Software-defined networking (SDN) refers to an architecture in which network control and forwarding functions are decoupled. It enables network control to become directly programmable and the underlying infrastructure can be abstracted for applications and services. SDN has wrought enormous changes in the networking space over the past few years. Networking engineers trained to automate legacy devices and configurations must now grapple with a new way of doing things. Joachim Bauernberger, managing director, Valbonne Consulting, offered his advice on what networking engineers can do to successfully transition to this new type of networking.
SDN is going to become an important part of the networking landscape. “Once it becomes clear to decision makers how much easier SDN can make the job and how much more flexible network-architecture becomes they sure will want to put it on their agenda. Reduced OPEX and more flexibility are always good selling points for which deep technical understanding isn’t required, so this will keep popping up as those who are reluctant will see their competitors press ahead,” Bauernberger commented. “When you have real life successful examples of SDN implemented in the field, not only in giant companies like Google, Facebook and Twitter but also smaller ISPs, then it becomes hard to dismiss that SDN is the future of how we think about networks.”
Bauernberger does not see insurmountable obstacles for networking engineers. “SDN is a framework of existing standards/protocols/technologies, namely virtualization (eg. KVM/Zen/Hyper-V/VMware), routing/switching, some upper-layer vendor specific glue which implements the control-interface, and of course the new OpenFlow,” he explained. “But most of it is already out there and has been so for a long time. And so network engineers just need to get their head around the different approach in how these things are put together and how it all interoperates. Anyone with a good basic understanding of networks should be able to pick up the basics of OpenFlow.” He does not believe that the changes in technology will lead to a shortage of qualified networking engineers. “SDN just requires a new angle and open mindset when looking at how we structure the same network,” Bauernberger added.
How will employers be able to gauge the depth of an engineer’s SDN knowledge? Bauernberger warns that it might not be through the certification process. “Certifications always sell best when you have a vendor lock-in which not only allows the vendor to monetize on the certificates but also bind the consumer, and the engineer who benefits from higher salaries, to their technologies,” he remarked. “There is a high chance that if all your network admins currently have a cert from one vendor, that these experts will be more prone to stick to that vendor in fear of seeing their skills becoming less important within the department or even on the market. This is of course a generalization but I believe certificates will be less relevant in SDN because it is not a closed black box, only accessible to people with certs. Anyone is free to dig deep into the standard or download OpenDaylight and start playing with it.”
That does not mean that certifications will become unnecessary for SDN. “Having said that certifications can still play an important role for people who lack practical experience and want to enter the industry e.g. if you hire a Linux guru, then usually their past hands-on experience is more important than whether they ever sat through an LPI exam,” Bauernberger acknowledged. “Therefore SDN/OpenFlow are similar because like any other Open Source or Open Standard it levels the playing field for those who learn hands-on by their urge to tinker. But certificates can reduce the entry-barrier. To properly gauge if an engineer has the skills what it takes to work with SDN, I would look at their overall understanding of network and routing protocols and how well they cover Layer-2 & Layer-3. Also, virtualization is important, though chances are high that developers or sys-admins know about this already. There aren’t too many people with hands-on knowledge of OpenFlow, and they often come from research. If a company wants to switch to SDN, then it should hire a good consultant specializing in SDN who can help the internal teams think about SDN in a new way.”
Eventually, SDN will become an integral part of a networking engineer’s education. “More awareness needs to be created within the educational system and when teaching about network architecture,” Bauernberger asserted. “As SDN is born out of research, there are more and more people entering the industry now and have put focus on future-networks and SDN within their MSc or PhD. It will only be a matter of time that we see it also being part of the curriculum much earlier.”