SDN is Coming. Is Your Workforce Ready?

SDN is moving into the data center at a rapid clip, but while deploying a new technology is one thing, getting people to use it properly is quite another.

According to market analyst IHS Inc., SDN revenues grew more than 80 percent in 2015 compared to the year earlier, topping $1.4 billion. The bulk of that came in the form of new Ethernet switches and controllers, although newer use cases like SD-WAN are on the rise as well and will likely contribute substantially to the overall market by the end of the decade.

This means that, ready or not, the enterprise network is quickly becoming virtualized, severing the last link between data architectures and underlying hardware. This will do wonders for network flexibility and scalability, but it also produces a radically new environment for network managers, few of whom have gotten the appropriate levels of training, if anecdotal evidence is any indication.

This lack of expertise is emerging as a key challenge not for the developers of SDN platforms but for solutions providers who have to integrate them into client’s legacy data environments, says Channel Insider’s Michael Vizard. The main problem is turning networking engineers and admins into programmers, a task that is fraught with difficulty. While IT personnel spend their lives keeping up with the latest technology, jumping into an entirely new discipline is another matter. This explains, in part, why senior IT leadership has been eager to implement SDN, but acceptance among the rank-and-file is less forthcoming. After all, if today’s techies were acclimated toward coding, they would have gone into the more lucrative field of software development right out of college.

But change is inevitable. A good place to start retraining for SDN is the very same certification programs that network engineers utilize for their current jobs. Cisco recently updated its core CCNA routing and switching program to focus more heavily on SDN, NFV and analytics-based management. The new curriculum includes creating and managing virtual network functions and services, as well as programming networks for automation, building network platforms for advanced analytics and working under policy-based network management architectures. The program centers largely on Cisco’s Application Policy Infrastructure Controller Enterprise Module (APIC-EM) and the virtual private network tools that power the Cisco Intelligent WAN (IWAN).

SDN will not emerge in a vacuum, however, and with the entire data center turning into a software construct, today’s network manager will find that tomorrow’s enterprise will require skills in storage, server and virtual infrastructure as well. And all the while, new technologies like containers will be coming online that must be integrated into an increasingly dynamic data environment. As’s Amber Ankerholz points out, Docker utilizes SDN and VXLAN technologies reasonably well, but numerous development projects like Calico and Weaveworks are underway to enable crucial management, integration and orchestration functions. All of this will simply add to the burden of learning the ins and outs of maintaining connectivity across abstract and increasingly distributed infrastructure.

For today’s network professional, then, this is no time for complacency. The next five years will pretty much upend everything you thought you knew about data communications and the role that human operators play in supporting the exchange of digital information.

It will be an interesting ride, but only for those with the foresight to embrace the new order.

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