WIRELESS INFRASTRUCTURE

  • 12/01/2015
    8:00 AM
  • Rating: 
    0 votes
    +
    Vote up!
    -
    Vote down!

Network Engineers Becoming System Administrators

The trend towards virtualization is expanding the duties of a network engineer beyond traditional networking into server management.

These are exciting times in IT, with one technology after another being reinvented and operational lines blurred as a result. There are wild predictions of SDN being so disruptive to every nook and cranny in the enterprise that practically even the custodial staff will be able to run the simplified network. At the same time, we have subtle but notable changes that are stretching the responsibilities of the typical network engineer into that of a server farmer.

No two IT support groups are set up exactly the same, and some degree of functional overlap has always been common. For example, as a network engineer/architect, I also used to manage a fairly large VPN appliance environment, including compiling clients and managing user databases.  In other organizations, this might fall on security analysts or Windows administrators who also have other primary duties.

But now we’re seeing a lot of technical cheese being moved in a way that frequently puts network support folks squarely in the roles of system administrators. It has happened gradually over the last few years, and in many ways is like the frog in a pot analogy. Without realizing it, many of us who build the network are devoting a greater percentage of our work day to also caring and feeding for a variety of systems and servers used on the network.

This multitasking is well known to VoIP engineers who for years have maintained not only switches and routers, but also soft PBXs and voicemail servers. On the network side, the trend towards sprawling collections of specialized support systems for enterprise environments means that network engineers have less time for routers and switches as they also tend to new suites of physical and virtual appliances that don’t really fit anywhere else for support. I'll focus on enterprise WLAN operations to illustrate my  point.

Unless you have a cloud-managed WLAN environment, you likely have a server-based wireless network management system. If it’s a hardware appliance, it still needs to be regularly patched and updated. If it’s virtualized, then you probably spun up an installable OVA file, and built the box yourself. The same goes with your RADIUS servers, client onboarding system, and analytics engines. There’s the usual network monitoring systems, too. Another recent trend is for WLAN controllers to run in the VM environment instead of on rack-mounted physical appliances. This means that now engineers have to keep up both the controller functionality and its VM host instance. The bigger your network is, the more time you spend keeping up the boxes that make up ever-expanding solutions (and systems that monitor other systems), rather than on the actual network itself. 

As long as things stay healthy, the added duties of server guy/gal are all in a days’ work. But when trouble hits and the hours spent with tech support turn into days and weeks trying to get a sick services server back on its feet, you may find yourself behind on actual network-related work. It’s just the world we live in now.

I remember well a recent incident where one of my group’s major NMS systems went down at the worst possible time. Our project list was fat with work needing to be done, and we’re staffed efficiently to fix problems and to then get on to the next thing while also juggling projects. A month later, our NMS issue was no closer to being solved despite at least two solid weeks  poured into it while a database expert on the other side of the world did her best to figure out what happened. Other work suffered, and finally we pulled the plug on the failed box and started over to cut our time losses and get back to the business of being network engineers and architects.

I’ve talked with four major network vendors over the last couple of months, all who declared that their once-vibrant network hardware core businesses are now just backdrops to their new software focuses, right before they got into all of the new services that they’d be offering. The elephant in the room? Folks like me will be administering those server-hosted services, because they are network-centric and don’t fit anywhere else in the organization

Nothing about this paradigm shift is necessarily bad, but the effect can be insidious in how it impacts staffing and meeting deadlines. If your network engineers seem busier than they used to be, they probably are.


Comments

network engineers

Multitasking certainly seems like the name of the game these days for most jobs.

Re: network engineers

Boy, you have that right, Marcia. That can be both stressful when there aren't enough hours in the day, but also wonderfully fulfilling if you like the opportunity to continuously learn more. Then there's the reality that for senior engineers and architects, you'll spend a fair amount of time strategizing, working our diplomacy skills, and other non-tech tasks. But that's also what makes all so great to go to work everyday, speaking for me!

Re: network engineers

I can appreciate the points in this piece however I have always seen this issue as a Systems Administrator becoming a Network Engineer.  

For the record, I have not worked in many enterprises so that could also skew my perspective.   But the fact that networking services seem to be getting closer to the server side of things is not to be taken lightly - as mentioned vendors are pushing this trend which will ultimately mean more work for sys admins and network admins alike.

Re: network engineers

"But the fact that networking services seem to be getting closer to the server side of things is not to be taken lightly - as mentioned vendors are pushing this trend which will ultimately mean more work for sys admins and network admins alike."

ClassC, you are right. They possess multiple skills and always nearer/closer to new technologies. Anything which is closer to such things can grasp easily by the system admin peoples.

Re: network engineers

@Marcia   No doubt.  And it seems to be really bad with certain SMB's for instance. I recently started to work in an environment that is so chaotic - that I cannot finish one thing before something else is placed on my plate.  

It is getting better though, at least I can almost complete what I am working on before something else is placed on my plate.

I am hoping this is just particular to the company and not a general trend or sign of the times.

Yet this is probably just wishful thinking.

Re: network engineers

That's a tough environment @ClassC. I'm glad it's getting a bit better at least. Hopefully that trend will continue for you. It seems that kind of situation is going to happen more in an SMB since there are fewer people, but the technical demands are growing.

Re: network engineers

@Marcia   Thanks.   I hope it continues as well - one really feels the effects of downsizing, especially when one works for an SMB.  

Most of the time it makes the day fly by which is a good thing, but sometimes it (the day) doesn't fly fast enough.

Re: network engineers

" I'm glad it's getting a bit better at least. Hopefully that trend will continue for you. It seems that kind of situation is going to happen more in an SMB since there are fewer people, but the technical demands are growing."

Marcia, for SMBs the easier way is adding additional responsibilities to the existing manpower. They don't want to go for an additional recruitment because it's an additional financial burden.

Additional Responsibilities

"now we're seeing a lot of technical cheese being moved in a way that frequently puts network support folks squarely in the roles of system administrators. It has happened gradually over the last few years, and in many ways is like the frog in a pot analogy. "

Lee, multitasking is very common in companies. They don't want to hire specialized peoples unless and until there is some special requirements. On the way they used to assign additional responsibilities to the existing manpower. I know quiet sometime back in my company system administrator had the responsibility of network support, data base & email administration etc.