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VMware NSX will change the network admin role: Are you ready?

VMware NSX could bring network virtualization under the management of system admins, or it could alter the network admin role. Which will it be?

Remember your first exposure to VMware ESX? Perhaps you were moving up from VMware Workstation or That-Which-Must-Not-Be-Named (hint: also the name of a Suzuki motorcycle). My first install was in 2003 with ESX 2.0, and it changed my technology worldview. Forget OSes. ESX sat on BIOS. ESX was its own universe. It worked because the OS had no clue it wasn't on metal, and yet it offered deployment flexibility and lower costs. In the years since, ESX has changed the way we work, the way IT is organized and the roles of most data center team members. Now VMware NSX will bring the same kind of change to the network admin role -- bringing with it great career opportunities for those who stay ahead of the curve.

Data center roles have changed -- except for the network admin

Once physical routers and switches are relegated to simple conduits through which tunnels of virtual networks flow, today's traditional networking skills will be less necessary on a day-to-day basis.

With vCenter alone, VMware has created a control ecosystem that has transformed the data center admin's role and allowed data center operators to wield thousands of virtual machines (VMs) with a handful of admins. It has also homogenized teams of disparate technology specialists into a pool of data center technology generalists. But until this point, the network admin role has not really been affected. Network admins have been the resource that could solve complex issues where services hit the wire, but they haven't become part of this new data center generalist pool.

NSX will change all of that. Once physical routers and switches are relegated to simple conduits through which tunnels of virtual networks flow, today's traditional networking skills will be less necessary on a day-to-day basis. And this won't just be the case in a VMware environment. The same will occur in Microsoft's eventual equivalent (Hyper-N?), as well as other competitive virtual environments.

VMware NSX pushes into Layer 2 and Layer 3

Technology consolidation is a human resources bummer. At one time there was so much fidgeting with funky Token Ring jacks, SCSI connectors and Ethernet to every desktop that any decent-size organization had a cabling guru on site. He had other duties to fill his downtime, but there was always something that needed repair and weekends of rack-and-stack. With systems virtualization, that role largely went away. Network admins today have no interest in terminating media, especially as 10 GbE and beyond becomes more prevalent.

However, Layer 2 and Layer 3 (L2 and L3) administrators were immune to these changes, and that's going to change. NSX will roll L2 and L3 administration under control of (gasp!) app/server admins. While VMware vCloud Networking and Security was limited to Layer 4-7, now Nicira's Network Virtualization Platform, which has control over L2 and L3, will also fall under vCenter management. Initial configuration and occasional management of physical network interface cards will still be needed, but like the connector technician, much of that will move to specialists who don't have a desk with the rest of the team.

There will still be work outside the data center for a while, but with Cisco's SDN ambitions extending all the way out to the frilly edges of the Internet of Everything, even the most ardent command line interface (CLI) purist is going to have to get the religion of SDN.

Network admins must map their skills to the virtual world

The first step? Get moving. Once server virtualization was unleashed, there was no turning back, and here too there will be consolidation and fewer admins. Worse, app/server admins have a head start. Even though NSX is a shiny new networking kit, they have years of experience with virtualization technology, VMware products in particular. They'll get first crack at it. At a minimum, you'd be smart to add a VMware Certified Associate -- Network Virtualization, or VCA-NV, certification to ensure your resume always makes the shortlist.

Second, when someone asks you if you're a god, you say, "Yes!" App admins won't be eager to trace the intricacies of virtual control planes to solve nagging Broadcast Unknown unicast and Multicast (BUM) flooding issues or to debug virtual Media Access Control address mapping. Theoretically, these are plumbing problems that will disappear in the magical virtualization layer. But we also know that spanning trees and routing tables should also automatically fall into line with correctly configured physical gear. And how many times do you still break out a CLI to troubleshoot? With SDN technologies like NSX data center, operators will need skilled network admins who can map years of hard-won physical networking expertise to its virtual counterpart.

About the author:
Patrick Hubbard is a head geek and senior technical-product marketing manager at SolarWinds. With 20 years of technical expertise and IT customer perspective, his networking management experience includes work with campus, data center, storage networks, VoIP and virtualization with a focus on application and service delivery in both Fortune 500 companies and startups in the high-tech, transportation, financial services and telecom industries. He can be reached at [email protected].

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This was last published in November 2013

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