Do Network Professionals Need To Be Programmers?

With the advent of software defined networking (SDN) and the move to incorporate automation, orchestration, and extensive programmability into modern network design, it could easily be argued that programming is a must-have skill. Many networking professionals are asking themselves if it’s time to pick up Python, Ruby or some other language to create programs in the network. But is it a necessity?

Interfaces In Your Faces

The move toward using API interfaces is one of the more striking aspects of SDN that has been picked up quickly. Instead of forcing information to be input via CLI or information to be collected from the network via scraping the same CLI, APIs have unlocked more power than we ever imagined. RESTful APIs have giving nascent programmers the ability to query devices and push configurations without the need to learn cumbersome syntax. The ability to grab this information and feed it to a network management system and analytics platform has extended the capabilites of the systems that support these architectures.

The syntaxes that power these new APIs aren’t the copyrighted CLIs that networking professionals spend their waking hours memorizing in excruciating detail. JUNOS and Cisco’s “standard” CLI are as much relics of the past as CatOS. At least, that’s the refrain that comes from both sides of the discussion. The traditional networking professionals hold tight to the access methods they have experience with and can tune like a fine instrument. More progressive networkers argue that standardizing around programming languages is the way to go. Why learn a propriety access method when Python can do it for you?

Who is right here? Is there a middle ground? Is the issue really about programming? Is the prattle from programming proponents posturing about potential pitfalls in the perfect positioning of professional progress? Or are anti-programmers arguing against attacks, aghast at an area absent archetypical architecture?

Who You Gonna Call?

One clue in this discussion comes from the world of the smartphone. The very first devices that could be called “smartphones” were really very dumb. They were computing devices with strict user interfaces designed to mimic phone functions. Only when the device potential was recognized did phone manufacturers start to realize that things other than address books and phone dialers be created. Even the initial plans for application development weren’t straightforward. It took time for smartphone developers to understand how to create smartphone apps.

Today, it’s difficult to imagine using a phone without social media, augmented reality, and other important applications. But do you need to be a programmer to use a phone with all these functions? There is a huge market for smartphone apps and a ton of courses that can teach someone how to write apps in very little time. People can create simple apps in their spare time or dedicate themselves to make something truly spectacular. However, users of these phones don’t need to have any specific programming knowledge. Operators can just use their devices and install applications as needed without the requirement to learn Swift or Java or Objective C.

That doesn’t mean that programming isn’t important to the mobile device community. It does mean that programming isn’t a requirement for all mobile device users. Programming is something that can be used to extend the device and provide additional functionality. But no one in an AT&T or Verizon store is going to give an average user a programming test before they sell them the phone.

This, to me, is the argument for network programmability in a nutshell. Network operators aren’t going to learn programming. They don’t need to. Programmers can create software that gathers information and provides interfaces to make configuration changes. But the rank-and-file administrator isn’t going to need to pull out a Java manual to do their job. Instead, they can leverage the experience and intelligence of people that do know how to program in order to extend their network functionality.

Tom’s Take

It seems like this should be a fairly open-and-shut case, but there is a bit of debate yet left to have on the subject. I’m going to be moderating a discussion between Truman Boyes of Bloomberg and Vijay Gill of Salesforce around this topic on April 25th. Will they agree that networking professionals don’t need to be programmers? Will we find a middle ground? Or is there some aspect to this discussion that will surprise us all? I’ll make sure to keep you updated!

Automating Your Job Away Isn’t Easy


One of the most common complaints about SDN that comes from entry-level networking folks is that SDN is going to take their job away. People fear what SDN represents because it has the ability to replace their everyday tasks and put them out of a job. While this is nowhere close to reality, it’s a common enough argument that I hear it very often during Q&A sessions. How is it that SDN has the ability to ruin so many jobs? And how is it that we just now have found a way to do this?

Measure Twice

One of the biggest reasons that the automation portion of SDN has become so effective in today’s IT environment is that we can finally measure what it is that networks are supposed to be doing and how best to configure them. Think about the work that was done in the past to configure and troubleshoot networks. It’s often a very difficult task that involves a lot of intuition and guesswork. If you tried to explain to someone the best way to do things, you’d likely find yourself at a loss for words.

However, we’ve had boring, predictable standards for many years. Instead of cobbling together half-built networks and integrating them in the most obscene ways possible, we’ve instead worked toward planning and architecting things properly so they are built correctly from the ground up. No more guess work. No more last minute decisions that come back to haunt us years down the road. Those kinds of things are the basic building blocks for automation.

When something is built along the lines of predictable rules with proper adherence to standards, it’s something that can be understood by a non-human. Going all the way back to Basic Computing 101, the inputs of a system determine the outputs. More simply, Garbage In, Garbage Out. If your network configuration looks like a messy pile of barely operational commands it will only really work when a human can understand what’s going on. Machines don’t guess. They do exactly what they are told to do. Which means that they tend to break when the decisions aren’t clear.

Cut Once

When a system, script, or program can read inputs and make procedural decisions on those inputs, you can make some very powerful things happen. Provided, that is, that your chosen language is powerful enough to do those things. I’m reminded of a problem I worked on fifteen years ago during my internship at IBM. I needed to change the MTU size for a network adapter in the Windows 2000 registry. My programming language of choice wasn’t powerful enough for me to say something like, “Read these values into an array and change the last 2 or 3 to the following MTU”. So instead, I built a nested if statement that was about 15 levels deep to ensure I caught every possible permutation of the adapter binding order. It was messy. It was ugly. And it worked. But there was no way it would scale.

The most important thing to realize about SDN and automation is that we’ve moved past simply understanding basic values. We’ve finally graduated to a place where programs can make complex decisions based on a number of inputs. We’ve graduated from simple if-then-else constructs and up to a point where programs can take a number of inputs and make decisions based on them. Sure, in many cases the inputs are simple little things like tags or labels. But what we’re gaining is the ability to process more and more of those labels. We can create provisioning scripts that ensure that prod never talks to dev. We can automate turn-up of a new switch with multiple VLANs on different ports through the use of labels and object classes. We can even extrapolate this to a policy-based network language that we can use to build a task once and execute it over and over again on different hardware because we’re doing higher level processing instead of being hamstrung by specific device syntax.

Automation is going to cost some people their jobs. That’s a given. Just like every other manufacturing position, the menial tasks of assembling simple pieces or performing repetitive tasks can easily be accomplished by a machine or software construct. But writing those programs and working on those machines is a new kind of job in and of itself. A humorous anecdote from the auto industry says that the introduction of robots onto assembly lines caused many workers to complain and threaten to walk off the job. However, one worker picked up the manual for the robot and realized that he could easily start working on the it instead of the assembly line.

Tom’s Take

Automation isn’t a magic bullet to fix all your problems. It only works if things are ordered and structured in such a way that you can predictably repeat tasks over and over. And it’s not going to stop with one script or process. You need to continue to build, change, and extend your environment. Which means that your job of programming switches should now be looked at in light of building the programs that program switches. Does it mean that you need to forget the basics of networking? No, but it does mean that they way in which you think about them will change.