It’s time for network professionals to elevate their game

Extreme Networks urges users to embrace change and help their companies do more through network innovation.

It’s time for network professionals to elevate their game
Zeus Kerravala

Enterprise networks certainly aren’t new. They’ve been around for decades and have historically been considered a tactical resource or even a commodity that most business leaders didn’t give a second thought to or really even understand.

It’s my belief, though, that the network should be considered a strategic resource that can create competitive differentiation. In fact, for as long as I’ve been analyst, it’s been my thesis that compute changes have continually driven network evolution and have made it more and more important.

The network is now a strategic business asset

As the industry has gone from mainframes to minicomputers to client-server to the cloud era, a couple of things have happened. The first is that the cost of computing has continued to fall through the floor. When I started my career, just a few megabytes of storage could cost thousands of dollars. Today, I can buy terabytes of cloud-based storage for just a few dollars per month.

The second trend is that the role of the network continued to grow in importance. A couple of decades ago, the network was used to transmit best effort traffic. Today, we live in a world where everything is connected, and the network connects users and things to applications, data, cloud services, and anything else we can think of.

In late April, I attended Extreme Networks user event, where the theme of the conference was “Elevate Your Game.” Given the shift in the role of the network, this theme was appropriate for the audience, which was primarily composed of network professionals. I don’t think all engineers are ready for this message, but it’s certainly one they need to hear.

Extreme CEO Ed Meyercord talks digital transformation and network skills   

During his keynote, Extreme CEO Ed Meyercord discussed digital transformation trends. He shared a few data points on what CEOs were hoping to accomplish with their digital transformation efforts, such as how 56 percent say digital transformation has increased profits and 58 percent say growth is their top priority.

Meyercord also showed where the investment areas will be for digital transformation over the next 12 months, including mobility, cloud, IoT, cybersecurity and artificial intelligence (AI). All of these technology areas rely heavily on the network, supporting my thesis that the network is now strategic and should be considered the foundation for digital transformation.

Another interesting set of data points during Meyercord’s keynote looked at the biggest challenges with networks today. Not surprisingly, the top response was a lack of agility, meaning changes can’t be made fast enough to keep up with the needs of the business. The second highest response was “culture – trapped in 1999,” which is an admission that network teams still do things the old way. Meyercord’s message to the audience was clear: If network professionals are to elevate their games, they must give up on the ways of the old and be willing to change and do things differently.

I’m in full agreement with the message from Extreme’s CEO. There is some urgency to make changes because businesses are evolving very fast, and those that are willing embrace the new world will indeed elevate their game and be more valuable to their organizations. Those that do not will struggle to remain relevant.

Skills network engineers need to adopt

If you don’t believe that is true, ask yourself, how many mainframe or legacy PBX administrator are there today? Sure, a few may be kicking around, but most of those jobs have gone away —and so will network engineers who insist on doing things the old way.

For professionals looking to evolve their skill set, here are few tips on how to proceed:

  • Embrace automation. This is perhaps the most important element of evolving one’s skill set. Automating many of the mundane, day-to-day tasks will free up the necessary time to learn new things. If you’re too busy running the status quo, you’ll never be able to look ahead and modernize your skill set. Automation has long been a dirty word in network circles because it was viewed as a threat to people’s jobs. The opinion of automation must change; it should be viewed as the engineer’s savior instead of the enemy. 
  • Shift to a policy-driven model. For most companies today, the network is the business. So if something changes in the business, the network also needs to adapt. The reactive way networks have operated is holding companies back, as it often takes months to implement a network change company-wide, which is far too slow for a digital business. Organizations need to automate, but what is the automation based on? The answer is business policies. These policies will dictate what changes need to be made and when, and they will ensure that the intent of those rules is always adhered to. A policy-driven model ensures the needs of the business are always being met.
  • Be willing to look at alternate architectures. The network architectures currently used in the majority of data centers, campuses, WANs, and edges have been in place for over 20 years and were designed for an era long gone. I understand change is scary and often intimidating, but network agility and automation really aren’t possible with older network devices and architectures. It’s time to take the blinders off and look at many of the newer platforms that can transform the network. For example, Extreme’s Fabric, from the acquisition of Avaya Networking, is based on the shortest path bridging (SPB) protocol and obviates the need for spanning tree and all the issues that come with it. It greatly simplifies network operations and increases agility.
  • Think data and analytics. We live in a world where virtually everything is being connected. Businesses aren’t connecting things just because it’s cool or “the new black.” Analyzing the data being generated from all these connected devices allows for new insights to be discovered to transform the business. The same can be said for the network. Collecting data and analyzing it, preferably with machine learning, can shed some light on how to optimize and tune the network for optimal performance. Data analysis can also be used for cybersecurity, as those anomalies and variances can be an indicator of a breach or advanced threat.

    Machine learning plays a key role here because machines can discover these insights much faster than people, and given the rise in the volumes of data, the gap between what people can do and what machines can do is widening.
  • Become software fluent. Every networking vendor today is putting more and more innovation in its software stack. Products from vendors such as Extreme all have rich APIs to interface with them and are programmable using modernized languages. This enables network professionals to pull information out of the product without having to go through the command line interface (CLI). Also, switches and routers today can be managed via orchestration tools such as Puppet, Ansible, and Chef. If you’re working with network equipment today, it’s critical to understand how to make API calls and write basic scripts. Understanding how to program isn’t crucial, but it is certainly beneficial.

Extreme's user event was long overdue, especially for the "New Extreme," which is now a billion-dollar company from rolling up the assets of Avaya Networking, Zebra wireless, and Brocade's data center business. It now has a sizable customer base, and the Extreme team showed some good vision and thought leadership by urging its customers to elevate their game. 

Note: Extreme is a client of ZK Research.

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