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Fear of the Unknown – How to Survive

Today, it’s almost impossible that the majority of people who work in an office have only a vague understanding of IT. While the average employee might not understand something as sophisticated as software defined networking, they likely understand the function of the network and have a general understanding of the cloud.

Okay, it does depend on who you talk to in the office, but my point is there is now a much wider understanding of various IT functions than there was when I first started working in IT.

Having always been part of the network team, it was difficult when, for years, many people had no idea what the network was, let alone understand what a vital lifeline it acts as. However, over time the network has become much less of a ‘black box’.

As generic IT knowledge among rank-and-file office workers has grown, so too has the understanding of IT managers in regard to areas of technology outside their direct purview. Whereas before, IT pros tended to stick to their individual areas (network, security and helpdesk support); today, most have adapted to have a good overview of most aspects of IT because of so much cross over. It’s also grown because tools to manage and provide insight into those areas have become not just easier to use, but also easier to implement and digest.

Recently two new riddles or black boxes as I like to call them have arrived on the scene and even network admins like myself have struggled to grasp the associated concepts and pain points.

Black Box One

The first black box is virtualization, a term which can still make me anxious at times. Virtualization and cloud computing have developed to a level where the physical servers in medium-to-large companies are sometimes just a tenth of the overall server count.

Unless your specialty is virtualization it’s incredibly difficult to understand what the virtual machine (VM) team is really talking about; and people outside the virtualization team rarely have tools which provide a window into that world. For example, an application owner is never going to be able to give a definitive answer about what other VMs are running on the same host, because they just wouldn’t know.

What we do know is that there are benefits to businesses who implement virtualization such as cost savings, convenience and flexibility. Yet knowing what the benefits are doesn’t necessarily mean we know how we get them from the software or how much benefit we are actually deriving right now.

Black Box Two

The second black box is storage, which has the same issues as virtualization but only worse. Disks are the building blocks of arrays, which are collected via a software layer into LUNs, which connect through a separate network “fabric” to be presented as data stores to the virtual layer, or as contiguous disk resources to physical servers.

If you were to ask the application owner on which physical disks his application is installed, he’ll give you a very blank stare and probably fake a phone call (or sudden violent illness) so he can escape the conversation.

Whereas with virtualization, your server is either virtualized or it’s not, storage isn’t as simple. A physical server may have a single traditional platter-based disk for its system drive, connect to a SAN for a separate drive where software is installed and then use a local array of solid state drives to support high-performance I/O.

The Impact on the Network

The most interesting part about the development of these two new black boxes is how they are indirectly perceived.

How, I hear you say? Software-based “virtual” switches distribute bandwidth from VMs to multiple network connections. You use an interface that exists only within the software of the virtualization framework and map virtual networks (VLANs) to cloud computing running on actual switches. Likewise, it’s possible to take four or eight physical interfaces and assign individual ports to server blades; or bond two or more together and then assign the combined bandwidth to a group of blades. This all comes under the networking umbrella, but it’s occurring in systems that previously weren’t open to network professionals.

Finally, there is our good friend SDN, an innovative new technology but one that needs some logistics ironed out. The question to ask is how will software define networking? Will it only be for security logic? Will SDN create on-demand subnets, VLANs and routes along with the rules-based ACL’s we all read about? The real issue is how can the networking world keep up or prove whether a network was configured correctly a day, week or even a month ago?

There is however a silver lining. As I already mentioned, IT workers today adapt to survive and the ongoing drive towards maturity and sophistication will mean they can get their heads around these black boxes, while continuing to learn about all the various aspects of IT as new technologies crossover into different sectors.

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