08 Jun

Cisco to network engineers: Get comfortable with software. It’s here to stay

    The shift to software-defined networks (SDN) was the catalyst to usher in a whole new way of running networks—and that’s through software. Some may argue that network engineers have been using software for decades, as every good router jockey had a laptop filled with scripts and templates that could be cut and pasted into the command line interface. This ad hoc model is highly error prone and not scalable, which is why human error still accounts for much of the downtime with respect to networks.

    Historically, Cisco hasn’t exactly helped its customers be more proficient with software. Oh sure, it had programs such as the Cisco Technology Developer Program (CTDP) that were targeted at developers, but what about the network engineer? The person who wants to do his job more efficiently? For that audience, Cisco didn’t have an answer.

    A few years ago, though, a switch seemed to flip, and the company launched its latest and best software program: DevNet. Unlike previous iterations of developer environments, DevNet targeted the software developer, but it has specific programs for network engineers.

    I know this concept can be a bit daunting to a network professional because most have never made an API call or worked with any kind of modern programming language, but Cisco has structured many of it’s programs specifically for that audience. To me, this is key in making DevNet successful over time, as not everyone wants to be a software developer, but there’s no reason why software can’t make the engineer’s life easier.

    This week, Cisco held its first ever DevNet Create event, a conference dedicated to helping networkers more skilled in software and getting software people more knowledgeable about Cisco. Over the past few years, Cisco has had “DevNet Zones” at its user conference, Cisco Live, but this is the first-ever dedicated event.

    The keynote at Create was Susie Wee, Cisco vice president and CTO of DevNet Innovations for Cisco, who is the mastermind behind the program. I’ve watched Cisco fumble around with various, disjointed software programs since 2001 when it acquired Metreos, but Wee formalized it and got executive buy-in all the way up to John Chambers, who was CEO when the program was formed.

    During Wee’s keynote, she pointed out that the world is software driven and that 111 billion lines of new code were written in 2017, according to Cybersecurity Ventures. Also, software is much more agile than hardware, and in this digital world, where companies must move with speed, software skills are now a must. I’d like to reiterate that I’m not telling every CCIE to go become a software developer, but I am telling that audience to learn to work with software through APIs and modern programming languages such as Python and Ruby. The era of the homegrown script must come to an end.

    Lines between apps and infrastructure have blurred

    Perhaps the most salient point Wee made during her presentation is that the lines have blurred between the apps and infrastructure. Historically, there were very clear lines of demarcation between the world of apps and infrastructure. Software developers and infrastructure people rarely talked to one another and sometimes had an almost hostile attitude towards the other.

    Today, though, the world has changed and lines are blurring between apps and infrastructure, meaning the network needs to be programmable. Mobile app developers and DevOps rely heavily on the infrastructure providing northbound APIs to change the behavior of an app based on location, congestion or some other factor. Programmable infrastructure changes the very nature of the network and brings more value to the apps, which brings more value to the company.

    Another key point to understand is that as businesses becomes more digital, programmable infrastructure will become more important to the cloud, security, analytics and the Internet of Things.

    Make no mistake: We are living in a world where literally everything is being connected, so the network is becoming the single biggest determining factor of digital initiatives. Running the network with legacy methodologies is slow, isn’t very dynamic and will hold the company back.

    For all the Cisco engineers out there, and that group is massive, I agree with Wee and believe you MUST be more comfortable working with software because that’s the future of the world and, more important, the future of your career. If you feel intimidated and aren’t sure where to start, check out the DevNet community—there’s a wealth of tutorials, tools and other resources to help you get started.

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