Juniper Buries The Headline at NFD20

What do you do when you arrive at a technical conference and the vendor doesn’t tell you anything about their product line? Instead, they tell you how they are helping the technical community learn new skills and become a greater asset to their companies?

One of my favorite presentations at Networking Field Day 20 (#NFD20) was given by Juniper Networks. Imagine my surprise when Mike Bushong opened the hour long discussion by saying that the focus wasn’t to be on routing and switching platforms; rather, it was to look at Juniper’s free online learning tool. Automation is the locomotive coming down the track. Technologists can either get on the train or have their careers left behind at the station but so many don’t know where to start. The cool thing is Juniper wants to make it easier to get on-board and is eager to help.

Juniper is offering two options to learn the coding-arts and both are great tools. NRE Labs is for those that have minimal experience in automation. EngNet is there to assist network professionals in the deployment of trusted applications into their environments. NRE Labs seems to be more for the newbie trying to get up to speed and EngNet is for the more seasoned NetDevOps professional. Today I’ll focus on NRE Labs.

NRE Labs, Awesome Can Be Free

When you first log in to the NRE Labs site you’ll notice a significant difference from other vendor-maintained labs. Juniper doesn’t ask for an email address, phone number, mailing address, or any other personal information. When Juniper says this is “free” service, they really mean it. It is published in Antidote and the lab scripts are maintained in the NRE Learning GitHub repository.

After you take in all the free content you may realize you don’t know where to start. From personal experience I can say that I’m not a very good programmer. I tend to know what I’d like to do, just not quite how to get there or even ramp it up to scale. If you’re in that camp check out the NRE Labs Advisor by clicking on the “Search Lessons” button. Just type the name of the technology you’d like to learn in the advisor search field and contextualized suggestions show you where you may want to start.

What happens when you know enough about a subject to be dangerous? You’re above the beginner stage but not quite proficient in the intermediate details of the technology? Time is too valuable to sift through multiple lessons that you already know. When you click on the suggested topic provided by the Advisor you will be asked a series of questions where you rate your proficiency. It’s a self assessment to help connect you to the correct lesson. With results in hand you can begin your learning trip with some focused energy.

Once you’ve selected your lesson the lab will spin up and show you two panes. The first contains the text of the lesson including code snippets you’ll need to execute for successful completion. The other pane is a console connection to the systems you will use for the lab. For example, within “Multi-Vendor Network Automation with NAPALM” you’ll have access to a Linux and Jun-OS command shell.

Hands-on labs while you read through the technology material is an andragogy. Many of us have learned this way. Engineers like to get their hands dirty and I’d argue it’s because that’s how we learn to modify the stuff away from “green field” deployment described in a book, to “brown field” deployment in our own environments. Engineers don’t do new things; we make the new things work with the old!

Why Does Juniper Do This?

In the day of social media companies and search engines offering you free services in exchange for your personal information to sell, why in the world does Juniper offer this service? Forgive me for being cynical but there has to be a catch.

Bushong stepped in and answered it by saying Juniper believed their automation technologies were the best in the industry. By helping network engineers who have been lagging in this skillset improve in a vendor-agnostic environment, Juniper may be seen as a partner in the future. If Juniper is a good partner on the learning side, it’s likely they can be a good partner on the product side, too. It simply boils down to enabling potential customers to focusing on adopting automation strategies to drive them to Juniper products. You don’t need customer email addresses with this strategy.

When vendors like Juniper take the time to support these learning tools without the expectation of a sales weasel calling you, it certainly is a shot-in-the-arm for vendor trust. There are other merchants who have public labs; Cisco and VMWare offer similar experiences. The difference is you have to authenticate yourself with your email address or GitHub/Facebook/Twitter or some other social-media account. The folks at Juniper NRE Labs don’t seem to be misleading when they say “free,” and have put together a great learning tool.

Be certain to give this a test drive and then let the people in your IT community know about it. NRE Labs should not be the best kept secret. To learn more about them, watch their presentation at Network Field Day 20 on Vimeo or YouTube.

Brian Gleason is a full-time Lead Network Engineer for an Austin, Tx company and is currently pursuing the Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert, Data Center certification. He also teaches firearms in his spare time after being a husband to his wonderful wife and father to his three awesome kids. Brian was selected as a delegate to Network Field Day 20 held in San Jose, CA.