It’s an exciting time to be in the Network Engineering field right now! According to the eWeek 2018 ‘Hottest’ IT jobs report, Security Specialists and Network Engineers are at the top of the list for Enterprises. The network engineer positions offer both long-term growths and high average salaries due to demand. But there is a caveat. As true in any technology career, you have to stay ahead of the curve on the emerging trends and technologies. Do you remember seeing network engineer jobs demanding knowledge of Token Ring, ISDN, or ATM? Me neither. These were once red hot technologies and part of the CCIE exam topics, but have now all but disappeared.
As we venture into 2019, it’s a great time to take a moment to take stock of where we are at and where the industry is headed. After all, we don’t just accidentally drift toward and achieve any worthwhile goal. We need to be surgical about where we want to go, make a plan, be disciplined enough to follow the steps and be agile about changing the plan if need be. It all starts with knowing where things are and how we fit into the overall picture.
Below are 5 areas of network engineering that I believe will evolve in 2019. Besides the high-level indicator, I want to also take a leap of faith and offer concrete examples and areas of technology that each of us can work on. After all, I know I need to “eat right and exercise”, but I also want to be given a good diet plan and recommendation of running shoes so I can start shedding down that unwanted weight tomorrow morning.
Without further ado, let’s get to them!
1. Data Driven Networking
If I had a penny for every time I read about Machine Learning, AI, or Big Data in the last year, chances are I would be super rich by now. These articles and presentations generally have to do with the analytics of data sets gathered from IoT sensors, drones, mobile phones, or servers. Rarely do I see any network engineering-related data analytics articles. This year I believe we will start to see many more data-driven networking studies, articles, examples, and technology.
There are several reasons for this trend:
a. It’s easier to gather data from network gears.
Gone are the days of network gear silos and vertical integration. It was a bit ironic to think that the devices built to interconnect disintegrate parts of networks used to be built with vertically integrated software and hardware. Think about how difficult it would be to screen scrape BGP tables from an IOS-based router versus how you can execute an API toward an NX-OS router. By having an easy, consistent, predictive way to gather data, we can automate the process and focus on the analytics of the data.
b. The emerging capabilities and demands of network engineers.
We will dig deeper into this reason later in the article, for now, just trust me when I say the skillsets of network engineers in 2019 are very different from the network engineers in 2000.
c. The maturation of technologies.
Similar to the advancements of network gears, data analytics platforms have changed considerably. The complexity of platforms have come down and the capabilities and speed have gone up. This is especially true when more and more companies are offering cloud-hosted solutions when all you need to do is point your data toward a RESTful endpoint to the provider.
So how can you get started with network data analytics? You can start by exploring some of the demos and trials offered by commercial software vendors such as ExtraHop, ThousandEyes, or Kentik. All three companies are very network-focused and won’t give you a blank look when you tell them you want to analyze your router’s BGP table.
If you want a more hands-on toolset, an open-source stack that I am particularly excited about is the Elastic ELK stack, or Elsticsearch, Logstash, and Kibana. It is a fully-integrated technology stack spanning from data shipper (logstash, beats), to indexing (Elasticsearch), and visualization (Kibana). It is backed by a recently IPO’d company Elastic Co, so you are more protected from your technology and time investment. This is especially valuable if you desire some organized training, hosted cloud solution, or a strict Service Level Agreement for your deployment.
2. The continued dominance of Python
Ok, I admit I am a little biased toward Python, it is my preferred language when writing code to solve a business problem (not to mention my INE Python course). But there is a lot of industry data supporting the popularity of Python, such as Stack Overflow’s article about The Incredible Growth of Python:
Or The Fifteen Most Popular Languages on GitHub by GitHub:
The popularity of the language directly translates to a smoother experience when network engineers work in a DevOps role, or need to integrate the network with other applications within the company.
How can you get started with Python in Network Engineering? My shameless plug includes my INE course Practical Python for Network Engineers as well as my book Mastering Python Networking Second Edition. Both are great for network engineers wishing to solve their problems with Python.
