SDN: Fight or Flight - The Syndrome of New Technology and the Impact on Networking CareersI  remember from my early career days working on PBXs that SDN was a  Subscriber Directory Number. Later in my career in various consulting  gigs, I knew SDN as Secure Data Network. Today is has become more well  known as Software Defined Networking.

 

Facetiously,  to many it means Still Don't (K)now or paraphrased from old ISDN jokes,  it means Still Does Nothing. In the end, suffice it to say that it's a  floating definition, and one that will most certainly evolve over time.

 

Many  people starting out their careers in networking today have great fear  of this reused acronym.  Many people still in school are actually  doubting their career choices already, and haven’t given it a chance!   Will it be the new harbinger of doom for the network engineer?  (playing  ominous music in the background)

 

The  important part about what it means though, has to do with the effect it  will have on your current or future career. The unknown breeds fear.  Fear leads to paranoia. Or to the Dark Side, whichever you prefer to  embrace.

 

(Yoda:  Fear is the path to the Dark Side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to  hate. Hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.)

 

The  interesting thing about SDN is really two-fold. You have large groups  of people who are unsure about what it is really going to do and are  trying to analyze the different use-cases of SDN and what it MAY do  within their organizations.  You also have another large group of people  latching onto the marketing aspect of SDN, namely the believers that it  will do anything and everything to automate your organization's  network!

 

That  generally leaves the existing networking staff someplace in between,  blissfully moving through their day normally and simultaneously looking  over their shoulder in a paranoid fashion. And some are feverishly  updating their resume while looking for that ad for truck driving  schools featured in Top Gun.

 

The  reality lies somewhere in there, and as much as it amuses me, I will  default back to the standard answer of "It Depends".  SDN is a powerful  tool that brings automation into networks.  But (and all music-related  anecdotes aside, it's a big but) not everything within everyone's  network either can or should be automated!  When people think of their  jobs being automated, this is where the fear begins.  Will you be  automated out of a job?  It sounds worse than outsourcing!  You can’t  really blame someone else for taking your job, you have to blame the  equipment and process of the networks which you love!  Well, have no  fear… here are a few things to consider!

 

First,  let’s run with the idea that SDN can do anything and everything.   Congratulations.  You believe marketing 100%.  There are many  professionals out there who will absolutely adore you for that, however,  they all want to sell you something.  So let’s be a bit more realistic  and skeptical!  What are the current (read as today’s reality) use-cases  for SDN?

 

They can be summarized into some basic categories:

 

  • Data Center orchestration (this has multiple entries, both for VM networking and for Storage allocation)
  • Service Provider Orchestration (this has multiple entries also, for service activation and for mobile network services)
  • Traffic Engineering (this includes dynamic changes based on individual application needs or things to balance)
  • Dynamic Networking (this could be tunneling, or taps/monitoring for a variety of purposes)

 

Taking  a look at SDN Central, we will see both use-case  ideas as well as the place within a network they would seem to fit the  best.  How many of those apply to either your network or even your  organization?  Right now, most are within service provider networks, or  larger data center operations.  Ok, cool.  So many of you can now  relax!  (A few of you just perked up and are now reading more  intently!)  Yet, in order to understand what is to be automated and  where, we need to understand what happens completely in a network path.

 

(Yoda:  You must unlearn what you have learned.)

 

Second,  let’s look at the use-cases where we need to keep in mind the actual  working pieces of an SDN network.  Believe it or not, a magic wand is  NOT one of them.  Any process that is going to be automated needs to be  analyzed first, and then broken into tasks.  Have you even done software  programming?  Well, SDN is similar.  You are creating a list of  repeatable tasks and criteria in order to create a predictable list of  outcomes.  There is much trial and error in doing this (often  emphasizing the latter part there!). 

 

There  is a lot of equipment as well, and much of it newer.  It doesn’t matter  what vendor we are working with, although I’ll certainly stick with  Cisco here.  I would certainly advise taking a look at Cisco’s offerings  in this arena, starting with OnePK.  The entire  Application Centric Infrastructure is a grand idea, and allows for many  new areas of expertise to be defined.  But it doesn’t replace the  basics!  (Read this as net new, not throwing out the old!)

 

Third,  and most importantly, keep in mind that even if you were to have every  single task on your network automated, the basics of networking don’t  change.  There are complex things that we do all the time.  That doesn’t  mean that we can’t embrace automation for HELPING with some things  (what I typically think of as the boring things that I don’t want to be  doing over and over and over and over and over and …), but that we  cannot automate every process in a network.  Too many variables.  Too  many things change location to location.

 

Have  networking vendors ever been able to come up with a startup script or  web-GUI setup that works all the time?  No.  And there are some very  smart people who work at (insert networking vendor du jour), but there  are too many variables.  Our low-end routers have startup scripts that  work well.  Why?  Because those types of devices are put into locations  that are more cookie-cutter in design and are easy to repeat.  Wait.   You mean something we can possibly automate?  Yes.  NOT the core of the  network though.

 

(Yoda:  Try not.  Do…  or do not.  There is no try.)

 

Last,  and perhaps most importantly, keep in mind that all of this grand  network design and automation/process design has to be controlled by  people.  Unless we are implementing Skynet.  And we all know how that  turns out.  (smirk)  That being said, if you truly understand networking  and how things work, then you may be in a prime position to play with  SDN and see how it can be used to make your life easier and save your  company money.  This actually enhances your marketability, not limits or  replaces it! 

 

SDN  is a tool, or a set of tools that may help us in certain processes.   That being said, we network engineers may need to increase our skills  and critical thinking a little bit in order to grasp the business and  process/procedure concepts which will allow us to control the automation  of particular things.  So this should be viewed as an opportunity for  improvement rather than any particular reason to run in fear. 

 

As  I have been told by a few people, I’m kind of an old guy in the  industry.  This means that I have seen many things change over the  years.  And many times there were people claiming that the sky was  falling or that everyone would soon be out of a job.  Magically,  however, we have only seen increases in the need for good network  engineers.  Yes, things are significantly different than the way we were  networking way-back-when (back in the days of Dixie cups and string for  long-distance communications!), but many things are still the same and  good people are needed, perhaps more than ever.

 

Know  what SDN is and what it can do for you.  Know what devices are, or are  not, capable of taking advantage of these new features.  Embrace the  possibilities of the future, but do not get caught up with the view of  the sky falling.  Perhaps the sky isn’t falling, but the ground is  rising!

 

(Yoda:  May the Force be with you.)

 

Hope this has been helpful!

 

Scott

 

 

 

 

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Note from the Cisco Learning Network with permission to add from Scott Morris:

 

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Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) February 27, 2014

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