|By Destiny Bertucci||
|March 11, 2017 01:00 AM EST||
The Changing Face of Networking
In the last year or so, we have seen burgeoning trends like software-defined networking (SDN), open source-based automation, the Internet of Things (IoT), and the continuing rise of hybrid IT dramatically impact traditional networking. Long gone are the days of being a router jockey. We're now more focused on delivering services rather than just configuring packet traversal across ports. Especially as the modern data center continues to converge, network administrators are dealing with complex networks and associated technologies, and it is critical to be well versed and trained across various network functions.
As expected, there are pros and cons to all of these changes. But in the long run, this transformation and adoption of next-generation IT will improve both business and IT department ROI and eventually make managing and monitoring networks more efficient.
The Cloud and Hybrid IT
Unsurprisingly, the advent of hybrid IT is many a network specialist's first hurdle. Despite the cloud's claims to deliver greater operational simplicity, IT's mandate to manage cloud services brings with it the inherent challenge of being held accountable for the performance of networks the company doesn't even own - those of the cloud provider. At the same time, the convergence of data center technologies to enable cloud computing means network administrators can no longer be siloed experts. Instead, we need to have a much broader understanding of other key data center infrastructure elements and how they work together to deliver and support hybrid IT services.
The key to the success of a hybrid IT strategy is to break down the virtual wall between the physical data center and the cloud to realize greater visibility, meaning network managers should be able to see the paths of application traffic and the quality of the service from on-premises to the cloud and back again. In doing so we can spend our time on more pressing issues, as well as learn about more up-and-coming technologies like SDN and how to work with the enterprise IoT.
Network automation capabilities have also contributed to the changing face of networking. Surprisingly, a good portion of network administrators are still tackling some of the most monotonous tasks manually. But not only does the automation of configuration, provisioning, operation, orchestration, and management save significant time and resources, it also maximizes network and team efficiency (human error remains the biggest cause of network downtime). Network administrators who have started to bring automation into the network management equation (either via their own programming script or third-party applications like GitHub®, Puppet®, Chef®, and others) benefit from a greater amount of free time, allowing them to focus on other areas of the network without worrying about the basics.
More specifically, the growth of open source is better enabling IT professionals to write their own macros and script to automate a number of procedures. For example, we know that changing administrative passwords is time-consuming, but automating this with a set of scripts is simple. However, in order for automation to truly be successful, it's crucial that network engineers are consistently testing it; open source also enables a constant drumbeat of testing to ensure human error isn't replaced by machine error.
Internet of Things
Last, but certainly not least, the steady integration of thousands of IoT devices on to corporate networks is also a rising concern among network managers. As we saw toward the end of 2016 with the Dyn® DDoS attack (executed by installing malware on IoT-enabled printers and other office equipment), IoT is chock full of potential network security vulnerabilities that today's administrators must be prepared for. Until the industry reaches a "2.0" phase for IoT devices, where security is a front-and-center consideration, IT professionals should always begin by testing and monitoring these devices before letting them loose on corporate networks.
Start slow: connect a handful of test devices and then closely monitor to see what they are doing and how they interact with the network. This type of preparation will alleviate the major point of contention for IT professionals: fear of the unknown (in this case, fear of connecting IoT devices without knowing what kind of change they will effect). A monitoring test drive will help establish a baseline of functionality and what "normal" operation levels look like. Remember, without knowing what is standard, it's much more difficult to identify a performance or security issue. From there, you can develop corresponding procedures and policies, and slowly start to move them onto corporate networks. It's all about trust.
Meeting the Challenge
At the end of the day, it's a "shape up or ship out" world when it comes to managing today's networks. Whether you're a seasoned networking professional or new to the scene, here are a few best practices that can help jumpstart your up-skilling journey and better manage the modern network:
- Develop a Network of Peers: Networking with other IT professionals and network specialists at industry events and vendor conferences is a critical and highly valuable resource as you look to better understand new technology and implementation strategies. These technologies are changing so quickly that being able to share real-life scenarios and best practices about how other organizations tested and deployed an SDN environment, for example, will help you become more confident and think more quickly on your feet. It's worth mentioning that many vendors of products that enable SDN, for example, also offer free training that IT professionals can and should take advantage of.
- Learn New Skills: Network administrators also need to cultivate a broader range of skills. To start, network-specific skills like coding and scripting (for more agile automation) is critical. You should stop thinking in terms of configuration, which incorrectly implies a certain level of control over the devices and services you're managing, and start thinking more like a developer. However, it will also be key to begin cultivating an "IT generalist" understanding of various infrastructure elements and how they work together. As data center convergence continues, the network team will need to be in lock step with the rest of the IT department to ensure QoA and performance.
- Practice Monitoring as a Discipline: One of the best but perhaps underestimated ways to maintain an effective network is to implement a comprehensive monitoring strategy. Monitoring as a discipline, so to speak, provides businesses and IT value by allowing the IT department to turn disparate data points from various monitoring tools and utilities into more actionable insights. It considers all, and does so from a holistic vantage point. This is critical if your organization is considering the adoption of one or more of these new technologies discussed here, as a fundamental understanding of your environment's baseline performance and history will inform future implementations.
The bottom line is that there is more pressure than ever on network administrators to manage both current challenges, such as the implementation of hybrid IT, while also looking ahead to the future of IoT devices on corporate networks, a broader adoption of software-defined networking, SDN, and more. Networks are only going to get more complex as they evolve; by leveraging the above best practices, network administrators of all levels of expertise can be better prepared to tackle the biggest trends impacting network management today.
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