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Cisco says it's too soon for SDN training in CCIE

Cisco says it won't include SDN training in its career-level certifications until the technology is more widely deployed. Will that be too late?

Cisco execs say SDN and network programmability aren't yet relevant enough to require changes to career-level certifications, such as CCIE, CCNA and CCNP. 

"Certifications are tied to industry roles … and [to] what people will need to know to do their jobs more effectively," said Tejas Vashi, director of product marketing and strategy at Learning@Cisco. "Today SDN is a nice-to-know, but it's not part of the industry job role."

For now, Learning@Cisco offers certified engineers the option to take four, day-long specialty courses that teach skills in developing network applications and designing, building and managing programmable networks. There's been lots of talk in the industry about how network engineers must learn SDN, orchestration and DevOps skills in order to be prepared for the impending shift in networking technology.

At Interop NYC this fall, a panel of networking experts speaking on network training urged attendees to learn coding and DevOps skills rather than seeking CCIE and other high-level vendor certs.

"Switching into that mind of a software developer allows you to start working with SDN controllers like OpenDaylight, as well as OpenStack and, to a point, NSX," Colin McNamara, chief cloud architect at Nexus IS, a Dimension Data company, told the Interop crowd. He urged them to learn Python and said too many CCIEs were already under-prepared to tackle emerging architectures.

Cisco interviews hiring managers and working engineers to determine what should be incorporated in certification curriculum, said Vashi. While there's plenty of buzz around network programmability and automation, "we only see about 1 to 2% of companies that have deployed that," he added.

"We don't buy into [it] when people say you can learn Python or Java and all of a sudden be an SDN expert," said Vashi.

The delicate balance lies in determining how widespread deployment must be before Cisco alters its training curriculum, said Wendell Odom, a CCIE, network training specialist and Cisco Press author. With almost every new technology transition, Cisco first trains its channel partners, who then offer a lot of "hand holding" to customers with new installations. That goes until about at least 5% to 10% of the market begins to adopt the technology.

However, in some cases, Cisco has waited too long before changing curriculum.

"Look how long it took for Cisco to get to the professional level on voice -- it took seven years," said Odom. "I don't know that Cisco can afford to wait that long with SDN. If it's six years before there is SDN in CCNA and CCIE, they'll be late to the market."

In a recent TechTarget survey of network engineers and managers, 44% said they would invest in network virtualization platforms -- an element of SDN -- within the next 12 months. Of those respondents, 64% said they would invest in the platforms for Layer 2 and 3 network virtualization, and 57% said they would use SDN or network virtualization for monitoring or management applications.

At SDN Essentials, a provider of SDN training, integration and managed services, founder Doug Marschke said most of his business has centered on helping customers implement SDN proof-of-concept projects as opposed to full deployments, but he expects that to change rapidly.

"I used to work at Sprint, and I did ATM, and then this whole IP thing came out," said Marschke. That was 1998 and people said the new technology would never work. "But by 2000, if you weren't an IP engineer, you didn't have a job."

Marschke predicts that within three years, traditional networking jobs will be cut in half due to SDN implementation. Without widespread training of network engineers, customers will come seeking the help of integrators like SDN Essentials.

Meanwhile, network engineers will continue to pursue a CCIE certification, since it generally guarantees a lucrative salary. But Marschke urges them to seek out additional SDN training.

Cisco programmability training is about more than SDN

While Cisco Learning is not prepared to shift career-certification curriculum for SDN, it is creating specialty courses that will teach programmability outside of just the enterprise data center.

"We are seeing network programmability as part of a much broader evolution in the direction of different models of IT delivery -- the cloud being one of them, and also the Internet of Things," said Antonella Corno, senior product manager, Learning@Cisco.

Both IoT and the cloud bring a new level of complexity and scale. "The network is no longer the tool to bring the data. It is a tool to enable you to extract the data," Corno said.

As this large, connected network scales, there aren't enough people to handle it -- and it certainly can't be managed through box-by-box configuration, she added. Engineers will configure and "access the infrastructure through this high level of abstraction," she said.

The specialty courses teach programmability within that context, and they offer engineers the ability to mix and match the skills so they are not boxed into one role as networks are transformed, she said.

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

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