Is the cisco CLI an Example of Rent Seeking?

Having worked with cisco CLIs through many maintenance windows in the early years of my career, I’ve come to not-like it as much as any other reasonably ambitious network engineer. Back in the late 90s I experienced a real eye-opener of a situation where a team of network engineers threatened to resign if the suggestion to introduce another CLI (read: JUNOS) in the network was made real. I can’t remember exactly, but I have this feeling that they wore their leather jackets during the meeting where things became agitated.

As I’ve been slowly immersing myself in network management over the recent years, I’ve had countless discussions with various makes of networking pundits on this particular topic. It’s just interesting to see how clever engineers go to extremes to maintain a form of status quo that they in any other context would understand to be a problem.

The most interesting take on this issue was conveyed to me by wise man with a lot of experience directly from the source of the problem in this example. His point was that in order to understand the proliferation of, and the lengths to which some engineers go to defend the CLI, one would benefit from understanding the concept of rent seeking. To quote Wikipedia:

In economics, rent-seeking is an attempt to obtain economic rent by manipulating the social or political environment in which economic activities occur, rather than by creating new wealth, for example, spending money on political lobbying in order to be given a share of wealth that has already been created. A famous example of rent-seeking is the limiting of access to lucrative occupations, as by medieval guilds or modern state certifications and licensures.

I could literally hear the coin drop in my own head as I read the last sentence of the above quote. Of course, the leather-jacketed engineers simply worked to maintain monopoly-like privileges and limit free competition on innovative improvements around working with router configuration. In hindsight it makes perfect sense (as always) and had I understood this at the time then I’m sure the ensuing screaming match would have turned more constructive faster.

When we eventually introduced M40s in the network one of the leather-jacketed guys told me in confidence that he wanted at least some of his IOS CLI years back now that he had been exposed to the JUNOS equivalent. At that point he understood the value of the CLI equivalent of a free enterprise approach. The good part of applying known problem definitions to your observations is that it usually comes with a set of solutions and rent-seeking is not different in that sense.

I’ll leave it as an exercise to the reader to find the most easily translated approach to breaking out of situations like this and would love to hear if people have experience with this pattern from other parts of our beloved networking industry.

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