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5 essential skills for implementing software-defined infrastructure

Esther Schindler Freelance writer and editor, Groovy LLC

SDI is on the upswing. Sixty-seven percent of enterprises will increase SDI spending in 2016, according to a 451 Research report. But are organizations ready? Before you engage in a software-defined infrastructure (SDI) implementation, make sure your organization has the skilled staff in place needed for it to succeed.

As with any other technology (or set of technologies), SDI can’t help businesses unless its practitioners know how to use it. The same 451 Research study found that the greatest barrier to SDI adoption is a lack of internal skills. And plenty of skills are certainly needed: SDI touches many data center elements, from virtualization of hardware resources to elastic scaling to management automation.

As a result, any enterprise contemplating SDI adoption needs to assess its existing internal skill set, train employees on the missing pieces, and hire expertise where the knowledge is lacking.

All of that requires that managers of IT staff to know the essential skills to look for. If you're an Ops specialist, you can think of them as technologies to learn and add to your résumé so you can get a raise or promotion.

The primary takeaway: Your team should have a balance of data center knowledge—it's more about making connections work than any single technology.

1. Seek holistic data center systems knowledge

Don’t look for a laundry list of current geek buzzwords—at least, not to begin with. Because SDI relies on several technologies, multivendor integration is an important ingredient. The days are gone when an IT department could invest in learning a handful of vendors’ tools and query new hires about esoteric knowledge. 

Begin by ensuring that everyone works from the same definitions, says Jigan Shah, data center practice manager at Tympani. In hiring new staff, Shah advises, “Ask the applicant to explain what SDI means to them. 'How do you think SDI will help solve our business challenges?'” As with so many tech terms and concepts, people sometimes disagree about what SDI truly entails.

A key skill is knowing how the pieces come together. As Avinash Lakshman, CEO of Hedvig and creator of Apache Cassanda, points out, SDI is a fairly radical shift in the way companies build and deploy infrastructure. “It’s important that candidates are able to step back, understand, and design how the infrastructure should work, not just know the day-to-day tasks to operate it,” Lakshman says.

“It can be easy to get caught up in the rush to deploy an SDN solution without truly understanding why we are even considering this change,” says Marco Alves, the skills certification chair for the Open Networking Foundation (ONF). Network engineers need to understand the architecture of the new network and correlate that with what they have worked with for the last few decades. Who better to understand its advantages?

2. Look for interoperability expertise

In-house IT departments need two overlapping but distinct skills, says Tympani’s Shah. “First, they need thorough knowledge, understanding, and experience with their vendor’s product stacks,” Shah says. “Second, the IT team must understand how all of these various solutions from multiple vendors can fit together to work in unison.”

That means IT departments need to ensure that people are cross-trained. “The problem is not a lack of skills, but a lack of combinations of skills,” says Frank Yue, director of solution marketing for application delivery at Radware, an application delivery and cybersecurity company. For example, says Yue, too few operations staff understand the concept of application-defined networking—how an application behaves and performs from a network perspective. “Network guys are traditionally OSI layer 1-4—IP address, packets, bandwidth. Application guys care about scripts, HTML, and design. Who is responsible for understanding how applications behave throughout the IT infrastructure?”

Mark Harris, vice president of Pluribus Networks, would add a third component to that interoperability skill set: an awareness of the business context. “They must have a fairly solid business background, as the costs associated with sourcing IT services and then integrating them into finished business applications can be daunting,” he says. SDI expertise requires IT to source services at a scale and price that meets the business needs. “New hires for SDI must focus on business results, rather than view success by how much hardware is blinking its lights.”

3. Ability to address abstract problems

“SDI professionals need to think about the downstream opportunities that are made available after implementing a piece of SD infrastructure,” says Robert Page, vice president of engineering at CFN Services. “When software eats something, it changes how people perceive the thing that got eaten.” Uber changed how we think about taxis, he points out; now we think about crowd-sourced, on-demand transportation. Expect that mind-shift to apply to your own business.

As a result, Page asks job candidates to talk about a time when they had to think abstractly about a problem. “For instance: What was the problem? What was the insight you achieved from thinking abstractly? What is the benefit of decoupling components? What is the downside of uncoupling components?”

It’s important with SDI for people to see the big picture, think about the endgame desired, and work backwards toward solutions, says Pluribus’ Harris. New SDI workers must understand that new projects must demonstrate results in days rather than months. They need to be comfortable with the idea of millions of users, billions of applications, and trillions of connected things. “This magnitude is radically different than that of just five years ago,” says Harris.

