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Why networking certifications no longer matter

Networking certifications have consistently been an important milestone for network professionals. But diverse network infrastructure, automation and UI upgrades could change that.

For decades, earning networking certifications has been an important career-building step. With certain trends within the networking industry, though, I believe many of these certifications will soon no longer matter.

Networking certifications grew in importance for two reasons. First, the certification industry emerged because networking vendors did such a poor job designing their user interfaces. For years, the command-line interface (CLI) was the only way to configure networking devices.

The configuration process was convoluted and non-intuitive. If network engineers had any hope of configuring a device properly, they required training. This led to certifications, which proved a certain level of training.

The second driver of networking certifications was the primacy of Cisco Systems as the networking vendor. In the beginning, vendors like Wellfleet Communications, Proteon, ACC and even IBM were often neck-and-neck with Cisco in terms of sales. Each had its own CLI, and getting certified in multiple variations of "Routerese" would have been impractical and mind-numbing.

Before long, Cisco was the undisputed leader. Later entrants in the switch and router market simply copied Cisco's configuration language. It made it easier to attract customers, since the customer would likely already be somewhat familiar with the Cisco approach. This consolidation of focus on Cisco CLI as the lingua franca made training practical.

This situation was good for a number of parties. For network engineers, it gave them a way to certify their expertise and increase their marketability and salaries. For education vendors, it built an entire sub-industry. Finally, for the networking vendors, it took some pressure off to make the products easier to use.

But things change. I believe three fundamental changes now undermine the need for the traditional networking certifications, as discussed below.

1.  Diversification of network infrastructure

Twenty years ago, many networks consisted of switches, routers and firewalls. But the number of different functions -- i.e., devices -- that make up our network infrastructure is vastly greater now.

Add to the above next-generation firewalls, web application firewalls, software-defined WAN, VPNs, intrusion prevention and intrusion detection systems, and session border controllers -- and you start to get the idea of how diverse the network has become. With so many different devices, training to become an expert in them all just isn't practical.

While Cisco is still an important vendor, it isn't the most important vendor in all these areas. Thus, a Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert certification inherently becomes less valuable, as it covers less of what is deployed in the network. Further, this doesn't even include IoT. These deployments of sensors, surveillance cameras and so forth make the big world of networking even bigger.

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2. Ease of use

It took a long time, but networking gear is finally easier to use -- even if it's not always easy. Vendors realized that requiring experts to set up and configure gear was bad for business. To sell more devices, vendors needed to make the gear easier to use. This was especially true for SMB and small enterprise deployments.

Networking devices now generally come with intuitive interfaces. Many vendors now provide the management interface via cloud delivery. By definition, this simplifies deployment of new management software because the devices don't come with management software. Users simply log in to the system and get the new features. The vendor code handles the back end between the management software and the devices. Many devices will allow the user to toggle an advanced configuration mode on or off to hide unnecessary options.

Networking gear is packed with features, but I doubt many users even require 20% of the feature capabilities of any given box. Thus, making these devices easy to use is relatively straightforward if the vendor maintains focus on the core features most customers use.

3. Automation

When users try to do complex things, they make mistakes. Some networks, such as multisite data centers, can become quite complex. They could require complicated quality-of-service mapping, Virtual Extensible LANs and other advanced features. These same networks need to have replacement switches and routers brought online quickly in the event of failure.

To deal with these requirements, most vendors are opting to build intelligence into the network, instead of requiring the customer to have expensive, highly trained staff on duty 24/7.

But this hasn't happened overnight. Vendors have advertised zero touch provisioning (ZTP) for some years now. With ZTP, a network engineer no longer needs to configure a new switch manually. Instead, the engineer can plug in the switch, and intelligence in the network -- either in a controller or distributed in the fabric -- can communicate with the new switch and provision it automatically.

Vendors are also using automation platforms like Ansible to build comprehensive, powerful systems that can automate complex networking environments.

Automation advances oust networking certifications

The future is automation. A networking expert can benefit from being an automation expert. Ansible will be key, too, so network pros should become skilled in using this tool for controlling and managing complex environments. Python is the go-to general-purpose tool for automating general tasks, so network pros should build up basic Python skills, as well.

Networking certification is a big business, and it might be important for particular jobs. But before you invest your time and money, be aware that the future of networking is automation everywhere.

This was last published in July 2019

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