Inside Advanced Scale Challenges|Monday, June 25, 2018
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The Network Is Evolving. Are Your NetAdmin Skills? 

With advancements like SDN, the Internet of Things, BYOD, telepresence, SaaS, cloud, Big Data and dozens more disrupting what was once a simple environment, it’s safe to say that today’s networks are more dynamic than ever. Every day, we encounter greater challenges and complexities as network administrators. Our roles are also shifting: we’re more focused on delivering services these days rather than just configuring packet traversal across ports. Hardware doesn’t seem to break as much anymore, but the tradeoff is that instances of troubleshooting have become much more complicated.

The bottom line is that there’s more pressure than ever on network administrators. To manage both the challenges at present and those on the horizon, like hyperconvergence, we NetAdmins must curate our skillsets accordingly. Here are a few ideas to help prepare you to successfully manage tomorrow’s networks.

Programming and Automation

It won’t be possible for you to be a successful NetAdmin in the future without first being somewhat comfortable converting operations logic into autonomous code. This one might seem like a no-brainer, especially if your organization is already running a virtualized — or even software-defined — environment. Surprisingly, a good portion of NetAdmins are still tackling some of the most monotonous tasks manually. Not only does the automation of configuration, provisioning, operation, orchestration and management save significant time and resources, it also maximizes network and team efficiency.

If you’re not already motivated to implement an automated management model based on time-savings alone, consider past “fat finger accidents,” which of course only happens to others. The more converged an infrastructure is, the more likely a single misconfigured interface could take down hundreds of mission critical applications for an enterprise. Finding a way to ensure repeatability and auditability, templatize operations, implement version control and quickly identify misconfigurations is key. Automating these processes (with programming code or third-party tools for configuration and code management like GitHub, Puppet, Chef and others) takes a lot of human error out of the equation.

DevOps

As data center infrastructure — spanning both the network and systems — becomes increasingly software-actuated, the only way to effectively manage it will be through programmatic management and automation. And once you’re programming and automating, applying at least a few core DevOps techniques is a necessity.

DevOps, a modern approach to software development for operational environments, aims to encourage shared accountabilities and processes in order to better understand software performance. You’re then able to manage changes to software more quickly and in smaller pieces, ultimately resulting in a more efficient, effective and ideally agile IT department; and it thereby delivers greater quality assurance for end-users. It’s important for NetAdmins to begin thinking about how a DevOps integration might work in their environment, and where you can start applying concepts like collaboration, speed and service-orientation now to make an evitable transition more seamless.

Monitoring as a Discipline

One of the best but perhaps underestimated ways to maintain an effective network is to implement a comprehensive monitoring strategy. And by comprehensive, I don’t mean simply stitching together a few tools. NetAdmins who have succeeded in managing diverse networks have moved away from the perception of monitoring as a necessary evil. Instead, they consider it a core IT function or discipline.

Monitoring as a discipline varies from basic monitoring in that it is an actual role, an assigned focus of one or more individuals within an organization. I’ve seen the benefit of this role in action, and it provides value through the ability 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. It’s important to remember that growth and increased complexity is not a challenge limited to the network. In fact, as the line between network and systems continues to blur with greater convergence, it’s more critical than ever that your monitoring capabilities extend beyond traditional silos and provide visibility across the entire stack.

Regardless of whether you’re an IT professional at a Fortune 500 company or a small startup, the paths for honing these skills will be similar: either learn on the fly, or spend more than a few lunch breaks and nights testing new technologies and processes online.

My advice to all admins is to avoid becoming the one who’s too set in their ways or complacent to learn a new technology. When the storage shifted from Fibre Channel to Ethernet, a few senior colleagues had no interest in learning a new connection technology. “Fibre Channel is forever,” they said. There are many battles in IT, but ultimately the wars are won by a willingness to quickly transition and grow alongside new technologies.

Remember, as convergence in the data center continues to increase and the collaborative DevOps mentality takes center stage, IT department silos will further disintegrate and IT roles will consolidate accordingly. At the end of the day, it’s in all of our best interests to cultivate as broad a skillset as possible to not only avoid going the way of traditional network routers and switches, but also to best equip ourselves to successfully manage the network of tomorrow.

Patrick Hubbard is head geek at SolarWinds, a developer of enterprise information technology infrastructure management software.

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