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How network admins can survive SDN

Jim Duffy | Feb. 10, 2015
Prove the doomsayers wrong by maintaining the physical infrastructure, learning software building blocks.

With the advent of SDN, there's been a lot of speculation about the future of the network administrator.

Some doomsayers predict the network admin will be obsolete as network virtualization becomes the responsibility of the server or systems admin already in charge of server virtualization. Or that as SDN applications take on more network intelligence in order to program what network resources they need, the application developers might take over the role of network admin.

Then again, they might not.

Networking staffers could use the SDN/DevOps opportunity to make themselves more valuable to their IT organizations. They could get out in from of this new wave and show IT the new tools and capabilities available to them to manage and control the network.

Network admins could also take a lead role in integrating the new SDN/DevOps environment with the existing legacy network. Even though SDN is expected to eventually supplant traditional networks, there will be years where SDN, hybrid and legacy networks, and the applications and services they support, co-exist.

"While responsibilities will evolve and certain tasks will disappear, infrastructure and operations organizations will still have a need for network administrators," says Forrester Research analyst Andre Kindness. "Even if an enterprise had a 100% SDN infrastructure, someone will be needed to deploy, manage, and troubleshoot the network infrastructure - a combination of SDN solutions, software, hardware, WAN services, and adjacent technologies."

"Did server virtualization kill the sys admin? No, but it did drive some evolution around provisioning, management and automation," says Brent Salisbury, one of the founders of DevOps networking-for-Docker start-up SocketPlane. "It's reasonable to expect the same gradual change in networking professionals over the next decade."

That change will be required for network admins to remain relevant in the software-centric world of SDN and DevOps -- they must learn new skill sets and new tools.

Do they need to learn software programming? That depends on how deeply entrenched and relevant they want to be in this new world.

If applications and services eventually have the ability to declare what they need from the network, and those requirements are automatically spun up in an SDN, who "owns" that capability, that interaction? Some are betting on the systems or server admins owning that process; that's what network admins either have to head off or acquiesce to.

"Software development teams working on network solutions should be actively looking to recruit the network engineers that have embraced DevOps and software development," says Salisbury. "It will reduce the risk of developers creating complex solutions to nonexistent problems or solutions that lack a realistic migratory path that never find adoption."

The convergence of application development and network virtualization brought about by DevOps and SDN may bring those two disciplines under a single area of control, like application developers or server admins. Since more and more network configuration and service level information would be embedded in the application under the SDN model, the people responsible for it may be the server admin or an application developer.


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