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Minding the skills gap
Jim Mortleman, Computing, 21 Feb 2008
Network management is changing. Trends such as the convergence of telecommunications and data over IP networks, the drive to enable flexible working, and the outsourcing of network provision mean the consummate network professional today needs a broad understanding of everything from security and service management to software and supplier relationships.
Robert Chapman, chief executive of IT training company Firebrand Training, has watched the blurring of network and systems management during his 20 years in IT.
"In our business, we meet a broad spectrum of the IT community and in all sectors we are increasingly seeing the bleeding of understanding between disciplines," he says.
"I used to talk about departmental solutions to problems, but as they have been integrated everybody has to have understanding and appreciation of everything else. You can no longer talk about point solutions to point problems."
Richard Rutherford, senior systems engineer at utility Scottish Power, agrees, and says skill sets are converging. "Traditionally we had a number of discrete networks with experts and management systems for each of them," he says.
"Convergence has driven us down the single IP network route, and as such the skill sets and the people have to combine too. Everyone has to have a better understanding of what impact anything on this single, converged network has on the rest of the business as a whole."
The growth of mobile and flexible working is also having a big effect on network management skill sets. Network management teams not only need a knowledge of the different devices proliferating on their networks, but they must also understand and manage the implications in terms of security and demand for bandwidth.
"For example, the latest version of Microsoft Exchange seamlessly integrates with lots of mobile devices and suddenly huge chunks of your data can be easily transferred externally. You do not know how people are using that data - but you have to manage that infrastructure effectively," says Chapman.
But veteran networking industry watcher and consultant Peter Cochrane, chief executive of Cochrane Associates and former chief technology officer and head of research at BT, says the skills to give users freedom on the network will be equally vital.
"Increasingly you find people on the periphery of the network doing just about everything, and one of the biggest impediments to progress on this planet is IT departments and network departments that try to throttle capacity and control what people are doing," he says. "If there is a future for us, it is a future of freedom."
Another driver for networking change is outsourcing. More companies, particularly small and medium-sized ones, are outsourcing not only their network, but also management and monitoring. Such activity is freeing up IT personnel, who are often multi-skilled, to engage in more business-focused activities, although they still need to retain the skills to manage suppliers effectively - see Top skills, below.
One such organisation is Control Risks, a growing international business risk consultancy with 18 offices around the world and six project offices. Chief information officer Martin Joy has overseen the transition to a fully-managed, outsourced AT&T wide area network (WAN).
"For a medium-sized company, strategic outsourcing seems like a very sensible way to tackle things," he says.
"Now, rather than having to do the work themselves, my team needs the skills to understand the business drivers - which they do because they have been with the organisation a long time - as well as the ability to work with vendors.
"This is to ensure the business is getting the service it demands and to pull all the disparate parts together and get them working as effectively as possible."
Joy says his team is also able to innovate much more for the business. "It is about looking at the capability of the new network and saying we can now layer on top all these value-added applications that previously we were unable to," he says.
"These folks are taking a lead in that. They have played a key part in rolling out some global applications, including customer relationship management. They are also looking at how we can deliver business continuity coverage and better email. They now have the ability to do a lot more for the business, and they like that."
But some smaller companies are just glad to be rid of the messy business of networking. High-street and online retailer the Marvellous Group has a fully-hosted Easynet multi-protocol layer switching (MPLS) network linking its head office, call centre operations, 14 stores and third-party warehouse.
IT manager Innes Murray says he needs a good relationship with the supplier, not in-house skills. "We very much rely on our supplier’s input. I do not think we view network management as a competence we would want to invest in internally," he says.
"There are only four people in our IT team. Small businesses tend to have more generalists because of the nature of what they are. Retail always presents new IT challenges. The core competence you look for in staff is common sense - troubleshooting skills, knowing the right escalation path, whether that is to a network provider or elsewhere. It is not about knowing the answer as such."
The Marvellous Group believes its MPLS network provides a good platform for the future. "You cannot anticipate everything but this is a pretty good solution and it is scalable," says Murray.
"That was key - as we grow and our needs develop, the network can expand to meet them. We have a half-year review where we meet with the supplier’s service manager and we identify any capacity issues, or discuss areas of concern that either party feels needs to be addressed." and tools being used.
