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Network engineering tools changing as cloud shift pressures profession

As more companies examine the cloud, network engineering tools are changing, requiring engineers to rethink and recraft their job descriptions.

Things don't seem too bright right now for network engineers and the network engineering tools they use in their jobs. Several reports have noted the recent downtick in available engineering positions in networking, storage and servers. The main reason: Businesses are moving toward the cloud at an impressive rate. Cisco's 2016 cloud forecast, for example, said cloud traffic is expected to grow four times between now and 2020 to 14.1 ZB per year.

Another report from BetterCloud Monitor predicted the number of businesses expecting to run entirely in the cloud within the next 10 years is an impressive 72%. At the other end of the market, hyper-convergence is taking off. According to 451 Research, most businesses are focusing new hiring efforts on "virtualization specialists," rather than on engineers who support networks, servers or storage. To put it graphically, it seems something like this is happening to the market:

networking careers shift
Figure 1. The new reality for network engineers.

Network -- and storage and server -- engineers used to live in a world that was appliance-driven; you bought appliances called routers and switches, you racked them, plugged them in, configured them, maintained them and fixed them when they broke. In the world of the future, there certainly seems to be a move toward what might be called application-focused IT. In this world, the business decides whether it makes more sense to push the application into a cloud infrastructure, or to buy prebuilt rack units from a company that builds hyper-converged units with which to build a private cloud to run the applications. The deciding factors will be things like cost-to-value ratio, security and other considerations -- essentially, anything other than technical capability, local talent and more traditional factors.

Jobs shifting toward administration, less to network engineering tools

This perception of the market appears to be backed up by current job and skill assessments. For instance, CompTIA reported in the last few months, a new trend seems to be settling in. Jobs in the overall world of information technology seem to be increasing, while jobs specifically related to technology seem to be decreasing in number. The overall picture is of a field moving toward administration and away from engineering skills. This all seems to be very bad news for engineers who have staked their careers building technical skill sets and gaining certifications.

There are, however, two points that need to be considered before you panic and run off to enroll in the nearest MBA program.

First, consider the networking industry -- and network engineering tools -- tends to run in cycles. When I first started working on networks, I was installing VT100 terminal emulation cards in computers with 8086 processors, monochrome screens -- white letters were a step up from green -- and 5 ¼ inch floppy drives; in fact, there was no hard drive, and many of them still had 8-inch external floppy drives attached, as the 5 ¼ format was too new to have all the software and data transferred over. This world was almost completely centralized; the mainframe was the cloud.

Generally, over time, we find the cost of centralization is too great, prompting a widespread move to decentralization. Then, we find the cost of decentralization is too great, prompting a widespread move to centralization. At some point in the distant future -- in a galaxy far, far away -- we might discover a little of both is probably ideal. But, for now, we're stuck on a ship that rapidly lists from port to starboard every few years, and then back again. Hanging on while the shift takes place might be a wise choice.

Open source, disaggregation shaping the market

Second, these two trends aren't the end of the story, or even the complete story. There are two counter-movements afoot that might not derail the current market bifurcation, but should probably be added to both of them to make more sense of the entire situation. The two movements in question are Open Source and disaggregation.

Open source and disaggregation have similar goals. Both tend toward building tools and processes that enable cloud providers and builders of hyper-converged products to make some kind of economic sense out of these trends. To put this another way, there is, and always will be, competition between cloud and hyper-convergence that will drive companies into the open and commodity worlds -- both to give and to take.

But, for now, we're stuck on a ship that rapidly lists from port to starboard every few years, and then back again. Hanging on while the shift takes place might be a wise choice.

Engineers who learn to grapple with disaggregation, open source and open standards may well be able to take advantage of these driving factors to build systems -- constituting locally hyper-converged private clouds -- that can compete in a real way with the big vendors. Companies that are large enough will be able to take the pieces built by cloud and hyper-convergence folks, and then use them to construct their own systems. To put it simply, commodity information technology will eventually prove to create commodity companies, stifling the ability of many larger companies to compete.

Value-added resellers (VARs) are probably going to be hit hard in this transition; the V is going to be a crucial point. When the company you're reselling actually creates a vertically integrated product with few knobs to turn, there's going to be very little V to add. On the other hand, VARs that jump into the business of building custom approaches out of the disaggregated and open-sourced components "leaked" by the bigger players are going to find themselves in a potentially unique position to truly add a lot of V and, hence, to bring in a lot of unique business opportunities.

Keep your eyes open for the next shift

Where does all this leave the average engineer and his or her network engineering tools? The leakage of engineering jobs to cloud providers and hyper-convergence vendors is likely to continue for some time, following the money of senior management who are tired of trying to keep up with the technology -- and just want to focus on the business.

One option, then, is to move in that direction along with the technology. Find a cloud provider looking for good engineers, jump in and keep your eyes open for the next shift -- and, hence, the next point to jump. Another option is to focus on becoming a business person with an engineering background. Or, finally, find a VAR that understands what is happening, sharpen your engineering and business skills, and jump into the fray of disaggregation, open source and open standards.

Whichever direction you choose, the market is clearly changing direction. When the pendulum swings, you either need to jump, dodge or be knocked out of the game.

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