From the Blogosphere
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
By: Michael Bushong
Jan. 28, 2014 11:00 AM
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
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
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
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
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
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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