4. A DevOps mindset and programming skill

Having a DevOps mindset and programming skill level implies an interdependence on operations and development staff, which we’ve come to call DevOps. In fact, adopting a DevOps mindset is a good place to start with an SDI implementation.

In particular, SDI involves software development. “There will be some form of programming in any network deployment going forward,” ONF’s Alves says. “This can be related to the automation of tasks, orchestration of components, or simply building an application for a new service.”

That shouldn’t be left to another department, says Hedvig’s Lakshman. Both IT operations and DevOps admins need familiarity with popular languages used to orchestrate and automate SDI components. “Look for candidates who are familiar with Go and Python to ensure that they can leverage SDI application programming interfaces [APIs],” he says.

“SDI represents a significant change, wherein applications and infrastructure will have an even tighter coupling, with applications having explicit control of the infrastructure they need and infrastructure having improved awareness of the applications that they serve,” says Josh Crowe, chief technology officer at Sungard AS. Infrastructure teams need to understand topics such as development processes; application scaling technologies including service discovery, load-balancing, and auto-scaling; emerging architecture and packaging technologies such as microservices, containers, and unikernels; and system interfaces such as APIs.

“This isn’t to say that infrastructure engineers need to become full-blown coders or that application developers must now be router jockeys,” says Crowe. “The people who will be the most successful during this transition will be well rounded and have solid knowledge of both domains.”

5. A checklist of technical knowledge

All those soft skills such as abstract thinking aren’t helpful unless the staff knows how to do the work. In addition to some programming knowledge, here are a few specific skills to look for:

Network technologies

One way or another, the IT professional is still working in a data center. Among the critical questions Mark Casey, president of CFN Services, would ask a job applicant for an SDN position are these:

  •       How experienced are you with Layer 4 to Layer 7 architecture, operation, and functionality?
  •       What are the key factors that differentiate a Layer 3 infrastructure from SDI?
  •       How would you ensure performance and quality of service for cloud services and applications?
  •       Describe how you would design a scalable solution. What are its limitations? For example, how small or large a network and business will this solution support?

Other technical areas to look for—or provide training in—include the following:

  •       Network sniffer technologies
  •       Network infrastructure (routing/switching, LAN/WAN)
  •       Server support
  •       Security disciplines

Automation tools

It’s likely that your staff already has virtualization, storage, and networking skills. But the most common skill that candidates lack, says Scott Mathewson, software-defined data center practice lead at managed software provider Softchoice, is in using tools for operations management or automation, such as Cisco UCS Manager, Microsoft Operations Manager, or vRealize Operations Manager.

“Typically, most candidates have the experience in templates and policy implementation around the virtualization,” says Mathewson. “Experience in the other layer beyond server virtualization—storage virtualization, networking virtualization, and automation software—is not as common.”

Open-source technologies

Expect your staff to be familiar with open-source tools, such as Linux, OpenStack, and OpenAPI paradigms. In particular, says Valentina Alaria, PLUMgrid’s head of product management, “A deep knowledge of Linux is important because SDI and virtualized networking now live in or on the Linux kernel.”

“Open source is essential to the foundational elements of SDI in many cases,” agrees Dominic Wilde, Hewlett Packard Enterprise’s vice president of global product line management. “Participation in open standards bodies and an understanding of how they work and how they can create an advantage for an organization is another skill that would be attractive.”

One way to address these issues is to help your staff prepare for the ONF certification, which focuses on concepts, architecture and design, migration strategies, security, and troubleshooting. Says ONF’s Alves, “The aim is to provide the groundwork that will allow people to have a clear understanding of why we need to make this change in the network infrastructure.”

The payoff could be big

Ultimately, putting together an SDI team can bring your organization as-yet-unimagined benefits. “When everything can be managed with software, amazing new avenues for administration are opened,” says Patrick Hubbard, head geek at SolarWinds, an IT management software provider. “Day-to-day admins who enjoy tinkering in the lab will be the ones who make the largest contribution to transforming the way our enterprises manage infrastructure.

“We don’t know yet everything that’ll be possible with SDI, and those eager to explore will develop the most innovative techniques,” says Hubbard. Organizations need to locate these innovative admins and empower them to explore how SDI could open up new opportunities for the business.

Image credit: Flickr

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