Dispelling "F.U.D." in the Brave New World of Software-Defined Networking

The world is changing… at least my world of networking. It’s evolving into a long overdue state. As a result, my skills have to evolve. So, I might as well extend my comfort zone with this whole blogging thing while I’m at it. Who said an old dog can’t learn new tricks?

To kick it off, I want to address this change I mentioned: SDN. No, I’m not going to subject you to yet another definition of software-defined networking, or an overview of the many different vendor options. I get to pontificate about that enough doing my day job. Instead, I want to talk about the real issue here: FUD.

Fear, Uncertainty and Doubt: the weapons of choice for any good smear campaign. FUD is being wielded in the SDN discussion with brutal cunning. I’m just waiting for an election year-type ad spot with homeless engineers and an ominous voiceover telling us how the proponents of SDN are destroying our great nation.

Clearly, the whole concept is an evil plot perpetrated by Hydra to undermine the networking staff in IT and allow world domination. Captain America 3 is going to be a box office smash with that storyline.

In all seriousness, most people are uncomfortable with change… even more so when the outcome of that change is uncertain. Unfortunately for SDN, we’re still trying to define that outcome. We know that we want it to be a state where businesses are more agile and productive, but we don’t know quite how we’re going to accomplish that on a global scale across a multitude of technologies and vendors. That’s where the FUD comes into play.

Many in our industry are slinging mud and/or stirring up uncertainty in attempts at self-preservation. Some are doing it to postpone the inevitable, while others are doing it out of their own lack of understanding. Regardless, the results are the same: those with the most to gain in this transition are at odds.

Related article: Why We’re Joining the OpenDaylight Project

Businesses are excited by the promises of SDN, and they’re actively looking to craft strategies that will help them gain an edge with their customers and employees through technology. Network engineers, on the other hand, are the targets of the FUD. They’re constantly being told that SDN is going to drive them to extinction in favor of programmers. Of course, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

Even if network configuration and provisioning were to suddenly shift tomorrow from CLI to Python or YANG or whatever, would it really make a difference? Good network engineers have learned multiple CLIs over the years… even if they’ve only dealt with one vendor.

Some have even succumbed to that whole GUI thing. So, learning a new set of commands and UI is trivial for most engineers. Not to mention, no change is going to occur overnight. It’s going to be a gradual evolution that may have more than one appearance in the end.

There’s plenty of time for good network engineers looking to evolve themselves to pick up the necessary skills along the way.

Don’t be fooled by the new skills piece, though. The value of network engineers isn’t their ability to configure boxes–it’s their ability to design elegant systems, understand complex protocol relationships and reduce technology issues to the lowest common denominator rapidly for resolution.

So, what if we even go as far as automating configuration and provisioning? That just means that network engineers can spend more time on strategic initiatives that will actually challenge them and leverage their true value. You know, those things that have occupied slots 3 through 5 on the to-do list for the last 18 months, but have been repeatedly usurped by the latest fire drill.

Of course, there’s also that crazy concept of integrating the applications and network to provide greater awareness. How terrible would that be? I mean imagine what crazy things might come of actually knowing the requirements and real-time status of applications on the network. Dare I say network engineers may never have to deal with another “Hey, the Internet is slow today” call again… ever?

Yes, change is scary, but it’s also very exciting. It’s a chance to learn new things, to make new contributions and to lead. Network engineers aren’t going to suddenly be hanging out on street corners with “will route for food” signs.

The good ones will simply find themselves in new spheres of influence collaborating with different teams on how their combined skill sets will improve IT. Maybe they’ll even start bartering with the programmers: You teach me YANG modeling, and I’ll teach you link state protocols. The sooner we can all get past the FUD and embrace this reality, the sooner we can move this industry forward.

This is tech. If we’re not here to innovate, then why are we here?