Network engineering careers and network administration careers aren't what they used to be. Increasingly, network managers are expected to understand application planning and performance, information security and more. These new demands are creating a skills gap in the networking field that savvy networking professionals should be working to close if they want to stay ahead.
"When you think about what these guys are tasked with doing – previously it was packets, not policy. It was bandwidth, not uptime guarantees," said Forrester Research analyst Chris Silva. "These guys were tasked with giving dial-tone reliability to networks. But beyond that, it was not much more than access to IP and packets. Increasingly, it's the application team and the network team working together not just to ensure that an SAP server has a connection to an IP address or to the larger network. They're ensuring that the uptime for that SAP service is five-nines of availability … and that application response times are sub-200 milliseconds."
Silva said network engineering and administration careers now involve internal service-level agreements and service reliability requirements because more and more critical applications such as voice are running on the network. Also, critical applications are moving outside the enterprise to the cloud, and business units expect to have a reliable connection to those applications.
This means that networking professionals need to understand things at the application level. They can't simply supply a dumb pipe connecting systems, storage and the local area network.
"For the network engineer, it's no longer, 'I opened up port-whatever for your application,'" Silva said. "It's having visibility into the network, whether through doing custom development of monitoring scripts or using a tool like deep-packet inspection [DPI]. If it's the latter, it's using that deep-packet inspection to understand what portion of the pipe SAP data has access to. Is it going to be run off the road by a surge of online video viewing on the day of the inauguration? And being able to take those DPI tools and create policies to ensure that those sorts of service continuity issues don't take place."
As more and more enterprises find themselves having to comply with regulatory standards and industry standards like the Payment Card Industry Data Security Standard (PCI DSS), networking professionals also need to know when and how to get security and risk management professionals involved in network planning and application planning. For instance, a new wireless network will have a tremendous impact on PCI compliance, so when business owners ask the network engineer to build a wireless LAN, the engineer needs to know when to pick up the phone and call risk management.
And if that business owner asks the engineer to build the wireless LAN just for guest access, the engineer needs to know how to argue for a wider, more advanced deployment, Silva said. The business might see wireless as a convenient way to give guests network access, but an engineer with vision should know that other business units will end up asking for the ability to run critical applications such as voice over a wireless LAN. It makes sense to build one robust wireless network from the outset instead of rebuilding the network every time a new request for services comes from the business.
Matthew Shoemaker, systems engineer for the Henry County Water and Sewerage Authority and owner of the company Psysmic Systems, said that there is no list of "must-have" certifications or skills in this new networking paradigm. But businesses need IT staff that are intimate with business processes and the human relationships underlying technologies.
"The system and network administrators that have had to troubleshoot, make work, and make right their specialist solutions are the untapped pools of expertise," Shoemaker said. "The administrators are familiar with the user base's concerns and their potential solutions. Engineers need to listen to their respective administrators and generate solid deliverables in their projects. The best application and process on the planet will fail miserably if not deployed and administered correctly."
Beefing up skills for network engineering careers
In a new report entitled Identifying Components of the Network Skills Gap, Silva offered several recommendations for networking professionals to retool themselves for this shift in their field of expertise.
The report suggested that network engineers and administrators should keep a broad focus on acquiring certifications from traditional networking vendors like Cisco, in addition to certifications on server management, client management and virtualization from vendors like Microsoft, VMware and Citrix.
Silva said networking professionals should also get to know ITIL (Information Technology Infrastructure Library), a widely adopted framework of concepts and policies for managing IT. Although ITIL isn't designed specifically for networking, Silva said, networking professionals who learn to think with the service-delivery mindset promulgated by ITIL will function well in this new networking world. He said networking professionals don't need to get certified in ITIL, but they should know it well enough to work with people who are.
"If you are the CCNA in the organization," Silva said, "you can't just live in command line interfaces land and say, 'Well, I know how to troubleshoot every single version of IOS we have.' "You need to be honing your skills to be able to say, 'I know how every piece of Cisco infrastructure we have impacts our day-to-day voice connectivity and our OCS integration to all our applications,'" he continued. "It's about getting away from the myopic view of 'I'm the network guy and I look at the switches, routers and wireless access points.' You're the network guy and you need to understand how that network interacts with presence, with voice, with customer relations and with access to data for critical manufacturing systems."
Network management tools to the rescue?
Network managers should also use network management tools that measure more than availability. The research recommended tools from vendors like NetScout, NetQoS and Fluke Networks, which can provide some degree of performance monitoring, capacity planning, application monitoring, virtualization and voice management. Forrester also recommended that network architects and managers learn how to simulate network topology for future upgrades with tools from vendors like Opnet.
Putting all these tools together can be a challenge for some networking professionals. For instance, the network services budget might not have the money to acquire advanced simulation, DPI and network management tools. But Silva said that these tools can be part of a larger management and monitoring overhaul within an IT organization, so that the entire IT organization can take on the cost.
Networking professionals with any hope of ascending the organizational ladder must also acquire project management skills, Silva said.
"If you want to move from the network operations guy to perhaps the director of network architecture, having a project-based view of things is imperative," he said. "Sure, if the network has to be upgraded from 100 BASE-T to gigabit, you can just roll out new switches, run new cables and call it a day. But if you're gunning for the top job in networking, that switchover from 100 BASE-T to gigabit should take into account how power over Ethernet (PoE) infrastructure will be affected, how it will support things like wireless and voice and even video. And you should design the network in an intelligent way so that when those services are rolled out, there's no need to re-architect things."
Understanding the cloud crucial in networking careersBeyond project management, network engineers and architects must ready the networks and provide performance for cloud services.
"There's certainly no doubt that what end users, management and IT understand by the term 'network performance' has evolved quite a bit since the days of basic Internet access into a service-oriented architecture [SOA] environment where basic and fundamental parts of your infrastructure are running somewhere else, and you have to go through the cloud to get them," said IT careers expert Ed Tittel. "People really need to keep up with SOA terminology, cloud services terminology and what's really called business services management to understand what's going on in their world."
Putting all the skills together is no easy feat, however.
"If you look at what's out there by way of certification and even graduate level computer science and MIS training programs, there really isn't much out there that addresses this stuff square on right now, with the exception of those that focus on architecture subjects, and there aren't really many of them either," Tittel said.
He suggested going online and looking for books on some of these new networking skills and to take classes on project management and technical communication.
Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor