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SDN and DevOps to shrink network teams, weaken their control, IDC says

With SDN and DevOps, IT teams will shift control of the network to collaborative teams of virtualization, server, application and network pros. This will shrink network teams and force network pros to reposition themselves.

Network engineers are losing exclusive control of the data center network to server and virtualization teams, now that SDN and DevOps are coming to fruition. Consequently, IT departments will reduce the size of their network teams, according to a report by IDC Research.

In IDC's research note, "SDN Survey: Big Changes for Data Center Operations and Personnel," analysts revealed that IT teams are not leaving procurement decisions solely up to networking pros, but instead forming collaborative groups that involve server, virtualization or architecture specialists.

What's more, network engineers are not always primarily responsible for network virtualization in the data center. That job is shared with application developers, virtualization pros and generalized architecture specialists, depending on the organization. 

Sharing the task of network procurement in the software-defined data center

Network pros still have about 70% of the influence in the data center network procurement process, yet they are no longer the "masters of their own domain as they were not so long ago," said IDC Vice President of Network Infrastructure Rohit Mehra, who co-authored the report with data center research director Brad Casemore.

Five percent of cloud providers and 10% of enterprises said the networking team has primary influence over network procurement. Meanwhile, 27% and 23% respectively said these decisions would fall to a collaborative effort between the network and server or virtualization teams. Another 32% and 30% respectively said network procurement decisions would be made between the networking and the IT architecture teams.

Cloud providers are more likely to leave the networking team out of data center network procurement decisions altogether. While just 6% of enterprises have pushed the networking team out of the process, a startling 20% of cloud providers have done so.  

Where do network pros stand in crumbling siloes and organizational shifts?

IT teams will reduce their network teams due to this shift to SDN -- 27% of enterprises and 34% of cloud providers say they will be able to reduce the size of their network teams with new technology and collaborative efforts in place, according to the report.

The good news, Mehra and Casemore concluded, is that network engineers will be repositioned in the data center team, as long as they pick up some new skills. Among respondents, 54% of cloud providers and 52% of enterprises said they will be able to redeploy network personnel to other tasks, including network virtualization, automation/orchestration, analytics and architecture planning.

"Network professionals who embrace change, and who develop knowledge and skills in those areas, could significantly prosper personally and professionally from SDN," Mehra and Casemore wrote in the report.

Network virtualization is not about network pros

The struggle between network engineers and server teams for control of network virtualization is a decade old.

Engineers won't have to duke it out for long because cloud providers and enterprises are shifting control over network virtualization -- but there are marked differences in how the two kinds of organizations are handling it.

The network team is identified as being the "chief custodian of virtual networking" among 36% of cloud providers and 33% of enterprises. But cloud providers are often handing that responsibility to application teams, while enterprises are likely to go with server or virtualization teams. Among cloud providers, 33% say the application team is primarily responsible for virtual networking, while 18% of enterprises said the same. Meanwhile, 30% of enterprises said the server team had primary responsibility, while 18% of cloud providers said the same.

Casemore and Mehra believe the prominence of application teams in cloud providers is due to a more DevOps-centric approach. According to the study, 45% of cloud provider respondents said they have restructured their IT departments to be more DevOps oriented in light of SDN and cloud, while 23% of enterprises said the same. The gap between the two will change over time, since nearly half of enterprise respondents said they will restructure their IT departments going forward.

"Cloud providers are taking an application-centric view of IT infrastructure as opposed to a discreet infrastructure view which is separate for storage management and network management, for example," said Mehra.

What will network vendors do if they're not selling to network pros?

If procurement and management of network virtualization are shifting hands, network vendors are forced to address a new audience of users.

Server and applications teams may seek "infrastructure technologies offered by incumbent vendors in their traditional domains," Casemore and Mehra wrote.

But even if these users look beyond their traditional incumbents, they'll need to hear a clearer software story.

"Application and server virtualization folks have been trained to think in terms of software, and I think the point we are making is, given their orientation, there might be an inclination to say, ‘Why don't we stick with software even for network infrastructure because have more control and we have more capabilities," Mehra said.

A number of vendors, including Cisco, HP, Juniper and Brocade, are already telling an integrated data center story, so they won't have a problem reaching this constituency. They will, however, have to develop stronger software stories, he explained.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Rivka Gewirtz Little, or follow her on Twitter.

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I believe this is the wrong direction for SDN. Network design is a core skill and necessary for SDN to succeed. DevOps is not networking and it is a rare breed who can do both system and network design.
@snoble There is an absolute shift underway in how networking equipment is purchased. Folks like Exadata and VCE are handling integration up front, simplifying the deployment of new infrastructure. The fact that people need to be experts in distributed architectures to stand up a network is more bug than feature (though I don't fully grok how DevOps intercepts that directly). If networks provided connectivity and application experience with less manual manipulation, it wouldn't matter as much how well people understand some of the bowels of the system. I don't think we get there anytime soon, but the future cannot be based on precision control over thousands of configuration knobs. Network design has to move to a higher level to survive. If it doesn't, then people will outsource designs to a small number of integrators so they don't have to do it themselves.
@snoble After a short Twitter exchange, thought I would add a detail relevant to anyone following this. I don't think DevOps solves architectural problems (or even abstracts them). And architecture needs solving too. I don't think I disagree with the premise that networking requires deep knowledge now, though I don't see that as a healthy state.
Very timely observation. As CPU becomes more powerful, call it SDN or not, software and automation will in many places replace the traditional deployment model, making the overall deployment architecture more dynamic and agile. You need basic networking skills, but not every details to achieve what you specify. .