Do network pros need to up their DevOps chops?

For decades, network professionals needed to know router protocols and command-line interfaces, but with the advent of programmable networks, in order to advance in their careers it may be prudent to get training writing code.

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Alex Kotliarskyi (CC0)

If you are a career networking professional – be it a network architect, engineer, manager— do you need to advance your skillset to include programming and other DevOps skills to better serve you and your company?

It depends on who you ask as to how much DevOps skills you need, but it seems clear network professionals need to expand beyond their traditional roles if they are to make career headway in the future.

“There is a belief that unless we train the existing people who know networking and security into becoming better at data and coding we are not going to be able to attract from the outside data folks because they are doing [other DevOps work],” said Roland Acra, senior vice president and general manager of Cisco’s data-center business. “We have a big reservoir of very smart people in networking and we need to generate from that a subset of people who become the coders and data people of tomorrow."

In short order what used to be an industry where you had to know network protocols really well, and you had to know how to write scripts with command line interfaces (CLI) is getting to the point that network pros need to have programming chops as well in order to fully tap the  potential of all the networking data we are generating, Acra said. 

Indeed an example of at least one of those core programming changes taking place comes from Gartner which almost two years ago said that by 2020, only 30% of network operations teams will use the CLI as their primary interface, down from 85% at the end of 2016. Text-based CLI has been the primary operational tool for mainstream network operations teams for easily the past 15-20 years, Gartner stated.

Cisco, Juniper, Arista and other networking and third-party vendors are looking to spur a flock of future NetDevOps professionals.

Cisco in particular has its DevNet community which has a number of classes, programs and resources for network professionals.

“Within DevNet – which now has over 500,00 participants – we have about half application developers and half infrastructure people, and we have seen a tremendous uptick in the number of networkers who want to pick up a DevOps skill,” said Susie Wee, CTO of Cisco’s DevNet group. “The entire infrastructure is now programmable and developers now have APIs that that the can employ to  do automation, orchestration, telemetry and a host of new applications they couldn’t before.”

But moving network professionals to the software domain may not be all that straightforward, experts say. 

Cisco has made strides with DevNet, but challenges remain. With DevNet, Cisco is attempting to bring network programmability to two distinct constituencies: developers and network engineers/network operators, said Brad Casemore, IDC's research vice president, data-center networks. 

“Let’s deal with Cisco’s traditional buying center first. To what degree will network engineers and operators embrace the ethos of software development? Many networking professionals chose their vocations partly because they didn’t want to become developers,” Casemore said.  

“What does DevNet mean for Cisco’s traditional buying center – CCIEs and network engineers? Is the expectation that they’ll actually become developers and program the network, or that they’ll learn to automate the network to serve the needs of applications, developers and lines of business? I tend to think Cisco will have more success with the latter than the former,” Casemore said.

As for developers, they have a pronounced aversion to dealing with underlying infrastructure, Casemore said. “How will Cisco continue to abstract and expose the network so that developers can benefit from network capabilities and attributes without having to actually learn about and master networking?”

Few network operators – even those who have learned some programming – are knowledgeable about the ecosystem of DevOps tooling, and few consider applying those same tools to networking, said James Kelly, Lead Cloud Architect at Juniper Networks.

“Successful DevOps truly takes a team, so it is impossible for one pro to focus on it all, but the standard skill set required of each professional should involve tool, framework and programming skills, as well as knowledge about the automation of processes like source-code management, reviewing and CI/CD. Learning languages like Python and Ansible is just scratching the surface,” Kelly said.

Kelly said Juniper supports the NetDevOps paradigm and principles of DevOps around networking, “but we believe that the network reliability engineer (NRE) moniker is a nicer segue for an audience that deeply understands reliability and already identify as network engineers.”

"NRE, inspired from SRE (Site Reliability Engineer), is far more ops prescriptive as compared to a set of amorphous DevOps principles. NRE and SRE elevate reliability over velocity," Kelly said. They achieve both with automation, but the DevOps narrative that focuses on accelerating software delivery translates less well to a networking audience, where moving faster sounds like a recipe for even greater firefighting and a bigger blast radius.” 

Copyright © 2018 IDG Communications, Inc.

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