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Networking Reimagined with SDN and NFV

By - Source: Toms IT Pro

The networking world is changing and those who do that work should start digging into SDN, NFV, automation and programming to stay current.

Credit: ShutterstockCredit: ShutterstockIf you want a sign that the networking world as we know it is thoroughly and completely turning over, look no further than Cisco. Antonella Corno, senior manager for marketing at Cisco Learning recently wrote a story, "Taking Control of the Programmable Network." He explains how Cisco, a premier and dominate networking hardware company, is preparing to move into a world where a "shift away from physical devices – hardware – to software that virtualizes device functions and supports digital innovation" is now in full swing.

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This is the beginning of a complete reshaping of the industry at work. Everybody's doing SDN and NFV these days. Anybody who's in the appliance business these days is just as happy to sell you a "virtual appliance" (implemented in software rather than on a standalone box full of hardware) as they are to sell you a physical product. Virtualization is built into most major operating systems these days, to the point where you can go to major cloud vendors and stand up entire virtual infrastructures running the server OS(es) of your choosing, in whatever kind of network configuration you might want to assemble to provide access to applications, services, data mining and analytics and more.

What does this mean for network professionals? A lot, actually, according to Corno. Here's a quick summary of some key takeaways from that piece:

  • IT job functions are shifting from working on devices and their configurations, toward secure, policy-based services built around and driven by analytics
  • Modern networking services are outcome-focused, enabled by controller-based architectures that support abstraction and automation of networking functions and management
  • IT professionals need to adopt SDN, enhanced security, flexible access methods and controls, and virtualization, all within the context of the cloud. These elements must all be orchestrated together, too: as Corno puts it "An organization cannot set up cloud and enhanced access…without clearly understanding the critical security requirements behind it."
  • Enterprise digitization requires the ability to securely connect people, processes, data, and things (think IoT). Networking pros must understand how to design, build, implement and maintain secure infrastructures, and to detect and respond to cybersecurity threats and attacks.
  • Using SDN and NFV effectively requires skills in automation and programming, which will lead to a new set of training and certifications to make sure IT pros understand these things, and know how to practice them properly and safely. It's no surprise to hear this admonition, either: "The smart … [organizations] 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."
  • Corno makes some specific prescriptions for skills development along these lines.
    • Start with basic scripting "because it forms the basis of automating and tasks." Full-fledged programming is also a good idea, with Python recommended because of its ability to support flipping between object-oriented and procedural programming models. She even recommends learning to work with APIs (which are poised to become to foundation for network monitoring, management, incident response, and yes, automation, too).
    • Network engineers need to understand infrastructure programming, including automation protocols such as the Network Configuration Protocol (NETCONF), representational state transfer (REST), and their relationships to YANG data models. There are a bunch of Cisco SDN controllers that Corno also recommends digging into, but I'll leave looking those up to the Cisco-heads among the readers.

The bottom line here is that networking as we've known it isn't going to stay the way we've known it for too much longer. There's an entirely new paradigm based on SDN, NFV, automation and programming coming on strong and those networking professionals who want to keep networking professionally would be well-advised to dig in and start learning and doing more with this stuff. It's a new world already, and it's going to change even more (and faster) in the years and decades to come.