We're pleased to share with you the following insights from Joe Clarke, a distinguished services engineer and an integral part of the Cisco Engineering team for 20 years. Joe holds a CCIE and is a champion of network programmability and automation. He's a contributor to the Internet Engineering Task Force (IETF) and a regular speaker at Cisco Live.


The only constant is change. And in the case of digital transformation, make that rapid change. Keeping pace with huge changes in the network and preparing for those that lie ahead demands a new kind of IT professional. Today’s network engineer is successful when he or she understands how old and new technologies integrate. This individual spans the divide between networking and software development – a hybrid engineer. The role requires a DevOps mindset. It also requires understanding how business goals and technology are linked.


The new IT reality


Until recently, network engineers struggled with complex and time-consuming tasks like incorporating multiprotocol label switching (MPLS) or incorporating IP telephony. But now we are seeing the emergence of software-defined everything. For instance, many people are moving towards a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN) to add simplicity to branch office deployments and increase flexibility. SD-WAN reduces bandwidth costs, and improves cloud and internet performance. It enables changes of all sorts to be made quickly and from a centralized point.


Another non-traditional development is the emergence of the software-defined data center, allowing for much greater application mobility and security. It provides the ability to grab data more easily from the network, do more things with data and make more intelligent decisions.


The new reality of software-defined access is upon us, providing single-source access to the entire network, from individual applications to the cloud. And there’s a growing desire among IT professionals to virtualize the network. IT and networking professionals are looking at how to take advantage of on-premises computing power and cloud-based computing power.  And they’re looking at how to transition specific services or infrastructure into an “as-a-Service” model where it makes sense.


Together, these developments represent some of the many changes that network engineers face, and at a faster pace than ever before. Like IT professionals that specialize in the data center and cloud computing, it’s essential that network engineers adopt a DevOps mindset.


The place for DevOps


Formerly, when you needed to add a service or application to the network, there was a full process for testing, conducting maintenance and getting approval. It could take a month or longer, depending on the complexity of the feature. It might have even required the purchase of new equipment. But this method was slow and cumbersome. Today, when business leaders or customers want a new feature or capability, it has to happen quickly. We live in an era of instant gratification. So, it’s essential that network engineers can make changes to the network in real time.


That’s where the as-a-Service approach and DevOps principles come in handy. With an as-a-service application, you code the feature you want to add to the application, and it’s committed into a continuous integration or testing pipeline. Then, there’s an automated assessment to see if that feature accomplishes its purpose without causing any issues.


If no issues are found, the feature is committed to production and activated for the benefit of the users. This kind of approach is now gaining traction in the networking space. So, if you have a new feature to add to the network, you check out the current configuration from the network to ensure compatibility. You apply the feature. You apply test logic. You check with the security policy to ensure that no violations occur. Once you’ve run it through an automated testing pipeline to ensure there aren’t any issues, the new feature is pushed out to the network devices and activated in production. This process is fueled by what’s known as a DevOps approach. Using this approach, you treat the network as an abstracted piece of code that you’re writing configuration to. You automate the entire process of adding new features to the network – from testing to deployment.


The benefit of the DevOps approach is better reliability as features are added and changes happen. Because you’ve automated the tests, you avoid human error. You’re able to accomplish goals more quickly by embracing automation. You treat the network like you would treat a malleable piece of code.


The role of business skills


In the past, network engineers weren’t expected to explain advanced technology from a business standpoint. The use of advanced technology wasn’t always connected to business goals. But more and more, technologists need to have a firmer grasp on how the technology they work with directly impacts the bottom line. They need to be able to both talk and write about complex technical subject matter in a way that C-level executives can understand.


Communication skills differentiate a hybrid engineer from a network engineer.  So does the ability to work collaboratively rather than refusing to leave your silo. Analytical thinking is an important asset as well. If it doesn’t come naturally, it can be learned and practiced. People who work in the networking field sometimes disregard these skills. That’s changing as the network changes; their need is becoming increasingly evident.


Going hybrid


The rapid pace of digital transformation calls for a new kind of network professional: the hybrid engineer. This individual understands the DevOps approach and also how to speak to decision makers about the business benefits of technology. A hybrid engineer spans the divide that typically exists between software development and network management, using automated processes to push new features and capabilities into the network. It’s someone who’s always learning and curious about new networking developments, ensuring that the organization is well positioned for the future.


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Linda Boroff
is a technical and marketing writer with more than a decade of experience in areas including network security, analytics, virtual data center, and SDN.