A Wakeup Call for Network Administrators

Over the last five years I’ve watched server virtualization become ubiquitous in most data centers, based on the promise of higher infrastructure and increased business agility.  I’ve also watched server administrators throw up their hands in frustration, as network administrators have been unable to provide the networks needed to harness the true value of the virtualized infrastructure.  Server admins want to drop VMs into a big pool of compute capacity, not limited to a select number of servers in a rack or row, and networks just aren’t that flexible.

The good news for server administrators is that the concept of overlay networking enables just that.  Overlay networking delivers the ability to move a VM anywhere in a data center or even between data centers by making a broadcast domain a ubiquitous service available anywhere in the network.  The bad news for network administrators is that the server teams are building and operating it themselves.

As a network engineer, I can’t really blame them.  I’d like to think that we build networks for the sake of building networks, but the reality is we build networks to connect users with applications.  The server administrators are our customers and the service we are providing them is antiquated and no longer meets their needs.  Like any other business, if you can’t deliver what your customers are asking for they will go elsewhere.

If it’s not clear yet I’ll state it more bluntly:  Our networks are antiquated and we’re on our way to becoming a much smaller part within the organization.  We are the next mainframe operator in the IT organization; the grumpy guy in the corner nobody wants to talk to (sorry mainframe guys).  We use manual (read slow) provisioning models, our equipment is relatively expensive, and our networks don’t provide the flexible connectivity our customers need.  You only need to look at products like the VMware vSwitch, HPs Virtual Connect, and Cisco’s UCS to know this is true.  These products we designed to bypass network administrators and the ‘terrible’ service we provide.

Take what little comfort there is when I say this is not our fault.  We didn’t architect our networks poorly or forget to turn on some obscure feature in our switches or routers.  As a group we are doing exactly what we have been trained to do for the last 20 years.  The simple reality is that what we did 20 years ago doesn’t work anymore and the entire network industry is to blame for not adapting.  Cisco, long been the leader in the space, has been slow to drive real innovation in my opinion.  The rest of the industry is still stuck in a business model where being a cheaper version of Cisco will get you a couple points of market share which simply compounds the problem.

So what can network administrators do about it?  As I see it there are two options.  We can bury our collective heads in the sand until it’s all over and the network belongs to the server team or we can start to take a very critical look at the needs of our customers and start thinking differently about networking.  I truly believe the best path forward is the later, which is why I find Software Defined Networking so interesting (and the reason I joined Big Switch Networks in the first place). Incase you disagree I suggest you hedge your bet by taking some VMware courses.



Categories: Data Center, Networking

7 replies

  1. 15 years ago, plenty of PhDs from top schools like Stanford going to Cisco; these days, top talents absconding to SDN start-ups. Solutions are just around the corner. :)

  2. While it would be a good bet to learn SDN..I dont think any DC would be built purely on servers and without phy switches..as long as phy switches are there, Cisco will be there…

    Most enterprises dont need the elascitiy that SDNs provide..so it will play a major role in CLoud providers…

    Also once the dust and din settles around SDN, most companies will simply go in for VMWARE or Microsoft SDN…there would not be a need for Network Software Programmer…

    So network enggs are best suited to understand network virtualizaiton rather than vmadmins…and with IPv6 round the corner..there is no way that vmadmins would get into the trouble of learning networking…

    since vm and netadmin roles will be merged..there will be more layofss not necessarily only in netadmin..but also in vmadmins…so economy will get impacted…

    • I don’t envision a world without physical switches but I do envision a world where physical switches are not ‘configured’ like they are today. Networks are a complex mesh of CLI that must be aligned across hundreds of devices. Imagine a world where a network policy defined the physical network configuration and switches simply boot and ask the policy engine ‘what should my configuration be?’. The policies are much less complex than the switch config requiring fewer people to manage.

      I’ve seen too many customers over the last year purchase white box switches to start testing this kind of architecture to believe it won’t happen. Cisco will be around for a long time but they desperately need to get out of the P&L glut they are in now and get back to internal innovation.

      A paradigm shift is right around the corner. We have spent years abstracting away the complexities of other technologies. Networking will be no different.

  3. Really true talk, we hear talk of network automation, SDN, Network functions visualization, openflow and open daylight projects all this goes to say that there has to be a strategy not to be left behind in the scheme of events and redefine the new shift in this global trends.

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