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ONF launches vendor-neutral SDN certification program

With its SDN certification program, the ONF aims to set a standard for engineers to have a broad, foundational understanding of SDN technology and concepts.

The Open Networking Foundation is launching a vendor-neutral SDN skills certification program.

The Open Networking Foundation (ONF) has not yet established the scope of what skills the ONF-Certified SDN Professional (OCSP) Program will verify. That work will begin this week during an invite-only workshop at an ONF Member WorkDays event in Santa Clara, Calif, said Rick Bauer, the ONF's technical program manager. The foundation has invited members and nonmembers -- including representatives from universities -- to meet and discuss what skills the certification will cover.

"It is critical that we have a good landscape for [SDN] certifications," said Brandon Mangold, principal architect for United Airlines. "As I progress in my career I care less and less about certifications, but the reality is that it is the baseline benchmark on which employers will gauge candidates."

What's most important to you in an SDN certification program?

Although the ONF is best known as the steward of the OpenFlow SDN protocol, Bauer said the certification program will not be focused on OpenFlow. "We understand that there is a lot more than OpenFlow within SDN, just as there is a lot more in the ONF than OpenFlow," Bauer said. "We want to make sure we include Network Functions Virtualization, overlays. We want this to be good, well-rounded exposure to SDN, including virtual machines, mininets, Floodlight, SDN migration strategies."

While the ONF certifications will be about more than OpenFlow, the ONF has a distinct vision of SDN that includes the separation of a network's data plane and control plane. Some vendors and their customers disagree with that dogma. Regardless, a vendor-neutral certification that is biased toward the ONF's own vision of SDN will still be valuable, said Eric Hanselman, chief analyst for 451 Research.

"Having a vendor-neutral certification opens the door to an objective and higher-level architectural understanding of what something as complicated as SDN is all about," he said. "The difficulty of this is whose vision of SDN do you wind up implementing. With any certification you have to weigh what that certification conveys. Having a detailed understanding of the ONF environment is certainly completely valid. The ONF has a particular vision. There are all sorts of things they can qualify around that environment."

A number of vendors have already designed certification programs, including Cisco, Brocade, and most recently VMware for its NSX portfolio.

Yet the ONF hopes that vendors will collaborate with it on these certifications, because a foundational SDN certification program should not be vendor-specific, Bauer said.

"I don't think we need a Brocade SDN certification or a Cisco SDN certification," he said. "If someone wants to validate skills on Brocade or Cisco equipment, that's fine. But the core concepts of SDN are all-encompassing and that's what we want to test on."

The ONF's move to start a certification program may be an effort to preempt any actions Cisco's dominant Learning@Cisco business might take to set the standard for SDN skills certification. Cisco has so far announced only one related certification on network programmability.

"It has also been my fear that Cisco would dominate this space," said Mangold, who is CCIE-certified. "I think the certification and training as a marketing extension is probably the biggest reason why Cisco continues to dominate. Up-and-coming technologists who Google how to get an IT job are presented with a matrix of suggested certifications to get their foot in the door. Cisco certifications are still the dominant force in this area. If the industry is going to develop a good pool of SDN/DevOps experts then we are going to need a good platform for certification outside of Cisco."

The OCSP will include two certifications initially. ONF-Certified SDN Engineer will test an engineer's understanding of SDN technology, architecture and deployment. The ONF-Certified SDN Associate will test networking industry sales and marketing professionals on the foundational concepts of SDN. The ONF will offer the exams online in early 2015. Prices will be based on geographies.

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