SDN changing the shape of networking, IT careers

Jobs are on the line as new training, certifications are required to keep pace

Cisco recently announced new certifications for its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) programmable networking initiative, its response to software-defined networking. The certifications are designed to tailor new roles for IT practitioners looking to transition their company’s infrastructures to programmable, application policy driven, SDN-type environments.

Such certifications are expected to be the norm industrywide as SDN takes hold.

“If programmable network infrastructure is a strategic direction for (vendors) and their customers, when is the vendor going to include it in their training programs?” asks Andre Kindness, an analyst at Forrester Research. “Otherwise I’m not sure how networking personnel are supposed to take advantage of the vendors' SDN solutions. Fundamentally, vendors should enhance their training programs at the same time they come out with new technology.”

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“The need for new professional certifications and training programs for networking professionals is directly related to technology advances and market dynamics that are reordering IT as a whole,” says IDC analyst Brad Casemore. “The network and the professionals who run it must evolve. They can't be Luddites; that would not end well for them.”

Several career considerations are at play as SDN infiltrates enterprises and service provider networks. There's the issue of who in the data center or IT shop actually owns the virtual infrastructure and the policies that orchestrate it.

Server administrators have been steeped in virtualization for many years. Would they then be likely to take on administration of the virtual network? Or would network administrators, with decades of knowledge and experience in allocating physical network resources, now also learn and assume the added role of allocating virtual network resources to those mobile and dynamic workloads? If the server professionals end up owning network virtualization as well, where does that leave the network administrators? If the network admins end up owning the virtual as well as physical network, are the server admins left out?

So the SDN impact on IT may come down to an operational and organizational personnel decision. Does SDN offer opportunities to create cross-functional teams between separate server, storage, application and networking administrators?

Many IT operations now siloed will have to meld, says Robert Cannistra, a computer science and IT professor at Marist College.

“We’re still going to have niche guys but also people with a large-scale view,” Cannistra said at last fall’s Interop conference in New York. “Those are going to be your powerhouse guys and girls in the enterprise.”

At the same conference, Bloomberg R&D Network Architect Truman Boyes said SDN will be organizationally disruptive within his company.

“We’re trying to address it at an organizational level by rocking the boat,” he said. “We’ve put together a cloud team to straddle both worlds, jump start the rest of the organization. That will help us with time to market.”

“The networking professional must gain a greater appreciation of what's happening beyond the traditional networking silo, beyond physical connectivity and packet forwarding,” says IDC’s Casemore. “Context becomes critical now, and the context involves how the increasingly virtualized infrastructure supports the increasingly virtualized workloads.”

But first thing’s first. Before reorganizing IT and changing staff roles, everyone has to be comfortable with a new, software-defined IT environment.

“Most operations people will tell you they don’t trust software,” says Andy Brown, Group CTO at UBS, speaking at a software-defined data center conference last year. “So one of the things you have to do is win enough trust to get them to be able to adopt.

“When you think of all the other software abstraction we’re trying to introduce in parallel, someone’s going to cry uncle,” he says. “So all of these things need to interoperate with each other.”

Knowledge is key, according to Bill Hanna, vice president of technical services at the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center.

“Educate your IT staff on SDN,” he says. “You still need really smart people that are open to change.”

Even then, some may fall by the wayside, Kindness notes.

“Some jobs will evolve and require a more sophisticated skillset; other jobs will disappear,” he says. “For example, the automobile manufacturing assembly line is a perfect example of what will happen in networking. Automation and robotics took over a lot manual and repetitious work. While some parts of the assembly still required human assembly, the personnel started using more sophisticated tools.”

But what’s certain is that SDN and its concepts are changing networking and IT, so IT and networking professionals need to change along with it.

“The next era of networking increasingly will not necessarily be about network infrastructure sourced from a single vendor,” Casemore says. “A solution stack is coming into being that has clear abstractions, multiple layers, and various vendors providing key components at each layer. Networking professionals should consider forward-looking third-party training programs that explore context -- the changing nature of application workloads -- the role of infrastructure, the overall solution stack, the evolving toolset of the next-generation network professional, and the increasingly collaborative nature of IT management.”

“For too long networking professionals have been skating on their old skills for a variety of reasons,” says Kindness. “In general, they were the only ones who understood the complex world of networking so no one pushed them to do things differently. SDN, in many ways, will change that power structure and empower other teams to use the network. Fundamentally, some networking roles and responsibilities will disappear or shift.”

Jim Duffy has been covering technology for over 27 years, 22 at Network World. He also writes The Cisco Connection blog and can be reached on Twitter @Jim_Duffy.

Copyright © 2014 IDG Communications, Inc.

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