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Why software-defined everything is a key theme today

Software-defined everything—as well as cloud-to-the-edge architecture, 5G and networking skills—are key themes in IT infrastructure management and at VMworld 2019. 

As the world becomes increasingly mobile and cloud driven, network management has become increasingly software based.

That’s because network management needs to be scalable, secure and automated to connect users to applications and data that are dispersed and in multiple locations (that is, in the cloud, on-premises or at the edge).

But that kind of network flexibility is difficult when network management is device-centric; manually configuring a network device by device is slow and inefficient. Networking engineers’ time can be far better spent and attuned to business needs with a software-defined networking (SDN) model, which shifts network control to software. As a result, networking resources are more portable and easier to configure en masse—which are key attributes in the cloud.

Over the past decade or so, infrastructure providers have coalesced around the growing importance of a software-defined network management model. And more recently, intent-based networking has added to the SDN equation with advanced network analytics and visibility to ensure that network management reflects changing business needs. VMworld has traditionally been a key event for IT pros who work in software-based environments, so it makes sense to take a look at some key networking themes we expect from the show. Let’s review some of these trends in turn.

Software-defined everything

This is the overriding theme at VMworld 2019, but it’s also a key theme for all infrastructure providers today. Software-based infrastructure is necessary to support the agility required by digital-age organizations. Software-defined-everything (SDE) involves using virtualization and abstraction to make the management of infrastructure elements—such as compute, storage, networking and security—more flexible and agile.

With all these technologies, business requirements can be defined once and then enforced as new software-defined networks are brought up and torn down. The most important attribute to look for in any software-defined technology is the ability to integrate with other technologies. Without that, the programmatic network automation that we discuss later isn’t possible.

Note: At VMworld 2019, you can learn how software-defined integrations are happening. Cisco’s Paul Mancuso will present on how to run a software-defined data center on a Cisco underlay with NSX and Cisco ACI.

Cloud computing

Another critical piece of today’s network is some kind of cloud computing. It’s rare for a company today not to use some kind of cloud service, whether it’s software as a service (SaaS), infrastructure as a service (IaaS) or other cloud services, companies have expanded (note we didn’t say “moving”) to the cloud.

The challenge that IT departments face in using public cloud services is how to manage, control and secure public cloud architecture as they would on-premises data centers and applications—despite the fact that data and applications reside on a public cloud infrastructure. For example, how do you ensure single-sign on, data protection, encryption, compliance, quality of service, and cost management across a variety of SaaS applications and public cloud services?

From the cloud to the edge

The cloud is only one location that needs secure, speedy connectivity and anywhere, anytime access, though. As workers increasingly need to work on any device from any location and on any network, it’s critical to connect users regardless of their location or device—without undermining performance or security.

Strategies such as SDN are helping enable this anywhere, anytime secure access, there’s a lot of management, integration and security that’s brought to bear behind the scenes. How can we ensure that a user has access to only the application and data he or she should view? How do we ensure that as users move from a mobile device to a laptop that applications are secure and performing without latency? Increasingly, these are the kinds of IT management challenges that IT pros must navigate in the cloud-to-edge spectrum.

New wireless technologies

To extend public clouds to mobile devices and edge locations, companies have begun to explore Wi-Fi 6 and 5G technologies, which together will enable faster indoor and outdoor connectivity for data transfer and richer real-time experiences. These new wireless technologies enable a host of capabilities that myriad industries are clamoring for today, from immersive experience such as virtual and artificial reality to the ability to use robotics in surgery and manufacturing to real-time analytics capabilities—even on mobile devices at the edge. Together, Wi-Fi 6 and 5G will enable data-driven capabilities—some of which we can only imagine today.

AI-enabled network monitoring and analysis

With the increased complexities of growing networks, administrators have turned toward AI-enabled analysis and analytics tools to analyze network traffic, identify anomalies, and identify root causes before network problems have a serious impact on users. Combining network assurance using machine learning with software-defined automation affords network administrators the visibility and control to optimize service levels. Administrators and architects at VMworld 2019 will be considering ways to boost their skills with tools that leverage AI for network analysis and assurance.

Cloud-native apps: Containers and Kubernetes

Even the company that coined the term virtual machine (VM) agrees that containers—a standard unit that packages up software and all dependencies so that developers can set up test environments quickly—are a more efficient way of running applications.

Software-defined everything is a key theme for infrastructure providers today.

But that doesn’t mean containers solve every IT problem. Containers and Kubernetes are a paradigm shift for administrators who have gotten accustomed over the past decade to the notion that a VM is the smallest unit of work. Containers and Kubernetes will be a point of education for admins and architects alike. There are 41 sessions covering containers and Kubernetes at VMworld and more than 200 sessions covering “cloud” (per VMworld 2019 sessions by the numbers). Much effort will be made to persuade attendees about the benefits of running these cloud-native workloads in a private cloud compared with natively running them in the public cloud.

To boost their skills in containers and Kubernetes, admins and architects need to understand how containers work, how to orchestrate them, how to scale them, make them highly available, troubleshoot them, and use software-defined networking and storage.

Automation

As the saying goes, the ultimate goal is to “automate all the things.” Only with automation can tomorrow’s applications run reliably and with scale, resilience and efficiency. However, to automate we must first identify what we want to automate. What is the business objective? What are the guardrails that we want to define? Which users need access to what data, and how will access and objectives be applied to this workload, this virtual network, and this security segment? Only by prioritizing applications and outlining our business intent (that is, objectives) can we successfully automate network management tasks and then take the next step: to exploit AI to better tune these applications to meet the needs of the business.

To automate, network admins will need to improve their skills using open application programming interfaces (APIs) on network controllers so they can better streamline workflows and integrate the network with other IT systems.

Security

With ever-increasing security threats to enterprise networks both on-premises and in the cloud, security must be woven into everything that we do. The only way to ensure that is to make security part of the policy of every application and service. In this way, security is no longer an afterthought to bolt on after applications are up and running. In the future, security must be defined as the application is implemented. For example, if an application runs as a container, the security for that container can be defined in the JSON or YAML for that container when the Kubernetes deployment is created and the pod (with one of more containers inside) is run.

Wanted: Software-based networking skills

One final theme to note is the importance of continuous learning and the importance of building new software programmability skills to accommodate the software-defined-everything shift.

Software-defined everything requires a laundry list of new skills, including artificial intelligence (AI), containers, automation, Java and other programming languages as well as a DevOps mentality to make network management successful. That’s why numerous companies now stress the importance of networking programmability skills—and even networking development certification—to the future of networking.

Tomorrow’s networks are only possible when designed and administered by architects and administrators with skills in software-defined networking, cloud, AI, containers, Kubernetes, automation, and security.

Whether you’re a network admin or virtualization admin, it’s time to boost your skills for the future. Networking certification and educational tracks are important avenues, as well as live conferences.

If you’re attending, see you at the show. And if not, check out some of the trends online.

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Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”

David Davis

David Davis is a well-known author, speaker, and evangelist in enterprise technology. Davis has created more than 50 technology video training courses for Pluralsight and he holds several certifications including VCP, VCAP, and CCIE. Davis has been awarded the VMware vExpert award 10 years running. He’s a partner at ActualTechMedia.com. Follow him on Twitter as @DavidMDavis or on LinkedIn as linkedin.com/in/davidmdavis.