As networks evolve, so too do the technical skills needed by netadmins and by IT professionals looking to enter the networking field.
The one thing we can count on in the networking field is change. Architectures are evolving and new technologies emerging, meaning that netadmins and other IT professionals—even those with an impressive list of competencies—may find themselves in need of some new skills. But what’s influencing these new needs? Which skills should admins pursue? And where can this training be found?
The future of enterprise and data center networking
Knowledge of applications and what they need will be a priority in coming years, according to Dan Pitt, executive director of the Open Networking Foundation (ONF). “The amount of detailed knowledge of a network will decrease, except for a smaller number of networking specialists, but mostly the application providers and maintainers will need to know what the application needs from the network, and where applications can be located to get what they want from the network without caring how the network provides it.”
Software defined networking (SDN) is leading to an abstraction of the network, and that extends to an abstraction of the applications, too. “They only understand each other in terms of parameters that cause them to function well,” Pitt explained. Those with the skills to make applications function well and who understand enough of the computer storage environment to successfully distribute the applications where they can get the most effective response are the ones who will likely be leading the way.
Increased adoption of software-defined solutions will usher in more application-centric networks that are both more efficient and more secure. Supporting the changing needs of the enterprise with these types of architectures will drive further changes in the IT function. “Network administrators will need to prepare for accelerating delivery of network services through mechanisms such as virtualization, orchestration and policy-driven automation,” said Christine Bakan, senior director of SDN and open standards product management in Cisco’s Enterprise Infrastructure Segment Group. “The traditional network administrator’s role will increasingly evolve to architecting and implementing software-defined solutions.” Other responsibilities likely to begin falling to administrators—if they haven’t already—include involvement in building applications, as well as increased system integration.
It’s hardly a mystery that security now inhabits its own crucial space in the network. “I think one of the questions staff are likely to hear is, ‘How are we protecting our customers’ data?' Especially if you have data at a scale where you have millions of customers or a lot of detail about customers,” said Greg Shannon, PhD, chief scientist for the CERT division of the Software Engineering Institute at Carnegie Mellon University and chair of the IEEE Cybersecurity Initiative.
All that data is driving downstream changes to the network. Systems will become increasingly connected, because there’s value in connecting them and in merging the data to derive more business value from it. These connections also create new opportunities and more valuable targets for cyber criminals to go after. “When someone compromises a system, they’re able to get so much more out of the enterprise,” Shannon explained. To answer those questions about security, administrators and others will need to understand the combination of technologies, architecture and operational procedures that can help protect those assets.
Next page: Networking skills to learn and networking skills being left behind.
Networking skills to learn
Bakan sees several core skills as critical for tomorrow’s networking professionals, including virtualization of network services, orchestration and policy automation. “One should also generally look to increase skill sets in designing, implementing and assuring these types of software solutions,” she said. An increasing use of automation may lead to an evolution of the network administrator’s role to include software skills that build upon their existing networking skills. “Network administrators should ultimately prioritize accelerating application-centric network service delivery,” Bakan said.
Several foundational security skills are likely to be in greater demand. One Shannon points to is a good understanding of how technologies such as encryption and two-factor authentication can be implemented to eliminate some of the errors enterprises commonly make when using these platforms. “There are mistakes you can make as you deploy various encryption solutions,” he said. “Part of the challenge is that someone can propose or sell you a sophisticated solution, and you’ve got to have an ability to understand if the solution is working well or not.” Developing targeted statements of need, conducting meaningful technical assessments, and analyzing the effectiveness of the resulting solutions will become much more valuable skills as enterprises continue to ramp up their security postures.
The skills a network administrator or other IT pro chooses to develop may depend on where they are in their career. Networking is taught differently in many computer science departments today than it was just five years ago. Pitt believes it has shifted toward being more of a science and less of a trade. As the technologies and architectures have evolved, he said, “There are a whole lot of tradespeople, and those trade skills won’t be nearly as in demand as they have been.” He encourages administrators and others to develop a better understanding of computer science, of different kinds of languages, of newly-popular constructs such as containers, and how software really works. “I think anything that a current professional can do to have a deeper understanding of the fundamentals of software in all its dimensions will be really worthwhile.”
