May 16, 2013
Over the last few months, I have moderated three software-defined networking (SDN) seminars that were produced by Network World. In each seminar a number of speakers spoke at length about the potential for SDN to automate the vast majority of configuration changes that are now done in a largely manual fashion, and in every session the discussion of increased automation caused someone in the audience to ask the obvious question: How does SDN change the role of the network organization? While that is an important question, I should point out that SDN is just one of a number of factors that will, over time, fundamentally change the role of the network organization in general, and will fundamentally change the role of the network professional in particular.
Configuration management and provisioning have always been a resource drain. However, IT organizations could historically find a way to perform these functions using largely manual procedures because the number of configuration changes was relatively manageable. Part of the motivation for SDN is that, with the introduction of server virtualization and the growing interest in moving virtual machines between servers, the days in which configuration management can be done in a manual fashion are slowly coming to a close for most IT organizations. Certainly the adoption of SDN will create the need for some highly skilled IT professionals to manage the intricacies that SDN introduces. However, as I look at it, the adoption of SDN will reduce more jobs than it creates.
SDN, however, is not the only factor driving change in the role of role of the network professional. The convergence of technology is also driving change. Many IT organizations have begun to implement systems that integrate compute, storage and networking. Typically these systems come with a management system that enables a single administrator to manage the entire system. Most of the IT organizations that I work with have yet to take advantage of this functionality and move to where a single administrator manages these integrated systems. I believe, however, that ongoing budget pressures will, over time, cause IT organizations to move to an integrated approach to managing these systems. The good news is that administration of these integrated systems is a more highly-skilled — and hopefully more highly-paid — position than is the administration of the individual components. The bad news is that IT organizations will need relatively fewer of these new positions.
Another factor driving change is cloud computing. One example of cloud computing’s impact stems from the fact that it was not that long ago that an IT organization provided all, or virtually all, of the IT resources that were consumed by the company they supported. However, with the ongoing adoption of varying forms of public cloud computing, that is becoming less true on a yearly basis. One example of how the adoption of public cloud computing services impacts networking professionals involves virtual private data centers (VPDC). If a company adopts VPDC solutions from an Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) provider they need to allocate resources to manage the relationship with the IaaS provider. However, the amount of resources that is needed to manage the relationship with the IaaS is less than the resources that would have been needed if they provided that functionality internally.
While changes such as those I’ve described here are occurring, there are also a number of factors driving IT organizations to add positions, including the need to develop mobile applications, provide more effective security and establish better linkages between the IT organization and the company’s business units. As a result, I don’t want you to come away from this post with the belief that IT organizations are going to shrink in size. Some will, some won’t. What I do want you to take away is that your jobs are changing, and this would be a really good time to create a plan for how you are going to evolve your skill-set in marketable ways.