Digitization is changing the world. Businesses, organizations, and governments alike are harnessing the power of digitization to build trust, move faster, add greater value, and grow.
As a result, the network is undergoing a huge change, too. This change is just as big as the move from analog to digital. It is the shift away from physical devices—hardware—to software that virtualizes device functions and supports digital innovation.
The network is becoming programmable thanks to the new technology known as software-defined networking (SDN). Another development is network functions 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.
According to IDC, the worldwide SDN market will have a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of nearly 54 percent between 2014 and 2020. It will be worth almost $12.5 billion by 2020. Adoption of SDN will be intense. SDN has become established in the market and NFV is not far behind.
Analytics plays a key role in digital-ready networks. It reveals rich contextual insights about users, applications, devices, and 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.
Second, organizations must build key programming skills in their network engineers. 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.
Shifting IT Job Functions and Roles
All of this means 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.
Setting up and supporting a digital ready network poses many challenges. IT professionals must adopt rapidly changing technologies like SDN, enhanced security, flexible access, and 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.
That is another key aspect to enterprise digitization: the ability to connect data, processes, people, and things securely. 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.
Where does the arrival of SDN and NFV leave organizations and IT professionals? As businesses go digital, 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.
Organizations ultimately regard SDN and NFV as a means 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.
The Value of Digital Networking Skills
Even so, there are foundational skills that are essential for both network engineers and programmers. 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.
Since digital networks are automated, 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.
From these basics, network engineers can move into infrastructure programming. They need to learn about common automation protocols like network configuration protocol (NETCONF) representational state transfer (REST), and how they relate to YANG data models. They need to delve into types of SDN controllers, like application policy infrastructure controller (APIC), application policy infrastructure controller enterprise module (APIC-EM), and open SDN controller (OSC). They should know how to use APIs that reside in devices, too.
On the programming side, IT software engineers should learn 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 IT jobs of the future are being defined right now. Organizations need criteria for evaluating those IT professionals with the advanced skills to take on digital networks and how to get the most out of them. And the career opportunities have never been greater for those IT professionals who acquire the skills that make them more valuable than ever to their employers.