Changes are part of progress. As technology evolves, changes are imminent. For the network administrator and network engineer, one of the most significant changes to look forward to is the dawning of the SDN. Software-defined networking offers some significant improvements for networking professionals, but those improvements are served up with a hefty dose of challenges, not the least of which is the potential of the end of CLI.

CLI, or command-line interface language, has been the go-to standard for configuring, managing, and troubleshooting networks and networking equipment since the 1980's. Most vendors use very close approximations of the same CLI language, so it's a prominent element of network administration in almost every shop, regardless of the brand of equipment in place.

Command-line interface language serves the network administrator much like DOS did for computer users before the advent of the graphical interface (like Windows).

CLI is so important to the field that many network administrators have depended on their savvy with the language to assure their jobs and to advance in the field. Many hold valuable certifications that, if SDN in fact does dethrone CLI, they'll lose much of the power of their most promising skill set. There are at least two million such networking professionals, according to the company that issues the lion's share of certifications.

How SDN Affects CLI

In the traditional networking setup, CLI serves as the tool for interaction with the networking software, much like DOS did before the days of the graphical interface. It's the go-to tool for communicating with specific pieces of equipment, such as individual routers or switches.

With SDN, and in fact all of the advancements in network automation, there is a higher layer of software in place to manage networks more abstractly. In essence, the network's control plane is separated from the forwarding plane, which consists of the hardware used to push packets. This means that network administrators and engineers manage the network via the applications, not the ports. The interfaces are programmatic, but not through CLIs.

Experts Disagree on When to Hold the Funeral for CLI

All of that is agreed upon. What experts differ on is how, exactly, SDN will impact CLI, and more specifically, how it will affect network administrators and engineers who depend on these skills to set them apart. There is no argument about whether or not networking professionals will remain relevant in the era of the SDN, because clearly, no organization can exist in this connected age without the benefit of a strong network. What is in question is whether network administrators and engineers depending on CLI skills to get their jobs and keep their jobs will have any marketable skills as the SDN takes over the industry.

In many organizations, the network administrators are being kept out of discussions on adopting SDN for this very reason. That's a bad gig for the networking pros as well as the businesses, because no discussion of major changes to the network architecture should be done without the input of its most critical managers.

The resistance of networking professionals to SDN often means they are left out of critical decision-making processes. This is bad for both the networking folks and the business.

But not all experts agree that the days of CLI are numbered, at least for now. SDN doesn't actually penetrate deeply enough into the systems to analyze and fix all of the flaws that are there. CLI will still be needed for these purposes. One expert likens SDN to the act of driving a car, whereas CLI is more like the act of climbing under the hood to diagnose and repair problems. Hence, CLI skills will remain relevant for the foreseeable future.

How SDN & the End of CLI Affects the Job of the Networking Professional

SDN will eliminate the use of CLI for most routine, day-to-day tasks. That means that CLI will become the network administrator's version of manual labor skills that cost so many manufacturing jobs in the age of manufacturing automation. The workers who developed new skills -- such as working with robots or maintaining robotics equipment -- kept their jobs. Those who failed to progress beyond manual labor skills, well, didn't keep their jobs.

While SDN may not render CLI completely obsolete in the short term, it will definitely cut into the number of jobs that hinge solely on the network administrator's CLI abilities. The sheer size and scale of most networks is bloating to the point that you can't do much of anything 'by hand' anyway. That leaves network administrators with the challenge of learning to utilize software code.

Many network administrators will enjoy not having to roll out of bed at 3 am to troubleshoot routers. They will develop new skills and become an integral part of working on broader issues that their businesses face today. Others will resist at first, but will eventually develop new skills and find a place within the SDN universe. Some, unfortunately, may not develop new skills and may end up in new careers, along with other positions that are phasing out in the age of software-defined everything.

Like manufacturing workers, telecommunications workers, and many other professions before them, the network administrators need to take on new skills before theirs become obsolete. This means learning to code.

For those willing and ready to adapt, there are plenty of opportunities. After all, cloud computing and mobile technologies are essentially worthless without a strong network around. In the data center, there will be just as many positions available, but virtualization means that the roles that have traditionally been separated -- the network administrator, the storage engineer, etc. -- are merging into a single, cohesive skills set.

The first thing the network administrator needs to do is to begin learning to program. This means taking on some skills in scripting, and perhaps even higher-level programming languages, particularly as those relate to network optimization. Some experts are recommending that network administrators and engineers work on learning languages like Python, PowerShell, and C#.

How quickly should you begin acquiring new programming skills? Some shops, such as those in forward-thinking companies like the social media giants, are already moving in this direction. Their engineers are expected to know programming as well as the more traditional networking skills. Depending on how quickly your industry is adopting SDN and other new technologies, you most likely have some time to build the skills you need to succeed.

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