Networking skills being left behind
A side effect of all this change is that some skills traditionally seen as important will eventually become less necessary. Among the things on the decline are many of the skills that deal with the manual configuration of routers. “All the CCNE, CCIE certifications that people have probably put on their resumes and their business cards for a long time, those are starting to turn into more of a liability than an asset,” Pitt said. Automated software will likely take over much of those areas. “It will be more important to understand how to assemble software pieces that give you what you want.”
For IT professionals, compliance was a very hot topic five years ago. Going forward, Shannon doesn’t believe that will continue to be the case, pointing to the notion that compliance belongs more in the legal realm rather than as a strategy for ensuring security and privacy. “It’s been shown too many times that organizations that are compliant are still weak, they’re still vulnerable,” he explained. “It’s legally important to the institution but from a technical point of view it really doesn’t deliver.”
Next page: Deciding which networking skills to develop and finding resources for training.
How to decide which networking skills you’ll need
Develop skill sets enterprises want. Research released by TEKsystems has shown that for three consecutive years, IT leaders have identified programmers and developers as being the most difficult positions to fill. More than half of respondents also predicted salary increases for these two roles.
Know the trends. Containerization, integrated platforms and cloud security were among the "disruptive trends" 451 Research predicted for 2015. IT professionals may consider developing their networking skills to make an impact in these areas.
Learn a language. IEEE Spectrum compiled data on the most popular programming languages in 2014. Java and C took the number one and two spots respectively. C++, C# and Python rounded out the top five.
Certifications still matter. The Certified in Risk and Information Systems Control (CRISC) credential was the top-paying IT certification in 2014, according to research conducted by Global Knowledge and Penton.
Be well rounded. Aside from educational training, a study carried out by the Society for Human Resource Management and Kaplan University School of Business & Information Technology showed that technology/social and digital media skills were considered most valuable for IT job applicants, followed by critical thinking and communication skills.
Where to get training in the networking skills of the future
A number of options exist for those IT professionals who want to advance their skill sets. As the need for new and expanded expertise continues to grow, additional opportunities are sure to pop up. “I think you will find popular short courses on everything from scripting languages to how to use Chef and Puppet to automate keystrokes,” Pitt said. Conferences will certainly be held to educate network admins and others about a range of emerging needs. Pitt expects continuing education to deliver solutions fairly rapidly. “I think there’s a lot of value in going to conferences and attending the tutorials and the two- to three-day training sessions,” he said. These alone may not prepare an individual to become a particular kind of programmer, but they will enable people to understand how to position those technology components alongside others in the network.
Broad offerings are available at the Masters level in cyber security, including programs that allow students to go back to school either remotely or as a working student. “There’s always been a fairly large corpus of training out there, both individual courses from universities and such, but also places like SANS and CSSP offer various courses,” Shannon said.
The security sphere in particular continues to evolve quite rapidly, making ongoing education critical to ongoing success. “Taking courses on the latest tech and the latest threats is one way to stay cognizant of where things are headed,” Shannon said. CERT, for example, makes many courses and certificate programs available both onsite and in online format. The organization also offers leadership-level instruction through the CISO-Executive Education and Certification Program, administered jointly with Heinz College.
Another area of training that’s already growing in importance is around virtualization and automation. One example of educational opportunities that focus on network transitions is Cisco’s Learning Network. “The program offers a series of certification programs for students in formats that they want to use, including podcasts, videos, learning games, simulations and via social networks, and ensures employers that their networking professionals are equipped with the most up-to-date understanding of networking technology,” Bakan said. From Boomers to Millennials, there is now a wide range of learning styles, preferences and areas of interest active in the workforce. These different training options help to keep IT pros at every career level up to speed.