I have convinced myself that the future of networking is an automated one. That is, humans aren’t going to be configuring the network using the command-line or GUIs all that often. Rather, most of the configuration work will be handled by machines.
What Does This Mean?
Automation is a controversial topic. On the surface, automation translates into a loss of jobs for people. We think that if we assign to software what we once did, that we won’t have anything left to do. This is a theme in futurist fiction purporting to be news. The sky is falling, the sky is falling! Humans will no longer have work to do! Automation will take our jobs!
On the one hand, I’m completely fine with this. Performing repetitive network configuration tasks is a thankless job that can barely be considered skilled. Why? Because repetitive sorts of tasks are cranked out in accordance with a template. Once a process is well-understood, the task is no longer interesting. Humans no longer add value. What began as a problem is now solved.
In fact, getting humans out of the workflow is, from a business point of view, a positive thing. Well-written software doesn’t screw up. Tired people, chemically-influenced people, distracted people, and overworked people definitely screw up. Even prudent, careful, thoughtful, professional people with the very best of intentions and a system of checks and balances to prevent mistakes screw up. All the time. Humans are famous for it.
Automating IT infrastructure provisioning isn’t just a fun project to play around with during the annual freeze. The more I think about it, the more I see automation as a critical part of IT infrastructure provisioning. Automation is a way for businesses to de-risk IT changes.
Yes, But What Will Engineers Do Instead?
Here’s the interesting thing about automation. I don’t believe that, overall, automation is a canned solution you’ll buy from a vendor. If your business buys a fancy hyperconverged stack that included networking, which I’m sure many businesses will, then perhaps. However, the push-button data center is a somewhat different discussion. I don’t know how many businesses will buy into that sort of one-size-fits-all design. It’s a big market, but not the entire market.
More to the point, I have felt for sometime now that automation equals paradise for the skilled meatbot ready to make the shift. Put another way, I believe the engineering job focus shifts. Instead of tweaking around with infrastructure command lines, the job consists of the following roles.
1. Understanding automation tooling. Leveraging automation isn’t going to be simply pushing a button someone else created for you. The people that understand the business, the network, and the underlying technology will have to be deeply involved in the creation of automated processes. In addition, that functionality will have to be mapped onto the tools you’ll use to automate those processes. Not easy. In fact, hard.
2. Focusing on systems-level thinking. Taking a step back from automation specifically, programming generally is a practice that leads to blossoming. What starts out as a tightly focused little project to accomplish a granular task blossoms into something much bigger. When you see what your code thus far can do, you’re inspired to make that program do even more. The scope. It creeps.
I predict automation scope creep in IT infrastructure automation as well. Perhaps you’ll start by automating the creation of a VLAN. Then you’ll figure out how to hook that simple VLAN creation script into the IPAM API, and reserve a new IP block from the IPAM at the same time the VLAN is created. And then you’ll realize that with a little more code, you can inject the new IP block into the routing domain. And then you’ll figure out that with some more effort, you could modify crypto access lists automatically to be sure that the developer team can access the new network when they use the VPN.
In other words, you might start looking at a few problematic trees, but end up seeing the entire forest. Once you’ve got the whole system in mind, your perspective on automation will change completely. Instead of automating yourself out of a job, you’ve invented an entirely new job for yourself. Your title might still be “network engineer,” but your day to day job responsibilities will look rather different.
The Future Of Networking Summit At InteropITX
On May 15 & 16, 2017, Greg, Drew and I are leading the second Future of Networking Summit at InteropITX in Las Vegas. Automation is one of our key topics. For example, we’ve got software engineer and infrastructure management pro Matt Oswalt coming in to talk about continuous integration. I’m working on a presentation about automation tooling. Greg is speaking about the business and process impacts of automation.
Automation is just one topic we’ll cover at the summit. We’re also going after the future of the WAN, including SD-WAN. We’ll hit cloud networking, as we’ve run into a lot of early adopters who’ve shared their stories with us. Telemetry, visibility, and analytics are also keys to networking’s future, and topics on our list to discuss.
We hope you can join us for presentations and discussion in Las Vegas in May. It’s not free, sadly. However, if you register with promo code PACKETPUSHERS at interopitx.com, the nice people at InteropITX will give you 20% off of your registration.