Automation and the Future of Networking: Is SkyNet Gunning for Your Job?
Automation dominates many discussions in networking today. Much of the manual labor of network management may soon transfer out of human hands and over to a self-functioning, application-aware software defined network that can reduce both manpower cost and the risk of human error. But if automation goes mainstream, how will networking careers change? Dustin Snell, founder and CEO of Network Automation, thinks he has the answer.
The interest in automation stems from an age-old business problem: how can one do more without spending more? Virtualization, the cloud, white boxes, and SDN allow enterprises access to potentially far greater resources, computational power, and services than ever before, but most organizations would rather not increase their staff numbers at the same pace, Snell observed. As a result, "IT personnel need a solution to help them deliver on their businesses' needs without necessarily acquiring more personnel to accomplish it," he said. That solution is automation.
Vendors recognize the need. The Nuage Networks Virtualized Services Platform, for one, enables "full datacenter automation" for virtual networks, according to ENP Data Center blogger Arthur Cole. Juniper's Juniper One Programmable ASIC also allows automation, as does the Big Switch Networks Switch Light platform. And Network Automation's AutoMate and AutoMate BPA Server provide a unified automation platform and "toolbox of over 500 activities that can be assembled, via drag and drop, into automated processes, all without writing a single line of code," Snell said. Those activities include SNMP, HTTP, SOAP, FTP, POP3, Exchange, and SharePoint operations, among others.
Some fear that automation will automate networking and IT pros right out of their jobs. And while that won't be true of all positions—there will always be a need for those who can architect a network, orchestrate its components, and support its infrastructure, as Plexxi exec and ENP guest contributor Michael Bushong pointed out—it will change many. To avoid getting automated out of their roles, Snell recommends that networking and IT specialists be proactive. "Be the automator, not the automated," he said.
Snell perceives a shift in IT and networking that will create increasing alignment with overall business goals. Networking in particular is becoming ever more vital to enterprise operations and objectives. In an automation-dominated networking paradigm, successful network specialists will focus much more on using the technology at their disposal to solve business problems than they will on the manual installation, maintenance, provisioning, and configuration tasks of the past.
"The expectations are changing. Now it's about finding the most efficient ways to achieve business objectives, then translating that into an automation or workflow and implementing it. It's critical to get involved in the solution-building process," Snell said. The specialists who fail to do so are the ones who may lose out. Those able to identify and address broader business challenges will demonstrate their value in the new networking paradigm.
There's no time better than the present for networking pros to begin looking at the bigger business picture and sharpening their automation skills, since "the U.S. enterprise is still not very far along in embracing automation," according to Snell. Network professionals who start adopting automation in service to their organizations' goals now will position themselves ahead of the curve and ready to reap the future benefits. They'll have much less to fear from the specter of SkyNet looming over the networking world, too.
Jude Chao is executive editor of Enterprise Networking Planet. Follow her on Twitter @judechao.