A New Networking Skillset for the New Network Paradigm

The evolution of the network into software and the rise of Dev/Ops will demand new skills from networking pros.

By Arthur Cole | Posted Jan 15, 2016
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I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: software defined networking is more than just a nifty new way to move bits from place to place. It represents a fundamental reimagining of the entire data stack, from hardware to middleware to applications and finally the data itself.

As such, it will not be business as usual for network engineers once everything is lifted onto an abstract layer. To remain relevant, the entire data center workforce will need to acquire new skillsets and bring an all-new attitude to the office each day, very little of which will have to do with the inner workings of actual networking.

According to Ted Turner, senior networking engineer at Intuit, which, as the developer of TurboTax, faces about as big a network challenge as you can get every April, adopting a software footing creates two major changes for networking professionals. First, there is the shift to Dev/Ops as a means of network management, as opposed to today’s targeted management platforms. Secondly, expertise will have to extend beyond mere networking to encompass compute, storage, applications, and everything else that data encounters. This is more of a cultural challenge than a technical one, because as networking professionals start to weigh in on things like application design and business processes, authorities from these other disciplines are going to start mucking with networking. Conflict is inevitable, and the peaceful, satisfactory resolution of those conflicts will become a key demand of day-to-day activity.

Of course, in-depth knowledge of the SDN platform at hand will be invaluable no matter where an individual’s particular area of responsibility lies. This is where training programs like SDN Essentials’ SDN Foundations course are invaluable. The class covers topics ranging from SDN definitions and architecture to use cases and basic programming, all while delving deep into the leading platforms from Cisco, Juniper, Big Switch and Brocade, plus open solutions like Floodlight and OpenStack. The three-day class is held online or at various live locations on a rotating basis.

Most vendor solutions, of course, will come with a fair amount of guidance upon installation, either from the vendor itself or a knowledgeable channel partner. Not so for open platforms, which are typically deployed in-house atop commodity hardware. This is why the Open Networking Foundation and other organizations place training high on their agenda: to give the enterprise the in-house expertise to create their own vendor-neutral networking stacks. The latest effort is between the ONF and training firm ITpreneurs to provide entry-level certification testing in open SDN management and development. The ONF-Certified SDN Associate certificate covers foundational concepts and advanced technical components designed to complement the vendor-specific certifications for open SDN platforms like OpenStack. Additional certifications for higher-level technical and engineering functions will be made available later this year.

Meanwhile, the OpenDaylight Project recently instituted an internship program designed to provide tech students with real-world knowledge of SDN and NFV. The program is only open to eight lucky individuals, however, who will get to work directly with the coders devising the fourth and fifth generations of the software. Skills will be acquired in SDN proofs-of-concept, Unified Secure Channel (USC) IoT development, longevity test framework (LTF) and various other projects. The application deadline is January 29, and the program runs from May 23 to August 29.

In any era, technology is only as good as the people who use it. This goes for bows and arrows, railroads and advanced data communications. SDN has the potential to remove much of the dull drudgery of network management through automation and machine intelligence, but that means technicians need to up their skill levels in order to remain relevant, and valuable.

Fortunately, the opportunities to gain this knowledge are available, but only for those who have the gumption to reach out and grab them.

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