, because I had to install it. It was on Redhat, and I think I learned a lot from that experience, because it was difficult.
And then I just did it for fun, because there was not really a direct job for me. I was doing networking at the time. What’s funny now is that everything is converging, and Linux is networking. So when you think about firewalls and things like that, it’s based on Linux. It’s IP tables. And then later on in my career I ended up working for a startup that was 100% Linux-based and it was easier for me just to use Linux all the time. I just never went back after that. In fact, Windows 10 sort of scares me.
NDG Interviewer: You sound like you learned Linux on your own, not the traditional university education.
Nick: I taught it all to myself. The advice I’d give others is if you want to learn, you’ve got to do stuff with it. I wouldn’t read about it. I would install it, and then figure out something I wanted to do. And then read about that, and make mistakes and fix them.
What’s interesting about Linux is that it levels the playing field a lot. Traditionally, if you wanted to have experience on large network devices—take for example a Nexus 7000 or 9000—first of all you would have to work for a large corporation or government organization. You couldn’t get that experience at a small business. And if it’s in production, no one is going to let you touch it anyway, so what kind of learning are you going to get? And these things cost so much money, it’s not like you’re going to buy one and take it home and play with it.
Whereas Linux is free, and it’s enterprise software. It’s running everything, and you can install it and run it and play with it on a very low-end laptop. And that’s very powerful because you can get the same skills everybody else has, because you have access to the tools.
NDG Interviewer: Definitely. One thing that you’ve mentioned is that Linux isn’t just for the Linux sysadmins anymore. It’s in networking. It’s in DevOps. It’s everywhere. How does Linux benefit the non-sysadmin, the other IT professionals?
Nick: The reason Linux has just taken off is because there is no licensing. You don’t have to pay Microsoft every time you create an Android phone or an embedded system or anything. I’d say that as of six years ago, 98% of Cisco products had open source in them.
Technology is converging, and networking is moving up the OSI stack. Traditional network skills are being deprecated in favor of application-level or programming-level skills.
A lot of people in the industry today are faced with having to learn a whole lot of new skillsets. There was once a time when I never would have looked at a database, but now that’s part of my job. Databases are part of everything. Especially with network management, you have to keep up with a lot of variables. That’s a challenge for people coming up—how fast these things are changing. But Linux itself is pretty solid. It changes, but it is basically the same as it was in the beginning. It just has a whole lot more lines of code in it.
NDG Interviewer: Would you say that Linux has opened doors for you in your career?
Nick: Great question. It wasn’t intended, but it did. Because I was the guy who knew how to do stuff. People would just say, “Well, Nick knows it,” and so I would do it. And then I had a laptop running Linux, and that’s weird to a lot of people. People would then say, “Okay, well, you can help with this.”
I’ve been saying for a very long time that we need to have more people with Linux skills, because the writing is on the wall. Up to this point it was optional, but for people entering the field today it’s not optional. It’s just part of the base repertoire of skills that you need. And I’m not saying you have to be an expert. I’m just saying you have to be able to navigate and understand what you’re doing enough to do your job.
NDG Interviewer: What Linux knowledge would you recommend for future engineers and students?
Nick: It would depend on where they’re going. If they’re looking to do stuff with embedded systems and if they want to really know what the kernel is all about, because that’s the thing that talks to devices, that’s your window in. Basic navigation, knowing how to partition a drive—the basic sysadmin stuff. That’s always good to have, and I wish that all programmers had that, honestly, because I’ve supported programmers that are programming and they don’t understand the operating system. And that provides challenges of its own, so if people are going to go into programming, it’s good to know.
The only way to learn it is to actually do something with it. Reading a book is not going to get you to learn it. I’ve hosted my own email for probably ten years now, but that started as just something I wanted to try: “Can I make this work?” And then there’s all this media stuff. There are entire distributions dedicated to making music. And, surprisingly, a lot of those big programs that you can pay for, their guts are open-source projects.
NDG Interviewer: That’s great. Anything else you want to add before we close?
Nick: Just how important I think it is. We need these skills, and they’re hard to find. Everybody that has these skills has a job. So when we’re looking for good candidates that can come in and hit the ground running, it’s hard to find the right mix, and Linux is missing a lot of the time.