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Will software-defined networking kill network engineers' beloved CLI?

Stephen Lawson | Sept. 2, 2013
Networks defined by software may require more coding than command lines, leading to changes on the job.

"There'll always be some level of CLI," said Bill Hanna, vice president of technical services at University of Pittsburgh Medical Center. At the launch earlier this year of Nuage Networks' SDN system, called Virtualized Services Platform, Hanna said he hoped SDN would replace the CLI. The number of lines of code involved in a system like VSP is "scary," he said.

On a network fabric with 100,000 ports, it would take all day just to scroll through a list of the ports, said Vijay Gill, a general manager at Microsoft, on a panel discussion at the GigaOm Structure conference earlier this year.

"The scale of systems is becoming so large that you can't actually do anything by hand," Gill said. Instead, administrators now have to operate on software code that then expands out to give commands to those ports, he said.

Faced with these changes, most network administrators will fall into three groups, Gartner's Skorupa said.

The first group will "get it" and welcome not having to troubleshoot routers in the middle of the night. They would rather work with other IT and business managers to address broader enterprise issues, Skorupa said. The second group won't be ready at first but will advance their skills and eventually find a place in the new landscape.

The third group will never get it, Skorupa said. They'll face the same fate as telecommunications administrators who relied for their jobs on knowing obscure commands on TDM (time-division multiplexing) phone systems, he said. Those engineers got cut out when circuit-switched voice shifted over to VoIP (voice over Internet Protocol) and went onto the LAN.

"All of that knowledge that you had amassed over decades of employment got written to zero," Skorupa said. For IP network engineers who resist change, there will be a cruel irony: "SDN will do to them what they did to the guys who managed the old TDM voice systems."

But SDN won't spell job losses, at least not for those CLI jockeys who are willing to broaden their horizons, said analyst Zeus Kerravala of ZK Research.

"The role of the network engineer, I don't think, has ever been more important," Kerravala said. "Cloud computing and mobile computing are network-centric compute models."

Data centers may require just as many people, but with virtualization, the sharply defined roles of network, server and storage engineer are blurring, he said. Each will have to understand the increasingly interdependent parts.

The first step in keeping ahead of the curve, observers say, may be to learn programming.

"The people who used to use CLI will have to learn scripting and maybe higher-level languages to program the network, or at least to optimize the network," said Pascale Vicat-Blanc, founder and CEO of application-defined networking startup Lyatiss, during the Structure panel.

 

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