SDN jobs: Skills network engineers should focus on

As SDN evolves, it'll be critical for networking pros to understand it. Find out which skills SDN jobs will require.

Software-defined networking (SDN) is evolving at a blistering pace now and raising many questions about the new skills networking pros will need for SDN jobs and how they can acquire them.

One of the biggest challenges associated with SDN is change. Changing networks mean introducing new ideas and, ultimately, risks as well.

Enterprises increasingly demand zero downtime from their networks. How can you introduce these disruptive technologies without disrupting your network? Network pros who understand SDN will play a critical role.

Will there be a need for 'SDN engineers,' and what will they do?

When asking this question, you’ll be met with: "How do you define SDN?" SDN is still evolving and its definition is fluid.

Because SDN is used to label so many different implementations of technology, it's difficult to define SDN jobs specifically, according to Eric Hanselman, research director of 451 Research's networking practice.

"Is there a virtualization engineer yet? There must be," Hanselman says. "We already have requirements for engineers who want to understand how virtualized networks work, because there are subtle differences between those and physical networks."

Over time, a networking specialty that deals specifically with network virtualization may emerge, Hanselman says. These specialists will have no need to understand what the underlying physical infrastructure looks like.

It's possible that SDN jobs will never stand as a separate category. Instead, network engineers may just need to add SDN skills to their existing expertise.

"I'm not sure I'd say there is or ever will be a 'SDN engineer' position," says Matthew P. Davy, director of InCNTRE and Indiana University's chief network architect. "But fewer network engineers will be able to live in a world in which they spend 100% of their time using a command line interface [CLI] to configure network appliances. And there will be fewer network engineers who can perform their job while knowing little to nothing about servers, storage, hypervisors, system administration and scripting."

No matter what the job title is, the bottom line is that the industry is going to need integrators.

"Data centers will need people to integrate a network into the rest of the world -- because for a long time that silo hasn't been cracked. Basically, the rest of the world plays pretty nicely, while networking is off in the corner with its proprietary hardware, software and application programming interfaces," says Brent Salisbury, lead network engineer at the University of Kentucky. "In the data center, it all blends and you'll still be a networking engineer -- it'll still be IT under the hood. The concepts of how Internet Protocol works haven't changed. With SDN, we have better tools to operate networks now."

Which skills should network engineers focus on for SDN jobs?

Network engineers need to learn how to work with SDN controllers and OpenFlow, and also how to manage the interaction with applications and orchestration systems that connect via northbound application programming interfaces [APIs].

"Start learning about working with OpenFlow and open source switch controllers -- the building blocks of SDN -- and play with the code and contribute to it," Salisbury suggests. "By diving into these, it will help you understand what SDN really is."

Salisbury also recommends that network engineers, especially those working in data centers, start to learn the rest of the traditional silos of IT -- learn a little about storage, x86 and compute, and work on rounding out your skills in general.

"If you want to work in a data center, where we've been talking about divergence for years, it's going to start to converge with software networking and hypervisors and role-based management farms," notes Salisbury.

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Prepping the team for SDN

From Hanselman's perspective, what's happening with SDN is similar to what happened with virtualization: the need to understand more of the tools used in automation. "This shifts us from a skill set primarily focused on low-level configuration of networking devices -- such as how to program a router or program a switch -- to looking at much higher-level skills that are much more like programming software," he says.

"We're going through a sort of renaissance of it being cool to program and automate again," notes Salisbury. "Ten to 15 years ago, that's what network engineers did. Then we shifted toward network management products and some of the knowledge base went away. We started using tools -- but we're trying to build on a foundation that’s not properly abstracted like the server and storage markets. Now, we'll actually have an ecosystem of operational applications to manage the network."

But don't go panicking about SDN jobs forcing you to learn programming skills yet, advises Salisbury. "SDN is an evolutionary process -- you'll still be a network engineer. There's always going to be a physical component, even in the data center," he points out. "There's this misconception that to be in networking in 10 years you're going to have to be a programmer. Knowing how to do some programming and how to tie in APIs is going to be important, but if you wait around long enough there will be applications to extract that and present a much simpler interface."

Certification is on the way

Certification for SDN skills is on the way. CompTIA, a nonprofit provider of IT certification, is working with the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) to bring it to the industry.

"Virtualization in all its forms -- server, storage, desktop, mobile and SDN -- is really key for IT professionals to understand and leverage," says Rick Bauer, CompTIA's director of research and development in the skills certification division. "Our new CompTIA Cloud+ certification will call network virtualization out as a technology to understand."

Cloud+ is an ISO-accredited, vendor-neutral, cloud computing certification designed for IT professionals currently working in network operations -- server, network, and storage administrators -- and will be available in 2013.

As soon as possible, Bauer promises there will be certification for SDN and OpenFlow skills.

Read more about the top 5 SDN skills vendors will be seeking

This was last published in December 2012

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