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INDUSTRY INSIGHT

Keeping pace with SDN means embracing the benefits

With the introduction of any new networking technology, two things are inevitable: First comes the hype, with organizations everywhere discussing whether to invest in it. Second is the panic -- particularly among the professionals tasked with implementing and adopting it. What does it mean for their jobs? Will it create more work? Or, worse still, will it render their roles obsolete?

Software-defined networking is prompting the same kinds of discussions. With its promises of cost savings, flexibility, speed and efficiency, SDN can potentially absorb an abundance of daily tasks that many network engineers -- for better or worse -- have come to view as defining aspects of their roles. Meanwhile, it also comes with a learning curve, requiring engineers to embrace a new approach to networking as a whole.

While these are natural and logical concerns, they shouldn’t (and likely will not) dictate how or whether organizations embrace SDN. With SDN adoption continuing to accelerate, network engineers must keep pace with it. But how?

First, embrace the benefits

In traditional networking, engineers make network adjustments through a command line interface (CLI). Small changes, such as adjusting access control lists, require network engineers to manually type out commands -- often a time-consuming, laborious process, especially in complex environments.

SDN renders that process obsolete by allowing engineers to make changes through a GUI-based centralized controller. The result? A broader view of the network -- available without launching multiple commands -- that ultimately makes life easier for network engineers. 

Further, SDN brings the power of applications and programmability to the networking space. Through automation, these applications can help speed up typically arduous processes while also reducing workloads and human error. 

Next, develop scripting and programming skills

Successfully implementing and adopting SDN requires network engineers to gain new skills -- particularly in scripting and programming -- in addition to CLI.

This can be a daunting task for engineers accustomed to a certain way of life. But learning new skills is an inevitable requirement for any professional, and especially in IT. To improve (or simply maintain) their employability and relevance, network engineers must add new skills around Python or Perl to their repertoire or risk being left behind.  

While the onus of learning and development lies primarily with the individual, engineers must also have the support of their employers. In short, government agencies must also share the load by investing in skills training, programming expertise and change management to prepare their engineers for the SDN revolution.

Be empowered to solve problems

Engineers have traditionally taken a ticket- and task-based approach to network management, which often results in a fairly repetitive stream of requests. Such an approach leaves little time for innovation or strategy. It’s not that they don’t want to innovate -- it’s simply that plenty of tasks exist, and someone needs to do them. This is exactly the quandary that SDN can solve.

By enabling automation, IT professionals will have time and energy to dedicate to new activities. While they can use this new time in a number of ways, solving organizational problems should be high priority. 

Why? Faced with a constant influx of new threats and attacks -- coupled with a growing awareness of how IT efficiencies support their greater mission -- agency leaders are ready to support IT.

Engineers should capitalize on that newfound support by developing a networking strategy that solves real organizational problems. This means braving the world outside the server room to work across different divisions of an agency. For example, network engineers might start working with the security team to explain how the network itself can be configured to defend against cybercrime.

Get creative

Agencies’ networks are not the same. Organizations face varying problems, many of which cannot be addressed with the same architectural approach.

Traditional networking doesn’t always allow engineers to innovate. Those who had tried may have found themselves hampered by the tools available to them or by complex deployment models that require many hours of manual configuration.

Through SDN, however, engineers can access automation and machine learning. These advances will  allow them to exercise more creativity and ingenuity in their roles.

The private sector has embraced SDN with great success. Google, for example, uses it to create environments and solutions specifically tailored to its business needs, which has allowed it to scale and solve consumer and enterprise problems in extraordinary ways.

In short, software-defined networking is revolutionizing traditional IT departments -- and it will only keep growing. To remain relevant, network engineers must broaden their skills and their approaches. Most of all, though, they must fully embrace SDN and the potential it holds -- not only for their organization, but for their own professional success as well. 

About the Author

Jason Parry is Force 3's vice president of client solutions.

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