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I browsed through this post on /r/networking about “Network Engineers and SDN in 2016.” The thread was an odd mix of ideas about what SDN is, what it might be useful for, and whether network engineers need to care.
Marketing has abused the definition of SDN so badly that in 2016, it has no meaning. Yes, we’ll cling onto the term in our industry lexicon, but as a basis for a discussion, SDN is a waste of energy.
Let’s pretend the OP titled the thread “Network engineers and emerging networking techniques in 2016.” That gives us something more to discuss. What’s new in the world of networking that engineers and operators might find useful or even career-advancing?
Let’s start with what’s NOT useful.
1. Marketing babble. Stop listening to your sales reps and marketing people tell you about the glories of SDN. The messaging is mostly crap, and what we try to cut through on the podcast. Instead, have a clear idea of a problem you want to solve, and then look for solutions to solve that problem. Understand what solutions actually do, and ignore what buzzwords they associate themselves with.
2. APIs. By themselves, APIs are of zero value to you. At all. APIs only become useful if they are used to programmatically accomplish something. I don’t care if a device has an open, well-documented, wonderful API unless either I’m going to use that interface or there’s some software I’m going to use that will.
I’m not against APIs, but let’s stop getting excited about them as if they were the thing that mattered. APIs are part of the journey, but not the destination.
3. New tools operated by clueless engineers. I hear repeatedly about how difficult it is to find competent networking staff. A shiny new networking tool has to be run by someone with a clue, or you end up with the classic GIGO problem. Unicorn software doesn’t create a great network any more than a chrome-plated wrench builds a great car. Competency of the tool-wielder matters, and that will never change.
What Is Useful In Emerging Networking In 2016?
1. Point solutions. Networking problems, especially at the edge, tend to be complex. This is why we’ve seen tools like VMware NSX and Cisco ACI aimed, at least initially, at the data center. Data centers tend to be built as templates — the same thing over and over. There’s also lots of bandwidth to go around. From a software engineering perspective, the data center network is relatively low-hanging fruit.
We also end up with point solutions like SD-WAN. Useful? You bet. Good ROI, at least until the telcos sort out their pricing models. Automates QoS, which is sort of a big deal if you know what MQC is and have had to write policies for different types of serial interfaces plus Ethernet with an upstream throttle. Plus pretty graphs, application reporting, and compliance checks. Makes sense. Solves problems a lot of companies have.
Point solutions are bounded problems. That is, they go after specific issues and solve them. They don’t boil the ocean.
2. Automation. Configuring the network as a part of a larger, automated application provisioning scheme is useful. However, it’s useful when you have a static underlay network, and it’s useful when you have an application deployment process that runs in an automated fashion.
Do you work in an environment like that? Most don’t, and probably never will. Devops shops are a small subset of specific customers whose products are applications brought rapidly to market. Most enterprises have campus networks they care about. They might have a small-ish data center, but it’s slowly morphing into XaaS and colo space hosting a few static apps that can’t be outsourced to the cloud.
That means that automation, really, is of value where a network engineer can find it to be of value. It’s nice to be able to run a script to gather information or accomplish a simple, low-risk task instead of hammering through a bunch of CLI.
That said, will you lose your job if you don’t automate all the things tomorrow? Not for the most part. However, there is a risk of being held back in your IT career if you don’t grow, and automation is a fantastic growth area.
Is There More?
Oh, perhaps. I could itemize more point solutions. I could talk about OpenFlow and the centralized control-plane (not management-plane) model’s utter failure to impact networking in a long-term helpful way. I could talk about vendor squabbling. I could talk about how open source has become the inmates running the asylum. But at the end of the day, almost none of that matters.
What really matters are the specific emerging networking tools that are genuinely useful to you, because they make day-to-day life better. Underneath all the tools, the network is still mostly Ethernet and IP. There’s still a distributed routing protocol. There are still L2 broadcast domains. On these building blocks your network rises — or if badly designed — falls.
No emerging network technology (say SDN one more time) has changed the basics.