How network admins can survive SDN

sys admin
Credit: Flickr/Kevin

Prove the doomsayers wrong by maintaining the physical infrastructure, learning software building blocks

With the advent of SDN, there’s been a lot of speculation about the future of the network administrator.

Some doomsayers predict the network admin will be obsolete as network virtualization becomes the responsibility of the server or systems admin already in charge of server virtualization. Or that as SDN applications take on more network intelligence in order to program what network resources they need, the application developers might take over the role of network admin.

Then again, they might not.

Networking staffers could use the SDN/DevOps opportunity to make themselves more valuable to their IT organizations. They could get out in front of this new wave and show IT the new tools and capabilities available to them to manage and control the network.

Network admins could also take a lead role in integrating the new SDN/DevOps environment with the existing legacy network. Even though SDN is expected to eventually supplant traditional networks, there will be years where SDN, hybrid and legacy networks, and the applications and services they support, co-exist.

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“While responsibilities will evolve and certain tasks will disappear, infrastructure and operations organizations will still have a need for network administrators,” says Forrester Research analyst Andre Kindness. “Even if an enterprise had a 100% SDN infrastructure, someone will be needed to deploy, manage, and troubleshoot the network infrastructure - a combination of SDN solutions, software, hardware, WAN services, and adjacent technologies.”

“Did server virtualization kill the sys admin? No, but it did drive some evolution around provisioning, management and automation,” says Brent Salisbury, one of the founders of DevOps networking-for-Docker start-up SocketPlane. “It’s reasonable to expect the same gradual change in networking professionals over the next decade.”

That change will be required for network admins to remain relevant in the software-centric world of SDN and DevOps -- they must learn new skill sets and new tools.

Do they need to learn software programming? That depends on how deeply entrenched and relevant they want to be in this new world.

If applications and services eventually have the ability to declare what they need from the network, and those requirements are automatically spun up in an SDN, who “owns” that capability, that interaction? Some are betting on the systems or server admins owning that process; that’s what network admins either have to head off or acquiesce to.

“Software development teams working on network solutions should be actively looking to recruit the network engineers that have embraced DevOps and software development,” says Salisbury. “It will reduce the risk of developers creating complex solutions to nonexistent problems or solutions that lack a realistic migratory path that never find adoption.”

The convergence of application development and network virtualization brought about by DevOps and SDN may bring those two disciplines under a single area of control, like application developers or server admins. Since more and more network configuration and service level information would be embedded in the application under the SDN model, the people responsible for it may be the server admin or an application developer.

But these potential shifts in responsibility still depend on a capable underlying network. And whatever gets deployed under the SDN/DevOps process will have to co-exist with legacy technology and use it as its foundation for many years.

And the caretaker of that foundational network is the network administrator.

“An enterprise wide SDN network isn’t going to happen overnight,” says Kindness. “This is going to be 20 year process for many to transition their network and IT mindset. At the very least, companies will still need network administrators to maintain the legacy sections.”

While server and application admins are learning the ins and outs of SDN and DevOps, and how to tie it all into VMs and applications, they won’t have time to learn about what the network admin already knows about the existing infrastructure. And knowing that will be important if the goal is to tie network behavior, on an individual element level, to the specific requirements of the application.

A deep level understanding of the existing network will be necessary as well when any problems crop up in software defining how it operates. And problems will crop up, especially as the network becomes more policy-based and security-dependent.

Network administrators will be needed to actively monitor and troubleshoot the network to make sure application-driven policies interact seamlessly and don’t disrupt network operations. And when this application-driven policy transition takes hold, network security will become paramount: ensuring that application policies don’t disrupt security policies will require someone with a deep understanding of both the network infrastructure and security architecture, and any potential impact a new operational model might present.

All this, of course, flies in the face of those who say software defining a network means the server or application specialist can now run the network. These are the same people who say that, just like server virtualization, configuring and operating an SDN won’t require a CCIE or another certified specialist.

They demonstrate their point by noting that popular automation tools, like Puppet and Chef, are already allowing server admins to provision network resources on their own. And application developers might use SDN orchestrators to not only document what they need from the network, but also what they need from the storage arrays, server trays, hypervisors, and security and compliance servers, for example.

But again, ensuring the individual network elements behave as instructed by the application policy or SDN controller might come down to the individual who knows the physical network best. Allowing server admins to define, execute and deliver QoS or service-level agreements from an SDN controller sounds great in theory; but if something happens along the way and it happens at the network device level, who are you going to call?

“The days of provisioning via emails lost in someone’s inbox, cumbersome ticketing with token sign off and once a week or month change control is a drain on an organizations productivity and bottom line,” Salisbury says. “But when those services break, you can bet the network novice won't be the one finding the needle in the packet capture haystack anywhere near as fast as the seasoned network engineer.”

Network engineers with programming skills may be the best suited to make sure everything runs smoothly in the SDN/DevOps environment. The server admin and the application developer can define what the application or workload needs; but the network admin can make it work down to the device level, and ensure it stays up.

Salisbury recommends network admins become steeped in the software building blocks of SDN and DevOps: Linux; Puppet and Chef provisioning; Python scripting; and popular provisioning and orchestration projects such as Docker for containers and Openstack for virtual machines.

“Start hacking on some code and how to use, and I can all but guarantee if you begin contributing to open source infrastructure projects you will have job offers in a matter of months,” Salisbury says. “Even if you don't push software patches, reporting bugs is incredibly useful and appreciated by the project maintainers.”

So instead of feeling threatened by SDN and DevOps, network admins have an opportunity to demonstrate their value and worth. Further development of SDN and DevOps skills, and software programmability might enable them to stave off the irrelevancy many predict awaits them in the software-centric world.

“Will we need as many networking professionals? Probably not,” says Kindness. “The ones that don’t have programming expertise will, more than likely, be the first to go. The expertise will be shifted from getting individual switches to interact to getting sub systems, comprised of multiple components, to interact with each other. Therefore certifications and specialization will evolve.”

IT shops and cloud providers will look to hire – or retain – those network engineers that can help orchestrate the network along with and on behalf of the applications, storage, compute and other resources. So network admins must stake ownership of their networks and show that their application service delivery skills are just as important, if not more, than anyone else’s in the SDN/DevOps world.

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