The future of the network admins in Linux systems

With Open Networking, users can virtually run any software on their network hardware. This changes the structure of the organization tremendously and the network admins must learn some innovations quickly in order to survive this evolution.

As a critical infrastructure, the network is the backbone of value creation for many companies. With the open-networking approach, which provides a decoupling of hardware and software, the previously rather rigid administration of the network is subject to a fundamental change. This innovation, which promises a simplified, more stable, and more favorable management of the network, is probably demanding the administrators of these networks a completely different approach to their familiar knowledge. This means for the companies to think about their team skills and structure again.

Open networking in the market
Unlike classic network hardware, which can usually only be used with a manufacturer-specific operating system, the user is free to decide with which operating system or which software he or she wants to run on his network devices, such as switches. The advantages of this concept can be seen quickly, for example, a better adaptability to the needs of the company and a cost reduction by the use of favorable standard hardware, also referred to as “commodity-computing” or “off-the-shelf switching.”

Some companies have already made appropriate changes for this new model. These include Cumulus Networks and Big Switch Networks, Inc. on the software side, as well as initiatives such Open Compute Project on the hardware-side. Manufacturers of traditional network hardware, such as Dell, have also been offering devices on which various operating systems can run. In view of this development, it is difficult to imagine that admins will remain in the long term in their well-known network systems.

Open networking is a paradigm shift
An important factor in the decision-making pro or con innovative infrastructure technologies such as Open Networking is certainly the effort to procure the necessary knowledge to provide support. But how much is changing for the administrators of the network? Technically, traditional network operating systems and novel open-networking operating systems are often equally based on Unix-like systems, such as Linux. If a single component is administered decentrally, a command line (CLI) is usually used in both cases. Despite these obvious similarities, however, the service differs in some cases very strongly.

Classic network operating systems often work with nested menu and command structures. Depending on the manufacturer, the commands used vary, but the general operation is usually very similar. Novel open networking operating systems usually do not hide their Linux origin. As with a Linux server, the operation is performed by calling scripts or suitable tools. Many settings are, as you know it from Linux, adapted in appropriate configuration files.

Companies should be aware of this strong paradigm shift. Although a move in traditional network operating systems also takes a certain time to change, a Linux-inexperienced network administrator will struggle with a change to an open-networking operating system. Accordingly, the need for additional training in the implementation of Open Networking should be taken into account.

One configuration to control them all
Open Networking also has an impact on the release and deployment management of network devices, and thus on the actual organization of operations. Thanks to the Linux base of most Open Networking operating systems, many of the usual Linux tools can be used. This applies, for example, to package managers, which can greatly simplify and speed up the update and patch process. In the past, if a patch had to be downloaded and loaded to the devices, then apt-get update, or a upgrade, and a distribution equivalent would be sufficient, and the device would be updated.

Open Networking is also a breakthrough in the area of ​​configuration management. Today, many companies still rely on a decentralized management of the components via CLI in the network area. With Open Networking, improved configuration management is one of the core aspects. Through the Linux base, open networking operating systems offer the possibility of central administration using tools such as Puppet, Boss, and Ansible. It is therefore sufficient to create the configuration only once and then, if necessary, to adapt it to individual devices.

Centralized management seems to be a strong argument for switching to open networking. In an ad-hoc survey carried out by independent researchers, 85% of Open-Networking respondents estimated an increase of 50% in terms of IT automation and orchestration.

It should also be noted that there is also a gradual change in the classic network world. Special programs for network management, such as Cisco Prime and HPE Intelligent Management Center, are becoming increasingly popular, enabling centralized management of network components and their configuration. Instead of specialized tools for network management, Puppet, Boss, and Ansible are using the same generic tools, which have already proved their worth in the server sector. The common Linux base allows you to manage and configure open-networking devices in addition to servers. A unified management of the components naturally raises the question of restructuring the IT organization.

Death penalty for the classic network admin?
If network devices are configured and operated in the same way as servers, the position of the classic network administrator may no longer be required. Who needs a support person in the future and how will IT be organized in the future? In the absence of experience, the participants in the aforementioned survey were also asked to do so.

Of 85 respondents, more than 70 percent responded that the support of open networking devices, although the Linux-like operation, should continue through the network department. This position can be understood, since although the operation differs, network support is still required for the definition of the corresponding parameters. The establishment or maintenance of a separate organizational unit for the network area can therefore be worthwhile,  even with appropriate training requirements in terms of operation and administration, the core support is already available.

Furthermore, for example, Cumulus Linux now offers a special command line, which is based on the operation of traditional network operating systems. This greatly simplifies the switchover for network administrators.

However, a minority of the respondents (about 14 percent) felt that the administration of open networking hardware was no longer to be carried out by a separate network department, but to be passed on to a server department by aligning its operation, administration and orchestration. This section of probably already good system administrators must still have knowledge in the networking area. However, this has probably already annoyed many with BIND and LDAP configuration. Newly added are perhaps even more specialized services such as Bird or Quagga, which are simplified from the point of view of the system admins but can be managed like a few other applications that are simply installed on the system.

Learn from Developers
With Open Networking, not only the boundaries between classic network hardware and traditional servers are blurred, but also between network and system admins. For the network administrator, this means, above all, a changed operation and administration, and thus a lot of effort is needed. On the other hand, server administrators are increasingly confronted with questions of network technology as a result of the progressive development of virtualization.

An interdisciplinary approach similar to the DevOps approach would also be conceivable. For example, a joint team, which combines the support of both divisions, could take care of the network and the servers alike. This would reduce redundancies and prepare the organization for the progressive software centering and merging of the various IT disciplines.

About the author

Adil Khan

Adil Khan

Adil Khan is a 30 years old Nerd who has been playing with his toys, computers and electronics, since the late 90's. His passion lies in the digital world of 1's and 0's i.e. until quantum computers are available for purchase :)

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