Why and How to Reinvent Yourself for the Programmable Networks of Tomorrow

Digital transformation is creating tremendous change to the network. Change often causes discomfort, but in this case, it also brings greater value, speed and growth to organizations that can take the wheel.

With the advent of software defined networking (SDN), the network is becoming programmable. Another development is network function virtualization (NFV). SDN automates network management instead of doing it by hand with physical equipment. NFV shifts network functions from dedicated appliances to generic servers. Both offer a competitive edge that organizations are eager to embrace to support their digital projects.

The global SDN market will be worth almost $12.5 billion by 2020, according to IDC. It will experience a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 54 percent between 2014 and 2020. This signals that adoption of SDN will be intense; it has become established in the market, and NFV is not far behind.

For these programmable networks, analytics plays a crucial role. It unearths deep contextual insights about users. Applications. Devices. Threats. This helps organizations and their IT professionals make more informed decisions. To make this happen, however, organizations must do two things. First, they must liberate IT time and resources by automating daily networking tasks, which makes room to focus on business innovation. Hence the willingness to take up SDN and NFV.

Next, network engineers need to acquire key programming skills. These new skills will enable them to tap into network intelligence. They also will be able to develop powerful new network-enabled applications through open application programming interfaces (APIs). With networks abstracted and virtualized, they must understand and manipulate SDN controllers and network orchestration systems.

The Why and How of Digitalization

The upshot of this new focus is that IT job functions are moving away from device and platform configurations. They are heading toward services that are secure and policy based with business-focused analytics capabilities. These services are enabled by abstraction and automation within controller-based architectures. It's all more outcome-focused.

There are multiple challenges involved in setting up and supporting a digital-ready network. IT professionals must adopt rapidly changing technologies. Like SDN. Enhanced security. Flexible access. Virtualization. They must do it all while taking full advantage of the cloud. One technology affects the others. An organization cannot set up cloud and enhanced access, for example, without clearly understanding the critical security requirements behind it.

The ability to connect data, processes, people and things securely is another key aspect to enterprise digitization. To do this, organizations need trained and certified personnel to design and build secure infrastructure. They also need IT professionals to detect and respond to increasingly insidious cybersecurity threats.

In short, they are looking for automation and programming skills. They want IT professionals who are trained and certified in a new skills framework to take advantage of SDN and NFV, which enable maximum flexibility while reducing operational costs.

SDN and NFV are viewed as tools for organizations to reach their desired business outcomes and remain competitive. The smart ones look for IT professionals who get the relationship between technology and business. The parts of IT most relevant to business cannot be automated, however. They require creativity, vision and architectural savvy.

Upskilling for the Programmable Network

In order to capitalize on those qualities, though, both network engineers and programmers need a set of foundational skills. Now that networking is an integral part of IT in the digital era, these two jobs are merging into one known as the network programmer. Only those network engineers, programmers or other IT professionals who gain these skills will collect the rewards of the digital era.

Because automation is a key feature of digital networks, basic scripting is a good skill for every IT professional because it forms the basis of automating any task. And there will be many tasks that will be automated in digital networks. Those whose current title is network engineer should add programming to their skill sets, too. Python is a good language choice because it helps them switch their thinking between procedural programming and object-oriented programming. They should also learn Linux and become comfortable working with APIs.

Once this foundation has been established, network engineers can advance to infrastructure programming. They need to learn about common automation protocols like NETCONF REST, and how they related to YANG data models. They need to delve into types of SDN controllers, like APIC, APIC-EM and OSC. They should know how to use APIs that reside in devices, too.

As for programming, software engineers should acquire networking basics that include automating infrastructure and using APIs and toolkits to interface with SDN controllers and individual devices. These professionals also need to know other fundamentals like IPv4 and IPv6 addressing and subnetting, functions of infrastructure components of a network. Programmers and network engineers alike need extensive knowledge of virtualization, since digital networks are largely virtualized and highly fluid.

The requirements for tomorrow's networking jobs are being determined today. Skills to effectively manage and control the programmable network are needed immediately and will serve organizations and their IT staff well into the future. However, organizations need fluid, flexible training and certification criteria to ensure that IT pros have the advanced skills needed to maximize the potential of digital networks. Employees who will dive into this new path will find themselves in great demand.

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