Is infrastructure relevant in a software-defined world?

In the world of software-defined everything, the role of infrastructure is shifting dramatically and forcing technical professionals to adapt.

The Software-Defined World
Credit: Pixabay

I’ve never been what you might call “handy.” I don’t work on cars, and I’m not good at fixing things around the house.

I think that’s why I was drawn to working with IT infrastructure—I could get my hands dirty without, well, getting them dirty.

There was just something visceral about putting my hands on a piece of computer or network hardware and making it work.

For me, those days are long past. The big question today, however, is if they will soon be in the past for everyone.

The software-defined world

As an industry analyst, technology vendors constantly brief me on emerging technologies and their impact on enterprise organizations. The rate of evolution is staggering.

But you know what vendors rarely brief me on? Anything physical.

Software-defined everything is another in a long line of industry buzzwords. But it is a lot more reality than hype. While there is debate about the details, it’s hard to argue against the core benefits of decoupling software logic from the physical hardware.

While industry pundits often discuss the software-defined everything movement separately from cloud, they are really two form-factors of the same thing: a movement away from the management of physical assets.

Infrastructure in the digital enterprise

There has always been a divide within the world of IT. In fact, I devoted an entire chapter of my first book, The Quantum Age of IT: Why Everything You Know About IT is About to Change, to the cultural differences between development teams and their infrastructure and operations brethren.

The perceived balance of power has shifted back and forth a few times throughout our history, but it was always somewhat academic: Neither side could function without the other—and they both knew it.

That’s not quite true any longer.

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The succeeding evolutions of software/infrastructure/platform as a Service, have enabled development teams—not to mention business units themselves—to skip over infrastructure and just focus on the application.

Traditional data center strategies were slower to transform, mostly driven by large sunk-investments, but IT organizations are now rushing to replace legacy infrastructure technologies with webscale architectures, specialized appliances and software-defined networks (SDN).

The rise of DevOps is bringing the concepts of continuous delivery and automated deployments to the forefront of the IT infrastructure world—and making it easier and easier for development teams to manage their own infrastructure needs.

All of which begs the question: Is there a future for IT infrastructure professionals?

Reorienting to advantage

Being an old network engineer, it’s a question that cuts deep. While I have performed every role in IT, I’ll always consider myself an “infrastructure guy.”

But as an industry, it is time to acknowledge that we are moving into a post-infrastructure IT world.

This doesn’t mean the world is coming to an end for IT professionals who work in infrastructure and operations. But it is time to acknowledge that these jobs are rapidly and irrevocably changing—and to begin preparing our infrastructure teams for this future.

During a recent conversation with the CEO of a leader in the software-defined WAN (SD-WAN) space, I pointed out that his product must threaten network engineers. His response was telling.

He said an SD-WAN enabled network engineers to move beyond the grunt work of network management and re-focus on the organization’s strategic growth initiatives by tuning the infrastructure to support organizational speed and agility.

It’s a fair answer, but it obscures a less rosy fact: Software-defined infrastructures will require fewer management resources—and those resources will require higher-level skill sets.

As IT infrastructures continue the inexorable march toward automation and self-service, IT organizations will require fewer and fewer people to manage them. Most important, the function and requirements of those roles will shift dramatically.

The focus of this new breed of infrastructure professional will be on architecting and tuning the infrastructure to deliver critical strategic capabilities: speed, agility and resilience. The most successful will be those professionals who can provide their organizations with the ability to adapt to an unknown future.

This focus will require a very different skill set. Technical skills will be necessary, but they will not be enough. Those technical skills must be coupled with an intimate understanding of the organization’s market, differentiation strategies and operating model—so that the infrastructure can be architected and tuned to provide advantage to the organization.

It’s time to accept that it’s a new world for infrastructure professionals—and now is the time to adapt to this future.

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