National Principal Architect
  • Software-Defined Networking (SDN)

We hear a lot about network programmability these days. It’s a popular topic at conferences and a common subject in articles and blogs. Many experts and industry analysts are writing and talking about it, mostly in connection with a broader discussion about industry trends and software-defined networking (SDN).

Why should network programmability matter to you and me? Before we dive into that question, let’s further define what network programmability means.

For years, network engineers have used specific contextual commands via the command-line interface (CLI) to configure individual network devices. These commands control how the device operates and interacts on the network and are typically keyed directly into the device via the command line locally or remotely. Commands and syntax often vary, depending on product manufacturers and software code levels.

Because network devices are interdependent, appropriate configuration is critical to proper operation. Each device performs a specific function (or set of functions) - all devices in a network must interact in a very specific and predictable manner to ensure connectivity, performance, and reliability. Even the smallest change to the network must be carefully planned and tested, making the process slow (and tedious at times).

Network programmability is different. It changes the way network devices are deployed, configured, and managed. Devices are no longer “configured” in the classic sense; they are “programmed” using mechanisms like APIs (Application Programming Interfaces) or high-level programming languages such as Python. Using an API or a programming language provides more control over changes. Plus, these methods can be used to define parameters and dictate conditional behaviors within the device—similar to the “if, then, else” construct used in application programming. The result is the ability to define policies (in place of configurations), provision one or more devices (regardless of the unique state of each device) using a policy or other method, and perform error checking – all while dramatically improving the speed with which changes are made, creating a more flexible, agile network.

Benefits for Businesses and Engineers

Every marketplace is competitive, and the pace of change is swift. Businesses must move quickly to adjust to changing consumer preferences and buying habits and to capitalize on new opportunities. Agility is essential to success. Information technology must enable agility and innovation at all layers, not inhibit them.

Technology trends reflect this reality. Cloud-first has become a popular strategy when evaluating IT solutions. Software vendors are investing heavily in SaaS offerings, especially for new development and enhancements. Plus, offerings such as Infrastructure-as-a-Service (IaaS) are growing as companies aim to leverage an appropriate balance of CapEx to OpEx spending with the goal of deploying applications faster while also decreasing costs.

Data centers are changing. But the need for agility is not. While some workloads are shifting to the cloud, there are others that will continue to be deployed on-premise. Organizations are looking to software-defined strategies, such as SDN and SD-WAN, to help them build more flexible, agile IT infrastructures. Network programmability is essential to achieving that objective.

In addition, network programmability reduces the risk of downtime due to human error. Large, complex networks have many devices intricately configured to work together. Major upgrades or policy changes could involve hundreds of lines of configuration across a large number of devices. Using CLI, those changes are very complex, and the risk of human error is high. Study results vary, but estimates show that 20-70% of outages are the result of operator error. And outages are expensive with information technology downtime costing organizations in North America $700 billion a year, according to IHS.

As noted earlier, network programmability allows changes to be pushed out and tested faster and more effectively. It provides a toolset that makes it easier to troubleshoot devices and manage network changes. That cuts down on the risk of human error. Plus, it reduces the time it takes to make network changes, which allows staff to spend less time on operations and more time on innovation.

In the end, network programmability enables policies, in place of configuration, to be aligned with business intent. It not only helps improve IT efficiency and agility, but it also helps elevate IT beyond a “bits-and-bytes” necessity to a true business outcome enabler.

Embracing New Skills

According to International Data Corporation (IDC), the software-defined networking market worldwide is growing at the rate of 53.9% CAGR and will reach $12.5 billion by 2020. The software-defined world opens up new possibilities in IT, but different skills are required to manage it. Both network administrators and engineers need to embrace new skills. Traditional skill sets serve as a foundation. After all, specialists will always need to understand the technical underpinnings of network architecture and design. But going forward, those foundational skills will need to be complemented with additional skills related to network programmability.

That will require a team effort between IT managers and their teams. Managers must assess their organization and make sure a plan is in place to develop these skills to support their organization. Same is true for the network specialists. They need to assess their individual knowledge gaps and develop a plan to close those holes. A wide range of both paid and free options exist for training, learning, and self-study.

It’s an exciting time to be an IT professional. The business world is changing rapidly, and IT is at the center of innovation for many organizations. Network programmability is helping to open new facets and represents a fundamental shift in how networking is done. As IT leaders and professionals, we need to master the technology and be prepared to lead our organizations into the next chapter of innovation.

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