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Cisco's push for convergence will broaden the role of network pros

Cisco's newest senior vice president says network convergence will lead to some new -- and challenging -- places.

Cisco Systems Inc.'s push into the cloud and collaboration will force the networking professional of the future to tackle convergence and an ever-increasing domain.

Convergence is the move of various applications, including communications like voice and video and even Software as a Service, to an all-IP infrastructure.

The integration of these technologies with IP has happened at a dizzying rate, with networking leader Cisco's strategy not always making sense to those outside -- or even inside -- the company.

"From the outside looking in, I didn't always understand why Cisco was looking at all the adjacencies they were looking at," said Cisco's newest senior vice president, Judy Lin, of the company's Ethernet switching technology group. "But after two months I really believe this strategy is all about accelerating productivity in an increasingly global economy. … It's all about helping people work together."

The network is, and will continue to be, the central core that enables those connections, particularly if Cisco is successful in pushing the idea of the network as a platform, which Lin says will change the role of networking professionals.

Convergence has become a hot topic during the past few years, with every vendor putting its own spin on how it will play out. Extreme Networks Inc., for example, has layered security more tightly into its core offerings, while ProCurve has focused on ensuring audio and video are handled effectively.

"I think you already see today's IT professional as being a very different person you saw five or seven years ago," Lin said. "Today the IT professional is much more about being an enabler or a business partner for their internal customers."

In some ways, however, even if the responsibility has increased and changed, the central mission of networking has not.

"IT's job is to make sure the information people want to send, receive and work with is available in the forms they want and available in a timely and useful manner," said Ed Tittel, a training and certification expert and author. "I don't see that role changing as a result of these things in particular."

Part of the future challenges facing networking professionals as a result of convergence, Lin said, would be a bit more mundane if no less challenging: The increase in traffic.

"If you look at Cisco's own usage of the technology, one of the side effects of that is the bandwidth consumed on our network has increased 400%," she said. "If we bring those same benefits to the customer, it will mean that they have to require intelligence and capacity in the network."

That bandwidth is perhaps most critical to rich applications like video and audio chat and streaming, which not only require a large amount of bandwidth but also need extremely low latency to fully immerse the user.

Enabling these applications and ensuring a quality experience is helping motivate Cisco to push intelligence to the edges of the network, and to make the network more aware of the applications running on it. For example, network technology optimizes video applications in order to keep video and audio in sync, while less latency-sensitive traffic can be delayed slightly so it doesn't interfere.

That means networking professionals have to be prepared to shoulder more responsibility while looking at things from a higher level.

"I think that you'll continue to see [convergence] where people who used to do operational tasks will be freed up to do more business value adds to their internal customers," she said. "The network operators are able to use a consolidated, integrated infrastructure to enable all of these applications, reducing complexity and cost."

Lin said many other network applications will evolve like security has: Once a separate discipline, it has become tightly integrated within networking, leaving policy decisions to a security group but often leaving the execution of those policies up to networking.

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Convergence is also a path for networking to take a more front-and-center role in the enterprise overall.

"You don't have to have all these separate fiefdoms running their own administration" in a converged network, Lin said. "That's how IT becomes a much more relevant organization, particularly as costs becomes a bigger issue."

While the domain may widen to manage a lot, however, don't expect Cisco Certified Social Network Engineer anytime soon.

Tittel said that while more applications will be supported on the network, video and voice were the most latency sensitive. Other technologies will require less in-depth expertise.

"If you looked at what's involved in doing voice and video conferencing, there's a bunch of protocols that come into play that require either real-time or near-real-time prioritization on the network," he said. "That's what really made those technologies pose special problems for IT workers."

Social networking applications or even instant messaging applications are not nearly so delay sensitive.

Instead, network engineers will likely have to evaluate the network as a whole, focusing on areas like WAN optimization to maintain or improve the speed of all network-enabled services, Tittel said, rather than the specialized optimization work that voice and video require.

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