Network virtualization: how does it impact skills?

The increased collaboration, already visible in the transformations of organizations, also makes the border between both activities less flagrant.

Aurélie TOBOLA

By turning a machine-based infrastructure into a set of applications hosted in datacenters, network virtualization may dramatically change the staffing and skills requirements. In 2016 already, AT&T’s Executive Committee estimated that the company could, due to virtualization, « deal with a one-third reduction of staff ».

Beyond the impact of such a declaration, it is interesting to analyze how network virtualization could impact HR.

An indispensable trio: virtualization + automation + digitalization

In the first place, it should be noted that network virtualization cannot operate independently. For its benefits to materialize, it should be combined with automation and the digitalization of the customer relationship.

The first one will help limit human and/or manual interventions which might interrupt a process. As for the second one, it will contribute, in combination with virtualization, to fulfilling the promise made to the customers:

  • diversification of the marketing offer,
  • customization,
  • usage-based billing,
  • service in real time,
  • management of network services via digital interfaces,

This set will mainly rely on technologies such as Cloud, SDN (Software-defined network), NFV (Network Function Virtualization), APIs, Big Data and Data Analytics, and Open Source.

The impacts of virtualization on staff

Design and operations: same impacts?

The impact in terms of resources will be different whether we talk about design or operations. The main trends include:

  • Regarding design, the transformation of the traditional network architect towards an end-to-end solutions architect, including network and IT skills.
  • Regarding operations, with time, fewer needs for network administrators, for the problems will become either simple to manage (in this case the network technicians will be able to take care of them), or very complex (in this case network engineers will be required). Today, the time saved thanks to automation is lost in solving complex problems not encountered before.

Jobs: the winners… and the losers

In general, network-related jobs might have to transform or to be reduced. On some points indeed, virtualization will bring simplification of work, which could be accomplished by a single person, where previously several were necessary.

However, the integrators and technicians could do well: the first ones because their role in data centers is crucial; and the second ones because the increased emphasis on customer experience should lead to at least maintain the workforce.. We can see already the role of integrators increasing in organizational changes (for example the recent creation at Orange of an « on-demand integration center » to support virtualization projects).

What consequences on the skills required?

No new jobs but a broadening of skills for already existing jobs

Skills will also inevitably change if you want to make the most of virtualization.

Some question the possible emergence of SDN engineers. Matthew P. Davy, director of InCNTRE and Indiana University’s chief network architect, thinks it is unlikely to happen

However, he also writes that « there will be fewer network engineers who can perform their job while knowing little to nothing about servers, storage, hypervisors, system administration, and scripting. ». Information Systems (IS) fundamentals will soon be mandatory for network experts, beyond SDN-specific skills, for which certifications will be available shortly.

This increased skills transfer and collaboration are already visible through the creation of software development teams within network engineering departments.

The skills necessary for the design activities

The following skills will be on the agenda for the design and network implementation activities:

  • An abstract vision of the network in the form of data models,
  • NetOps collaboration with software engineering,
  • provisioning of Cloud infrastructures,
  • implementation of network management tools to automate the activities,
  • as well as data analysis (telemetry).

IT will be also concerned. The abstract vision of the network will also be required, in addition to:

  • an API approach,
  • implementation of OpenSource components,
  • DevOps and NetOps,
  • And an agile cooperation with the marketing. The “infrastructure” teams are indeed calling more and more on product owners for each of the virtual network features and software components.

The skills necessary for the operation activities

The evolutions will be different on the operations side.

The network experts will have to:

  • possess skills in the management of more complex systems,
  • interact with software engineering,
  • supervise Cloud infrastructures,
  • implement analysis and learning software.

For their part, IS staff will develop skills in:

  • incident analysis,
  • trend monitoring based on telemetry,
  • and Cloud infrastructure management.

A new consultancy role on services to offer and settings to implement could also be assigned to them.

What skills for supporting functions?

The technological aspect should not make us forget that non-technical activities such as marketing will also evolve, precisely because virtualization is associated to the digitalization of the customer relationship.

The supporting functions, marketing and sales, will need, even more than today, to have an end-to-end understanding and vision of the solutions. They will have to be able to sell multi-technological and virtualized solutions.

In order to better meet customer needs, Marketing will have to get closer to the network architecture (due to the complexity and the frequency of updates) and develop a sensitivity to APIs.

The evolutions linked to the virtualization of networks are substantial. They are already shaking organizations and working methods. Studies show that the importance of agility and of transverse collaboration between activities will be reinforced. Nevertheless, Brent Salisbury, lead network engineer at the University of Kentucky, is reassuring for the network experts: “SDN is an evolutionary process– network engineers will continue to exist. Even in a data center, there are physical components. It is wrong to think that in ten years, they will be asked to be developers [even if] mastering some programming and know-how to integrate APIs will be essential ».

Indeed, for the time being, what we are witnessing is more IT skills enhancement on the part of engineers and network architects than a genuine transfer of scope or responsibilities. The increased collaboration, already visible in the transformations of organizations, also makes the border between both activities less flagrant. It is a transformation of jobs, of skills but also of the culture and of the working methods that is underway, with a transition phase that is going to last many years.

Acknowledgments: article written with the contribution of Mohammad Diab, ITN Senior Project Manager



Aurélie Tobola