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Can IT pros adapt to a new networking environment?

Experts reflect on the changing networking industry and explain the difference between legacy networking and working within the emerging IT infrastructure.

As software-defined networking and DevOps roles become increasingly intertwined with traditional networking, network engineers are faced with the task of adapting or becoming obsolete. SDN redefines the physical network, while DevOps means application development and systems operations teams must work more closely. IDC's July report illustrated some of the challenges -- diminished responsibilities and staff reductions among them – that network engineers are facing within the data center as these transformative developments take root.

That said, network engineers will remain an important part of the equation. More than half of cloud providers and 52% of enterprises said they intend to redeploy networking pros to oversee such functions as network virtualization, automation/orchestration, analytics and architecture planning. To understand the changes in the network environment, we asked four of our networking experts to address this question:

As network engineers' roles begin to change, what is the difference between networking and IT infrastructure?

Amy Larsen DeCarlo, principal analyst, Security and Data Center Services, Current Analysis
In the last decade or so, we have moved from a technology delivery model that consisted of a number of discrete elements (e.g. WAN, LAN, application infrastructure, servers, desktops, etc.) to one that aims to be more cohesive and less segregated. What is emerging is an IT environment in which the sole purpose is to provide an optimal and secure foundation for an excellent and consistent end-user experience.

This is driving the need for greater collaboration across previously separate functional groups within the technology organization. This means more than simply opening the lines of communication between and among professionals with different roles; now, IT needs to not just understand the impact of its own sector on overall performance, but also determine how other elements play into the larger picture.

So as network engineers' roles -- and those of their peers in other parts of the organization -- change, what is the difference between networking and IT infrastructure? I would answer this by saying that while the network infrastructure remains a distinct element in the enterprise -- along with the application infrastructure, servers and other computing systems that make up the IT infrastructure -- the network is just one of many layers that make up the overarching IT environment.

To function well in this operating environment, network engineers need to look at the LAN and WAN infrastructure as critical, but cooperative, elements in the larger enterprise. Network engineers still have a crucial role to play, but they need to understand how virtualization and other aspects of this fast-changing IT environment are driving new requirements.

Keith Townsend, founder of VirtualizedGeek.com
Not only network engineers, but all infrastructure-related engineering continues to converge. While there will always be a need for deep subject matter expertise, the traditional skill silos are being disrupted. I envision enterprise silos of storage, networking and compute collapsing into larger organizations. With this will be a need for individual SMEs to have a deeper understanding of topics outside their primary area of expertise. While today a network engineer only needs to understand how to provision a trunk port to connect to the hypervisor, in the future there will be a need [for] a network engineer to understand how to design, deploy and manage entire virtual networks within the hypervisor cluster.

Carrie Higbie, global director, Data Center Solutions and Services, Siemon Co.
I would say this completely depends on the company and, in some cases, which portion of the environment. Fabrics, for example, have inherent advantages. They are self-healing, resilient, faster both in speed and provisioning, and don't require a CCIE to deal with each networking port. That said, the convergence of various fabrics and technologies can mean that networking resources are being replaced by software provisioning -- similar to what storage-area networks (SANs) have been in the past. Not everyone is buying into the full converged message. So in some cases, the two functions coexist. I think the real difference lies in the products touched in the data center ecosystem. Networking is just that: networking. IT infrastructure can encompass SAN, servers and other areas within data centers. Infrastructure is an unfortunate word, as it means something different to everyone who uses the term. But if you look at it from a standpoint of critical communications systems, that is the true IT infrastructure. Networking is merely a part of that.

Glen Kemp, enterprise solutions architect
The way I see it, is that IT infrastructure is increasingly a business unit within its own domain, made up of distinct disciplines such as visualization, security and, of course, networking. In the past, these teams would themselves be separate teams with their own managers, but in enterprises, these silos are increasingly under pressure to work better together and produce a cohesive response to any challenge from the business. Specialties are falling away and in the networking sector, engineers are expected to be proficient in much more than just configuring switches and routers. Increasingly, the networking team becomes the first and last port of call when it comes to troubleshooting because they have 'big picture' visibility. For example, if a user can't access an application, the network admin can see traffic from the thin client to the Citrix farm; from the Citrix farm to the firewall, [and if it is] not leaving the firewall interface, and therefore never reaches the back-end server.

Traditional desktop, visualization, security and application teams would have a tough time -- and probably an extended amount of buck-passing -- identifying the firewall as the root cause. Ultimately, the user doesn't care whose problem it is, as long as the issue is corrected quickly. The networking bod who knows about servers and security has the biggest opportunity to be the hero in teams that are likely to be consolidating in the face of increased automation.

This was last published in October 2014

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How do you see networking professionals adapting to the change in IT architecture?