Whither Network Engineering? (Part 1)

An article on successful writers who end up driving delivery trucks. My current reading in epistemology for an upcoming PhD seminar. An article on the bifurcation of network engineering skills. Several conversations on various slacks I participate in. What do these things have in common? Just this:

What is to become of network engineering?

While it seems obvious network engineering is changing, it is not so easy to say how it is changing, and how network engineers can adapt to those changes. To better understand these things, it is good to back up and take in a larger view. A good place to start is to think about how networks are built today.

Networks today are built using an appliance and circuit model. To build a network, an “engineer” (we can argue over the meaning of that word) tries to gauge how much traffic needs to be moved between different points in the business’ geographical space, and then tries to understand the shape of that traffic. Is it layer 2, or layer 3? Which application needs priority over some other application?

Once this set of requirements is drawn up, a long discussion over the right appliances and circuits to purchase to fulfill them. There may be some thought put into the future of the business, and perhaps some slight interaction with the application developers, but, in general, the network is seen pretty much as plumbing. So long as the water glass is filled quickly, and the toilets flush, no-one really cares how it works.

There are many results of building networks this way. First, the appliances tend to be complex devices with many different capabilities. Since a single appliance must serve many different roles for many different customers running many different applications, each appliance must be like a multitool, or those neat kitchen devices you see on television (it slices, it dices, it can even open cans!). While this is neat, it tends to cause technologies to be misapplied, and means each appliance is running tens of millions of lines of code—code very few people understand.

This situation has led, on the one hand, to a desire to simplify. The first way operators are simplifying is to move all their applications to the cloud. Many people see this as replacing just the data center, but this misunderstands the draw of cloud, and why businesses are moving to it. I have heard people say, “oh, there will still be the wide area, and there will still be the campus, even if my company goes entirely to the cloud.” In my opinion, this answer does not effectively grapple with the concept of cloud computing.

If a business desires to divest itself of its network, it will not stop with the data center. 5G, SD-WAN, and edge computing are going to fundamentally change the way campus and WAN are done. If you could place your application in a public cloud service and have the data and application distributed to every remote site without needing a data center, on site equipment, and circuits into each of those remote sites, would you do it? To ask is to know the answer.

If most companies move all their data to cloud service, then the only network engineers who survive will be at those providers, transit providers, and other supporting roles. The catch here is that cloud providers do not treat the network as a separate “thing,” and hence they do not really have “network engineers” in the traditional sense. So in this scenario, the network engineer still changes radically, and there are very few of them around, mostly working for providers of various kinds.

On the other hand, the drive to simplify has led to strongly vertically integrated vendor-based solutions consisting of hardware and software. The easy button, the modern mainframe, or whatever you want to call it. In this case, the network engineer works at the vendor rather than the enterprise. They tend to have very specialized knowledge, and there are few of them.

There is a third option, of course: disaggregation.

In this third option, the company will invest in the network and applications as a single, combined strategic asset. Like a cloud provider or web scaler, these companies will not see the network as a “thing” to be invested in separately. Here there will be engineers of one kind or another, and a blend of things purchased from vendors and things built in-house. They will see the applications through the hardware as a complete system, rather than as an investment in appliances and circuits. Perhaps the following diagram will help.

The left side of this diagram is how we build networks today: appliances connected through the control plane, with network management and applications riding on top. The disaggregated view of the network treats the control plane somewhat like an application, and the operating system like any other operating system. The hardware is fit to task; this does not mean it is a ”commodity,” but rather that the hardware life cycle and tuning is untied from the optimization of the software operating environment. In the disaggregated view, the software stack is fit to the company and its business, rather than to the hardware. This is the crucial difference between the two models.

There are two ways to view the competition between the company that moves to the cloud, the company that moves to black box integrated solutions, and the company that disaggregates. My view is that the companies that move to the cloud, or choose the block box, will only survive if they live in a fairly narrow niche where the data they collect, produce, and rely on is narrow in scope—or rather, not generally usable.

Those companies that try to live in the broader market, and give their data to a cloud provider, or give their IT systems entirely to a vendor, will be eaten. Why do I think this? Because data is the new oil. Data grants and underlies every kind of power that relates to making any sort of money any longer—political power, social power, supply-chain efficiency, and anything else you can name. There are no chemical companies, there are only data companies. This is the new normal, and companies that do not understand this new normal will either need to be in a niche small enough that their data is unique in a way that protects them, or they will be eaten. George Gilder, in Knowledge and Power, is one of the better explanations of this process you can pick up.

If data is at the heart of your business and you either give it to someone else, or you fail to optimize your use of it, you will be at a business disadvantage. That business disadvantage will grow over time until it becomes an economic millstone around the company itself. Can you say Sears? What about Toys-R-Us?

Technology like 5G, edge computing, and cloud, mixed in with the pressure to reduce the complexity of running a network and subsuming it into the larger life of IT, are forming a wrecking ball directed at network engineering as we know it. Which leaves us with the question: whither network engineering?


  1. Juha Holkkola on 2 January 2019 at 1:40 pm

    At FusionLayer, we believe that networking will continue to be done in-house by telcos, managed service providers that will also be cloud providers of some kind, and the large enterprises. This both within the private and the public realms.

    The companies in the mid-market let alone SMBs are likely to buy everything as a service. Think of electricity: back in the late 1800s, it made sense to set up factories by rivers and rapids because you could generate your own electricity for the plant. And of course Goldman Sachs, industrial conglomerates, many large service providers and the alike still have the ability to generate their own power if all else fails. But under normal circumstances, also they buy lots of capacity from the public grids.

    IT being a utility, I believe things will play out in a similar way. For large organizations, some form of hybrid will become the norm – but for 99% of organizations out there, it’s going to be a service all the way.