Why your network admins are nervous

Network pros know that SDN promises to rock their world. But those who prepare for the change will find new opportunities. Here’s how to help your staffers keep their skills ahead of the curve.

nervous admin
Bryan Rosengrant (CC BY-ND 2.0)

This past summer, the White Rose Academies Trust in Leeds, England, kicked off a project that represented the first step on a journey to a software-defined networking platform -- and the move precipitated some career changes, both positive and negative, for the IT staff.

The educational institution plans to deploy a virtualized network solution to replace networks serving 3,000 students and 500 employees at its three schools. But before the project could begin, Richard Shaw had to make some tough staffing decisions.

"The older regime of network managers were sort of plodding along," says Shaw, the trust's service delivery manager. "They never went out and learned the new skills or adapted to virtualization." Shaw felt it was necessary to replace one network manager, a 25-year veteran, and he put a second one on notice. However, he was also able to promote an IT technician to a network manager role for the project. Now, he says, "I have a dynamic team of all levels who are always wanting to learn or investigating new technologies themselves."

It's a cautionary tale for network administrators and network engineers facing an uncertain future with the emergence of software-defined networking. IDC expects the SDN market to reach $8 billion by 2018, up from about $960 million in 2014 -- an uptick that represents a compound annual growth rate of more than 89%.

SDN encompasses several kinds of technologies aimed at making networks as agile and flexible as the virtualized servers and storage infrastructures of modern data centers. Enterprises like the idea of SDN because they feel it offers more speed and agility. But moving to SDN means that many network administrator functions, like configuring and reconfiguring gear via command line interfaces (CLI), will become automated.

Today, many businesses are still just dabbling with SDN for uses such as private cloud deployments and Web scaling, but IDC analysts expect adoption to pick up rapidly. Shaw says it will take two to three years before the White Rose Academies Trust adopts a cloud-based data center model. "It's a learning curve for myself and my team, so we're doing it in half steps," he says. "The key for us is not to take on too much too soon."

A career turning point

No doubt, SDN promises to change the roles and responsibilities of network administrators and engineers as companies look to replace break-fix, troubleshooting, CLI-jockeying specialists of today's network teams with people who can contribute to the success of the business from an architecture and automation standpoint.

Industry watchers say this could be good news for network professionals. With change comes opportunity for those who embrace it.

"[Network engineers] who really get it are coming to grips with the fact that their value does not lie in knowing obscure CLI commands," says Joe Skorupa, an analyst at Gartner. "They're coming to understand the value in being responsive to the needs of the business." They know that the walls that separate IT silos will have to come down, and roles and responsibilities will evolve.

However, not all network engineers are optimistically embracing change. "Some are still very much threatened by automation," Skorupa says. "They don't have the skill set or haven't done that kind of work in the past. In organizations where there's a DevOps mindset, the tools they might want to use are very different from the tools the network engineers might want to use to achieve programmability."

For others, SDN will bring a huge cultural shift -- the end of the save-the-day hero era, where network admins raced in at 3 a.m. on Sunday to fix a problem.

"The average age of the networking person is mid to late 40s. They've been the center of attention, so getting them to change is going to be hard," says Andre Kindness, an analyst at Forrester Research. But change they must: They've got about five years to come around before SDN infiltrates the mainstream enterprise, he adds.

SDN will change the roles, responsibilities, skills, mindset and success metrics of network engineers. "Engineers in other industries don't get accolades for fixing problems -- their rewards are based on reliability and quality of the product," Kindness says. "In the networking world, they put out fires and discover issues. How do you change that mindset? By rewarding them for things like uptime, customer satisfaction and customer experience -- things that the business engineers in other industries are evaluated on."

But fear not: Network engineers and admins who prepare themselves will find that SDN offers plenty of opportunities to be a hero.

"I think there's a lot they can bring from the network side in terms of helping the developers really appreciate how the network can bring value in the equation," says IDC analyst Brad Casemore. "The networking professionals who are savvy about this are going to have a very good future."

Get a jump-start

Even if your company's SDN direction is uncertain, there are skills that can put network pros ahead of the curve and help IT leaders get their teams ready.

At HP Enterprise Services, a decision on a specific SDN technology to use is about two years away, but in the meantime, network managers are trying to determine how to best support SDN and ensure that their teams will be ready for the next phase of network management, says Phil Thacker, solutions consultant.

"[SDN is] just not there yet for large-scale, global, enterprise deployments. With disruptive technologies, you really don't want to put them into your core network until they're proven," Thacker says. But "there are pieces of SDN that teams can play with now," he adds, noting that "Cisco is deploying their version of SDN, HP has some cool options on their platforms, and CA has aspects of SDN built into their management tools."

And analysts say it's a good idea to get up to speed with whatever's available.

"Network pros have to get the skills to do the programming work," especially if they want to merge with the DevOps operation, Skorupa says. "That can mean learning about SDN through a new management console offering that your vendors provides, or becoming knowledgeable about OpenStack" open-source, cloud computing software.

