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What Networking Can Learn from the NFL

It is the NFL’s overall position on its own evolution that has secured its place at the top of the entertainment pantheon

We are a few short days away from the biggest spectacle in sports – the Super Bowl. It is impossible to avoid talk this week of Peyton Manning, the Denver Broncos, the Seattle Seahawks, and the NFL in general. But does the NFL have anything to teach tech industries?

The NFL is a massively successful franchise by almost any measure. Despite a rash of recent scandals including a pay-for-injury bounty program and a major law suit and settlement tied to concussions, the league continues to grow its fan base – both in the US and abroad – while raking in record numbers of viewers and revenue. At the heart of the NFL’s resilience when it comes to scandal and its seemingly bottomless pit of revenues is an uncanny to reinvent itself.

In fact, it is the NFL’s overall position on its own evolution that has secured its place at the top of the entertainment pantheon.

Instant Replay in the NFL
The NFL adopted instant replay in 1986 after a fairly healthy debate. Detractors would point out that part of the history of the NFL was that the game was officiated by humans, complete with their flaws. Games had been decided in the past by a team of officials who had to get it right in the moment, and changing that would somehow alter the NFL’s traditions. But it took only a few high-profile officiating mishaps played back on national television to sway sentiment, and in 1986, by a vote of 23 to 4 (with one abstaining), the NFL ushered instant replay into the league.

But instant replay’s first stint in the NFL lasted only until 1992. In its first incarnation, instant replay ranged from effective to wildly unpopular. The rules for which plays could be reviewed was not always clear. The process was slow and at times awkward, making games take too long. And the original incarnation of instant replay allowed officials to review their own calls, which led to somewhat maddening outcomes.

Instant replay went dark until making its triumphant return in 1999. With a few process tweaks (coaches being able to challenge specific calls) and the advance of technology (HD and more angles), the system is clearly here to stay.

But what is so important about how the NFL rolled out instant replay? And how does this apply to networking?

Instant Replay and Networking
First, it is worth noting that instant replay was not a unanimous choice. There were detractors – members of the Old Guard who thought that the new way of doing business was too big a departure from the past. In networking, we face much of the same. There are countless people who fight change at every step because it is not consistent with the old way of doing things. They cling to their technological religion while the rest of the world moves forward. It’s not that their experiences are not not relevant or even not important, but their inability to work alongside the disruptors means that those experiences are kept private, forcing the New Guard to stumble over many of the same obstacles. This is not good for anyone.

Second, we should all realize that instant replay was tried and it failed. But despite the failure, the NFL was able to bring it back to the great benefit of the game. As the SDN revolution wages on, there are people who point to the past. They say clever things like “All that is old is new again” or they refer derisively to past attempts the industry has made to solve some of the same problems being addressed by SDN today.

But if ideas were permanently shelved because of setback or failure, where would we be? Using the past as a compass for the future is helpful; clinging to the past and using it to justify a refusal to move forward is destructive.

And finally, the NFL has shown a remarkable ability to iterate on its ideas. Instant replay was successful in its second run because of the changes the NFL made. New technology will not be invented with perfect foresight. The initial ideas might not even be as important as the iterative adjustments. We need to embrace failure and use it to adapt and overcome. By not being religious about its history, the NFL has successfully evolved. The question for networking specialists everywhere is to what extent our own industry is capable of setting aside its sacred cows.

Rushing, West Coast Offense, Hurry-Up Offense
Football is remarkable in how much it changes over time. Decades ago, offense was all about having a good running back. The passing game was an afterthought, used to lure defenders away from the line of scrimmage. Those days yielded to a more pass-happy time featuring the San Diego Chargers’ Air Coryell offense and the Houston Oilers Run and Shoot. Those teams handed the offensive mantle over to Bill Walsh’s West Coast Offense. Then we saw New Orleans’ more vertical passing attack. And now we have the whole hurry-up offense.

It almost doesn’t matter what is different between these systems. That so many systems have been able to thrive is what is amazing. The NFL, despite its traditions, seems most committed to reinventing itself. And for every one of these offensive systems, there are a dozen others that failed to catch on.

Evolution and Networking
The NFL has figured out that they are a league that thrives on new ideas. Whether its the NFL as a whole, or individual teams and players, the entire league is committed to trying new things. That commitment has created a hyper-fertile breeding ground for new ideas. It is no surprise that the league has managed to reinvent itself every few years, much to the delight of its legions of fans.

Networking is going through an interesting time. This period of 3-4 years might very well be looked on as a Golden Era for networking. The amount of new ideas that are being tested in the marketplace right now is amazing. SDN, NFV, DevOps, Photonic Switching, Sensor Networking, Network Virtualization… and the list goes on. But these new ideas came on the heels of what really were the Dark Ages. After the Dot.com bust, the networking world went dark. Sure, there were new knobs and doodads that were useful for folks, but as an industry, the innovation was pretty incremental.

So when this Golden Era of Networking is over, which networking industry will we have? Will we return to the Dark Ages, or will we end up in another Period of Enlightenment? If the NFL is any indication of what continuous innovation looks like, it would seem the better answer is to embrace the new ideas. But are we culturally prepared to continue embracing disruption? Are we collectively unafraid of failure enough that this type of future suits us? If you ask me, we have to be.

Defense Wins Championships
There is an old saw that goes “Defense wins championships.” At this time of year, it gets trotted out as one of those universal truths. But here’s the reality: evolution wins championships. In the NFL, offenses and defenses win about the same amount (a slight nod to defenses, but only by a hair). It’s a team’s ability to evolve over the years – and even during the game – that dictates success.

Our industry is no different. We have our own Old Guard that talks about past technologies with the kind of reverence that you see when historians put on their smoking jackets and grab their pipes. But our industry is defined by its future more than its past. There is a lot to learn from our history, but if we let those teachings get in the way of our future, we will be no better off than we are now.

So when you are grabbing a beer or diving into that 7-layer dip at whatever Super Bowl party you end up at, talk about the role of innovation and how it reigns supreme over those dusty old defenses.

[Today's fun fact: Clans of long ago that wanted to get rid of their unwanted people without killing them used to burn their houses down, hence the expression "To get fired." I wonder where the term "lay off" came from then?]

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The best marketing efforts leverage deep technology understanding with a highly-approachable means of communicating. Plexxi's Vice President of Marketing Michael Bushong has acquired these skills having spent 12 years at Juniper Networks where he led product management, product strategy and product marketing organizations for Juniper's flagship operating system, Junos. Michael spent the last several years at Juniper leading their SDN efforts across both service provider and enterprise markets. Prior to Juniper, Michael spent time at database supplier Sybase, and ASIC design tool companies Synopsis and Magma Design Automation. Michael's undergraduate work at the University of California Berkeley in advanced fluid mechanics and heat transfer lend new meaning to the marketing phrase "This isn't rocket science."

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