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Is there room for network admins in software-based networking?

In the new world of software-based networking and virtualization, network admins may need to drop their CLI skills and focus on programming.

Remember the makeshift IT room crash carts that were the lifesaver when servers went down? Before server virtualization, both systems and network administrators spent more than a little time watching blinkenlights, pulling interconnects and otherwise stacking and racking. Now rooms full of hardware have been condensed into a few racks and those trusty carts have been replaced with integrated remote access controllers and vSphere.

The downside to automation is inevitable human redundancy. We stack and rack now in vCenter with a mouse, and it's a sys admin or two doing the work -- not an army of data center admins. The same hardware consolidation is about to occur as a result of network virtualization and SDN. So what happens to the network admin in this software-based networking world? Will they go the way of the IT crash cart?

Complexity means opportunity, if you're willing to learn

The good news for IT professionals is that virtualization reduces costs and improves flexibility, but it increases complexity. Management software companies have diligently worked to develop solutions that take the pain out of this complexity. In fact, it is management software that allows admins to wrangle herds of servers with drag and drop -- not the virtualization technology itself.

These innovations in management software weren't necessarily good news for data center admins, who found their ranks thinned. Many of them were forced to make changes in their skill sets and career paths. Some went the systems management path. Others doubled-down on certifications and have become network gurus, even blazing the path toward SDN implementation. A few transitioned to working at software companies to build management tools. The same transitions will now become necessary for network admins.

Software-based networking: What happens to basic skills?

I'd like to think that SDN will give rise to magical management platforms that allow today's network administrators to replace green-screen windows with traffic- and security-aware GUIs that perform universal, fat-finger free configurations with single Zeus-like clicks. Maybe we'll take longer lunches and our phones won't ring on the weekends. But if the management tools become that capable, why would we need network admins to drive them?

In an SDN world, guru network specialists will create even more powerful automation using their network management systems.

Sure, establishing the initial physical interconnects, auditing systems and network architecture will remain the purview of the admins who actually understand the binary math of subnetting. The problem is that the bread and butter of many network administrators today is in fixing ACLs, untangling routing and optimizing flow.

What happens when those help desk tickets can be automatically resolved without any need for CLI? Eventually that will happen. In fact, at some point, applications and services themselves will simply declare their network service requirements and SDN-enabled management systems will automatically spin up the necessary network segments to support those services. In that world, my money is on the systems guys absorbing those network maintenance duties just as they did with physical server deployment and configuration.

The rise of the programmer

Just as the hypervisor is a pile of complex technologies managed by software sitting on APIs, the network will likely be managed the same way. The reality of SDN is that it's based on programming. Complex rules that move virtual machines (VMs) automatically based on your business operational needs don't come pre-packaged. A clever VM admin created them. In an SDN world, guru network specialists will create equally or even more powerful automation using their network management systems. This automation not only replaces many existing day-to-day network chores, but when developed artfully, it gives businesses real advantages over competitors. The network administrator who makes this happen will be a legend.

The bottom line is that network admins must get started on learning these new skills. Today, technology is now available to download. Roll up your sleeves, cordon off a bit of your lab network and get in there. Check out a hackathon, break stuff, play. "Programming" might not end up being such a dirty word after all.

About the author:
Patrick Hubbard is a head geek and senior technical product marketing manager at SolarWinds Inc. with 20 years of technical expertise and IT customer perspective. His networking management experience includes work with campus, data center, HA/DR and storage networks, as well as with VoIP/telepresence and VDI in both Fortune 500 companies and startups in high tech, transportation, financial services and telecom industries.

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This was last published in July 2013

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The skills that serve a systems administrator on a regular machine will likewise serve them well on virtual machines. They will need to learn some overarching management paradigm for the machines, but as long as they take commands, system administrators will have a job :).
This is an area that I've long felt that VMware misstepped when they first launched NSX. Network admins have had to deal with overlay networks for a long time (WiFi, MPLS, IPSec/SSL VPNs, VLANs, etc.) and they have broader knowledge of the complexities of networking. By completely excluding them from SDN conversations, instead of enabling them with these new tools and architectures, you're forcing sysadmins and virt-admins to have to completely learn things they have no background in. Great opportunity to do some cross-training on skills as the silos within Data Centers start to break down with "software-defined" elements.