"There are many players in this marketplace, but they roughly fit into two camps companies such as HP, IBM, EMC in the large organisations and Microsoft in the smaller ones. The larger the organisation, the more likely you are to need multiple skills," he says.
Chapman notes many of the larger organisations are heavily involved in merger and acquisition activity, which presents particular network management skills challenges.
"As you put companies together they tend to have not only different technologies for managing their networks, but also different underlying technologies. That may drive them to adopt completely new technologies when they merge," he says.
The impact on IT departments is significant, because in many cases they will end up with multiple products.
That means they either have to go through a migration from one toolset to another or find a way of managing multiple toolsets. Either way, they will need the skills to manage that."
Cochrane adds that another fairly specialist skill that hands-on network managers will increasingly need is network forensics.
"Although automated tools continually scan networks and look for configuration changes, the real skill comes in the forensics," he says.
"Otherwise you are just staring at a load of data and saying ‘something is happening but I don’t know what’. As a result, forensics of networks will be in great demand - the ability to make some sense of what is happening out there."
Next week: the final part of our definitive guide to network management looks at the analysts’ view of the key issues
Top networking skills
Given that users and analysts agree that a broad base of skills is going to be vital for future network management professionals, what might emerge as the most critical competencies?
Everything web and internet protocol
Convergence is driving the march of internet protocol (IP) networking, with its ability to support voice, data, multimedia and a host of ad hoc connections and devices.
Richard Rutherford, senior systems engineer at Scottish Power, says convergence has driven business down the single IP network route and the applications running over it are becoming more sophisticated and business-critical. "We will have to reinforce our skill set in that area - as will our supplier," he says.
Industry watcher Peter Cochrane, meanwhile, says top of the list is Web 2.0 skills. "But I think people also need to start learning about IPv6 and WiMax," he says.
The drive to mobile and flexible working, combined with the consumerisation of technology, means networks will increasingly be required to recognise and be used by a proliferation of devices. Cochrane says network managers need to be aware of all the forthcoming mobile devices.
"People tend to think WiFi to the laptop is the big deal, but WiFi to dozens of little mobile phones is another major problem," he says.
"For example, applications are coming along for these devices that allow people to use VoIP over WiFi and the loadings of networks are going to change quite drastically. Network managers need the skills to understand and plan for these kinds of changes."
Service management skills
As IT aligns ever more closely to the business, so the need for service management skills, typified by the IT Infrastructure Library (ITIL) framework, becomes all pervasive. And network management is no exception.
Robert Chapman, chief executive of Firebrand Training, says network management increasingly has to consider its impact on business services and processes, which requires skills in areas such as the ITIL framework.
"ITIL and systems management software are being linked, and that is one of the bridges that forward-thinking businesses will have to cross if they want to manage systems and networks more intelligently," he says.
Supplier management skills
With so much network management activity being outsourced, many experts believe firms will need to develop the ability in-house to manage external suppliers effectively.
Such abilities will require relationship, delivery and portfolio management skills, as well as a broad technical understanding and strong communications expertise.
Martin Joy, chief information officer of Control Risks, says his organisation needs someone who understands the technology, but who also has a very good general knowledge of the business.
"Then they can ask the right questions and give the right answers when a supplier asks questions of us. Without that kind of expertise you become dependent on your vendor - and that is an uncomfortable and risky position," he says.
Specialist requirements for network managers
Different sectors will have different priorities when it comes to network management, and such demands translate into particular skills requirements, says networking expert Peter Cochrane. "In banking, insurance and government, the need for protection, security and resilience is paramount, particularly given recent data loss scandals," he says.
"Banks are continually under attack, and they have to adapt to the threats. Network managers in these sectors will therefore need to major on areas such as security, encryption, access control and threat detection."
At the other end of the scale, firms providing services - physical or virtual - will be using knowledge management databases and collaboration tools, says Cochrane.
"Then service and delivery staff can access common knowledge easily," he says. "Here the emphasis will be on maintaining speedy, highly-available networks."
Cochrane says sectors such as healthcare and academia will make increasing use of video over IP for areas including virtual diagnosis and learning. Longer term, he thinks networked video will become more popular as big-screen, virtual conferencing displaces the need for costly and environmentally-damaging business travel.
But such advances will depend on the UK investing in a faster broadband infrastructure. "We have already lost the computer games industry to Korea because they have bandwidth and we do not. And we will lose more business without faster broadband," he says.