For network admins, software-defined networking (SDN) is a little like flying a commercial airliner: You can spend your time doing all the little things yourself, or you can focus on the big picture and leave the rest to air traffic controllers and automation.
If you have a software-defined network, there is much less for a network admin to have to worry about. That's because if SDN is working right it has an overall picture of the network, and will do all the heavy lifting to route traffic so as to avoid congestion - and do it all better than an admin could do manually.
That's why, five years or so ago, plenty of people were wondering whether SDN would make network admins, or at least some of them, redundant.
Of course that's not what happened. What did happen when SDN first emerged is that some early pioneers like Nicira where gobbled up very quickly (by VMware back in 2012), while other SDN leaders like Big Switch Networks went on for some time before being acquired (by Arista, earlier this year, after reportedly fighting off interest from Cisco and Juniper). More generally, SDN just became a part of networking that was embraced by all major network infrastructure vendors.
The result is that SDN is not really a big thing in its own right anymore, and it's certainly not something that will lead to massive job cuts in the network admin world.
So perhaps we should not be too worried by IDC's predictions as it examines the outlook for IT in 2021 and beyond.
An admin-less future?
One of IDC's predictions is that corporate data centers will turn into air-conditioned wastelands as servers are moved en masse from the enterprise premises into the vast data centers run by cloud giants such as Amazon and Microsoft, and colo outfits like Equinix. In fact IDC reckons that the vast majority (80%) of corporations will be moving operations to the cloud twice as fast as before the pandemic struck. Fewer servers means less networking gear to manage, ergo less need for network admins in the enterprise.
You would assume that would mean more admins in the cloud. Except that the research house is also predicting a major shift towards autonomous IT operations, harnessing advances in artificial intelligence and machine learning. In a couple of years it believes that a cloud ecosystem will be the platform on which all IT and business automation initiatives run.
So where does that leave network admins? The good news is that, in reality, nothing very much is likely to change for them. Just as SDN didn't spell their doom, nor will AI, ML, or the cloud. The truth is that things never work that way. After all, the invention of the washing machine and vacuum cleaner hasn't led to hours of leisure time, despite the promises of the mid-20th century. And once the pandemic has disappeared, there will still be plenty of work for pilots.
There's never been a lack of new IT challenges. Security, for one thing, has become so intertwined with networking that some of the cybersecurity skills shortage has been met by admins and other IT personnel taking on new roles. Those needs won't disappear with the cloud - or all the new remote workers, for that matter.