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The changing role of the network engineer

The role of the network engineer is evolving to become more of an application delivery design engineer

Wide Area Networking Alert By Steve Taylor and , Network World
March 12, 2009 12:05 AM ET
Jim Metzler
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Insightful analysis by consultants Steve Taylor and Jim Metzler, plus links to the latest WAN news headlines

Network World - The last newsletter examined some of the conventional wisdom that impacts the networking organization. In particular, we looked at the conventional wisdom that says that if the performance of an application is degrading, that the cause is the network. As was pointed out, that kind of defensive approach to managing application performance has led to a new management metric – the mean time to innocence (MTTI). This newsletter will continue the discussion of the conventional wisdom that impacts the networking organization by looking at the changing role of the network engineer. In particular, we'll look at the conventional wisdom that says that the role of the network engineer is limited to just designing the network.

To put the changing role of the network engineer into perspective, it is important to realize how that role started. When IT organizations deployed first generation WANs they were intended to carry e-mail, perform file transfer and support simple inquiry-response applications. One of the characteristics of e-mail and file transfer traffic is that it is not very delay sensitive. When we use the phrase simple inquiry-response applications we are referring to applications that send a small amount of information from a server to the user in order to populate the user’s screen. The user then enters a small amount of information (e.g., name, company, billing address) that is transmitted back to the server.

Another key characteristic of first generation WANs is that they did not have a high degree of availability. As a result, part the network engineer's role was to design networks that supported traffic that was not terribly demanding. Another part the role was to design high availability into networks that were not inherently highly available.

Over the last several years we have seen that the mix of traffic that transits the typical enterprise network has expanded dramatically. In addition to e-mail, file transfer and simple inquiry-response applications, networks now need to support delay sensitive applications such as VoIP, video conferencing, video surveillance and telepresence as well as the massive file transfers that are associated with data replication. In addition, while networks still break, they do not break anywhere near as often as they used to break.

There has been a lot of hype recently around phrases such as application aware or application fluent networks. While we try hard to avoid marketing hype, we do believe that there is an import concept here. That concept is that the era of the dumb network is over. As a result, this piece of conventional wisdom is false because contemporary networks must be designed to include the functionality that is required to support the performance and security requirements of a highly diverse set of applications. In addition, we believe that over time the role of the network engineer is evolving to become more of an application delivery design engineer.

More information on the topic of the conventional wisdom that is related to networking can be found here. We would also like to hear from you. What pieces of conventional wisdom do you hear all the time that you believe to be false?

Steve Taylor is president of Distributed Networking Associates and publisher/editor-in-chief of Webtorials. Jim Metzler is vice president of Ashton, Metzler & Associates.

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