It's also a good idea to get acquainted with technologies derived from Linux, such as the Linux Programming Interface, according to Casemore. "Python scripting is another good place to start because it has a lot of applicability," Casemore says. "You can also learn more about the service-side automation tools that can be used across the network -- things like Puppet, Chef, Ansible, SaltStack and CFEngine."

If your IT department uses VMware, then learn more about VMware's SDN technologies. If you're in a Microsoft shop, your network team should learn more about the Azure stack and those technologies, he adds.

And don't forget about soft skills. Communicating with people in business units will become a must, and network engineers might even be expected to walk the halls and (gasp!) speak with business managers about their specific needs. "You'll have to get out there and engage," Kindness says. Networking pros will also have to learn to let go a little "and think, 'How do I let others change the network as needed, but within some boundaries?'" he says.

Don't wait for a push

If your IT department has no plans to adopt SDN in the foreseeable future, you might want to try to attain some SDN-related skills on your own. "If you're in an organization that's in a changed-out cultural mode, you're not going to get there. By the time the rest of the world changes, it might be too late for you," Casemore says.

The sense of urgency to update skills varies by industry. "I don't think we've ever seen a more fragmented market in terms of where different segments of the market are with respect to SDN, DevOps, automation and programmability," Casemore says. Large cloud-based behemoths like Google and Twitter are "worlds ahead" in software automation, followed by financial services companies and a sprinkling of companies in other vertical industries where IT leaders are consistently on the leading edge, he says.

"We've probably never seen it this splintered, and it presents a challenge for IT professionals, because if you're not in that vanguard, then you're not being pushed to learn these new skills."

Familiarizing yourself with SDN technology is recommended, but formal training or a new certification might not be a good option if a move to SDN isn't imminent. At HP Enterprise Services, "some of my younger engineers want to jump on SDN training, but I have to tell them not yet because we don't know which technology is being deployed," Thacker says. "You have to align your strategy with training and deployment." If engineers have SDN training today, but the technology isn't deployed for a year, "then it's wasted training," he says.

Today, Thacker is more focused on ensuring that his network engineers are familiar with OpenFlow, a programmable network protocol designed to manage and direct traffic among routers and switches from various vendors.

"Make sure your engineers and network admins are familiar with OpenFlow protocols," he says. "As SDN matures, I think you're going to see these certifications settle out."

Turf wars?

Many HP network engineers and administrators are getting more familiar with virtualization servers, and for good reason, according to Thacker.

"I think the CIOs and IT directors will have a big challenge in the future," he says. "We're seeing it already: The server guys feel more like SDN is in their realm. But they don't necessarily have all the network-based skills, all the way down to subnet addressing."

This could set the stage for a turf war, because the organization of tomorrow is going to be more of a blended group. "A lot of virtual switches reside in your servers. That blending is already occurring," Thacker says. "I think it's going to be an even more blurred line in the future as SDN becomes a reality."

Still holding out? You'd better be the smartest person in the room.

If you just can't get excited about changing your networking ways to embrace SDN, or if you think that keeping your head down or being "the smart network guy" will give you a secure future in your network admin position -- you might be right, Casemore says.

"There will always be a need for a small number of super-technical people. While the programmability of SDN is great and, yes, it will lower your overhead and give you greater agility and repeatability, you can't afford to technically bankrupt your organization. Things will still break," he says. "If you gut your team, when something bad or challenging happens or an interesting opportunity presents itself, you'll be unable to respond." That's true whether it's in networking, servers or storage, he adds.

Most companies will need only two or three people with really deep technical knowledge -- not 20, he cautions.

Will some network admin jobs eventually be lost to SDN? Some analysts say yes. When HP does finally migrate to SDN, Thacker says it's likely that some jobs will be eliminated, but more likely in operations.

Kindness believes the number of network administrator jobs won't decline; the skill sets will just evolve. The key is to evolve with them, he says.

A seat at the table

While job security is a legitimate concern, Casemore thinks there's a broader picture that's more positive. "Networking is finally taking its place at the table with other technologies that are really contributing meaningfully to business outcomes," he says.

Upscale retailer Nordstrom is ahead of the curve. At a recent Interop Las Vegas, Courtney Kissler, vice president of e-commerce and store technologies, described how her team now includes business product managers and mobile app and networking professionals who work side by side. A new mentality has emerged that everyone is accountable and must work together to help roll out a great application, she says.

For most enterprises, however, the cultural shift toward SDN and its new roles and responsibilities will take more time.

"Networking is an industry in transition," Skorupa says, "and simply looking back at what was valuable doesn't present you with the best options going forward." In many ways, the network engineers of today face the same sort of threat that voice engineers faced 15 to 20 years ago when IP telephony first came out.

"They saw a significant amount of their highly valued skills become significantly devalued. That doesn't mean they went to zero, but you had to learn the new while preserving some knowledge of the old, or you found yourself on the outside pretty quickly," Skorupa says. "Network engineers have that same risk and opportunity."

This story, "Why your network admins are nervous" was originally published by Computerworld.

Copyright © 2016 IDG Communications, Inc.

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