3. The Cloud
I do not think I need to convince anybody of the importance of the cloud, so I will save my digital ink on the ‘why’. The questions I have seen usually come on the ‘how’. A few common questions I’ve received include:
a. Q: Which cloud provider to start with?
A: If your company is already investing in a cloud provider, start with that one. You will receive more resources and support. If you are starting with a greenfield study plan, or doing this on your own, go with the most dominant player, AWS.
b. Q: Which area of the cloud should I start with?
A: Network engineering, silly. We already have a solid foundation in network engineering, so why not translate that advantage to the cloud? Just be prepared that there are different caveats when the network is operated in the cloud. For example, you can freely attach your NAT Gateway and Internet Gateway to different subnets with a simple click, or you need to attach a virtual NIC to the router before you can assign it to a subnet.
c. Q: Should I get certified if it is offered?
A: Short answer, yes. But like all certifications, the recognition is a byproduct of knowledge. The ability to answer multiple choice questions is never a good substitute for hands-on knowledge. If you can show that you have built a working AWS Virtual Private Cloud for your company, you might not need that AWS Certified icon on your resume.
Bottom line: don’t wait, get started. All major public cloud providers (AWS, Azure, GCP) offer free tiers and tons of incentives to attract new and existing customers.
4. The End of ‘CLI Jockey’ and ‘Paper Engineers’
The title says it all, ‘nuf said, mic drop.
5. The Rise of Communities in Networking
I know that you are thinking this is not a real trend. Believe it or not, I really put some thought behind it before I decided on this trend. When I first started working in the network engineering industry 18 years ago, there were only a couple of industry events for network engineers (namely NANOG for service providers and Cisco Networkers, now Cisco Live). Even within a big company I often felt that network engineers were separate from developer and systems engineering groups.
Fast forward to today, the network engineering field has emerged into each of its own specialties; data center networking is pretty different from a service provider environment, public cloud networking has its unique flavors, and enterprise networking has its own set of challenges. With the advance of Meet up, YouTube, Slack, and Podcasts, I see so many interesting communities serving their respective audiences. Below are some of the ones that I find most interesting:
- Packt Pusher Podcasts: There are a lot of different podcast tracks to fit your background, ranging from human-centric networking, weekly updates, to technology focused.
- North American Network Operators Group: The NANOG group meets multiple times a year and are geared toward service provider network operators.
- Open Networking Symposium (ONS): This event is hosted by the Linux Foundation with a heavy focus on Open Networking and Orchestration.
- Individual-run communities: NetworkChuck and David Bombal are two very interesting communities that I have been following.
- Others: OpenStack Summit, Cisco Live, AnsibleFest, Cisco DevNet Create, NetworkToCode Slack channel, and may more.
Human beings are social by nature, therefore, I could not be more excited about this explosion of communities which all serve different needs. I find that communities allow me to solve a problem quicker, share experiences, and bounce ideas between like-minded people. It is worth pointing out that a strong community will normalize experiences that allow somebody who is less experienced to gain enough exposure quickly.
If you do not see a community that speaks to you, why not start one?
In conclusion, I truly believe the future is bright for network engineering. The bottom line is the network engineer of the future will not be the same as the network engineer we know today. As mentioned in the beginning of the article, long gone are the days when we use Token Rings. The ISDN, MPLS, DMVPN and Python of today will not be the same as of tomorrow. These are the 5 trends that I believe will continue to evolve our beloved network engineering field.
My fellow network peeps, the future is here and the time to start in any of the trends above is now. Let us make 2019 the best and most productive year ever!
About The Author:
Eric Chou is a seasoned technologist with over 18 years of experience. He has worked on, and helped manage, some of the largest networks in the industry while working at Amazon Web Services, Microsoft Azure, and other companies. Eric is passionate about network automation, Python, and helping companies build better security postures. Eric is the author of 'Mastering Python Networking' (Packt Publishing, 1st and 2nd edition), and several INE video classes on Ansible, Python, and SDN.