Juniper Gear Trackside: An Interview with Joe Gibbs Racing CTO Jim Foley
Mar 10, 2016
Earlier this week, Joe Gibbs Racing (JGR) and Juniper Networks announced an eight-race sponsorship, beginning this weekend at Phoenix International Raceway. The curiously innovative collaboration also included Structured Communication Systems, Inc. The latest Juniper switching, security and automation solutions were installed into JGR’s headquarters in North Carolina and into two mobile network trucks for the team’s trackside operations.
Big data and analytics are game changers. I connected with Jim Foley, chief technology officer at Joe Gibbs Racing, to discuss the implementation of Juniper Networks gear into JGR’s operations and to get an inside look on how the deployment has changed things for the team in 2016.
Jonathan: When most people think of auto racing, networking is not the first thing that comes to mind. So, how does the network help you?
Jim: We use the network for communications, video, and data. Big data plays a huge part in racing today. We’re collecting data from the car and video from all over the track during each run. That information is getting distributed across the network in real-time to the drivers, crew and back to the shop where engineers in North Carolina provide real-time feedback to the racetrack. All that requires a fast, reliable network with capacity and no latency.
Jonathan: Fortunately, Juniper is very good at that sort of thing, but why is a fast, reliable network so crucial for your team?
Jim: There are lots of reasons, but I'll give you an example. When a driver is practicing out on the track, he wants to look over the data from the previous run to see how the car is performing. That information needs to be delivered while the run is fresh in his mind, making a connection with how his laps went tied in with the data. There is a LOT of video that gets processed among other telemetry data that needs to be backhauled to the HQ for analysis and then flipped back to the driver. So, it’s critical that we get that information quickly and that the network works as it should every time. We can’t waste our precious track time waiting for things to be transferred.
Jonathan: And this helps you create a competitive advantage on race day?
Jim: My goal is to get data as fast as I can to the fingertips of the people making decisions so they can make the necessary mechanical changes to the racecar and fine tune racing strategy. Every bit helps.
Jonathan: Pun intended? (laughs) Bringing gear trackside is a very unique environment that I imagine would be quite difficult. Can you describe what that is like?
Jim: We have 24-port and 48-port EX2200 switches, one in each truck and one in each pit box. A lot of this hardware isn’t typically turned on and off on a regular basis. When we tell other networking engineers that the truck gets turned off every night and booted up every morning, they’re shocked. Since we’re running such a unique environment, we’ve been monitoring the boot sequence carefully and Juniper switches have performed flawlessly -- We haven’t had any issues with constantly rebooting them like that. There was even one morning in Daytona that we came in and I swear it was about 37 degrees in that truck and I was wondering if there was even something on the spec sheet about the cold for these switches. We put the gear through a lot and so far it’s done really well.
Jonathan: Wow, that’s certainly not your typical environment. So many things could go wrong and a lot is at stake. I’m really curious to hear a little more.
Jim: Usually on Fridays, the garage opens at 8 o’clock in the morning and all the servers, switches, and everything else is powered up while everybody’s walking in the door. Since there are such strict rules on practice time, our guys have to run to the IT rack to try and get everything up and running as fast as possible from a cold start. Everything just has to work. There’s no time for trouble-shooting. There’s no “I’ll come in early or stay late to work on a problem.” It’s go-time as soon as the garage opens. That’s why I think of the guys at the track as fire preventers, not fire fighters -- that’s a unique challenge to this job. When a network engineer from what I call “the real world” comes in they’re just shocked at what we do. They’ll say “what do you mean you turn off everything every night?” and “what do you mean everybody shows up at the same time powering everything up?” and “what do you mean everything has to be up and running in four minutes of the garage opening?”. It’s definitely a unique and challenging environment.
Ready for race day. The Juniper racecar gets loaded up.
Jonathan: The pressure to perform almost seems like you guys are an “IT pit crew” of sorts. How did your team prepare?
Jim: In January, an entire week was dedicated to mimic the network that is setup at the track, right here in the shop. We brought in engineers from Structured to assist with the switch configurations and make sure the routing was all taken care of. We simulated the track mobile truck node to make sure things would go smoothly on location.
Jonathan: Sounds like a good example of “measure twice, cut once.” Did it pay off?
Jim: It gave us a huge leg-up heading into the season. We actually left that network up at the shop for a couple of weeks; it’s the first time we’ve ever had that luxury. This time around because of Juniper and Structured, we weren’t heading to Daytona with our fingers crossed, hoping that everything worked; we knew everything was fine before we hit the track. It was a huge advantage.
Jonathan: How long did the initial install take at JGR’s headquarters last summer?
Jim: There was a lot of planning ahead of time and we had project managers and engineers from Juniper and Structured there to help. From start to finish, the physical cut implementation took 72 hours, with only 12 hours to update the core.
Jonathan: And once you are on location, how do you keep things going smoothly?
Jim: As I mentioned, NASCAR has very strict rules regarding when we can get into the garage and how long we have to practice and test. You don’t get time back on the racetrack if things go wrong. As you can imagine, delays don’t go over well. We use Junos Space to manage the network and make sure everything is running as it should. Even though the mobile network trucks are traveling every week, Junos Space allowed us to tie everything together as if they were just another part of the JGR office. It’s a big advantage to be able to monitor these switches when they are up at the racetrack as if it’s an extension of the hardware we have deployed at the office, which is a lot of the EX2200 switches. Honestly, we were dealing with much less sophisticated systems before. The use of Juniper’s equipment and the monitoring tools in Junos Space to keep things clean at the track has been very key for us.
We’d like to thank Joe Gibbs Racing CTO Jim Foley for sitting down for an interview with us and wish them the best of luck in this weekend’s upcoming race.