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How Network Engineering Is Changing

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Network engineering is a field in flux. It was once chiefly concerned with optimizing traffic and maintaining stability in relatively small networks. Today, many network engineers spend their days overhauling legacy networks, again and again, to meet fast-growing demand without sacrificing performance. According to a NetBrain survey, 49 percent of enterprises with more than 1,000 employees have 1,000+ network devices like routers and switches, and 83 percent of those industries surveyed said that their networks grew over the last year.

The pressure is on now that networks have grown so large and are so necessary to operations. Companies face grievous consequences when networks go down. A single network outage can cost an organization upwards of $301,000 per hour. Additionally, technological changes are changing what it means to be a network engineer. More and more organizations want engineers who can virtualize and automate networks, secure increasingly complex networks, assist in cloud migration and incorporate emerging technologies into network operations. Many employers expect network engineers to be jacks-of-all-trades who are as comfortable programming in Python and leveraging AI as they are working with physical routers, wireless network architecture and communication systems.

The only constant in modern network engineering is change. To keep up, engineers have to stay abreast of how the field is evolving and update their skills to align with industry demand. SMU Lyle School of Engineering's Master of Science in Network Engineering (MSNE) program is unique in that it teaches the advanced networking concepts network engineers need to work with existing and emerging networking technologies while also giving them the skills to adapt as the innovations described below disrupt the field further.

What Transformation in Network Engineering Looks Like

You're probably familiar with the hub-and-spoke networks upon which most organizations rely. That architecture is standard but can't support the future of business. Today's networks must handle mobile users, voice and video, cloud-based applications and direct internet access – all while maintaining network and information security. To meet these new demands, organizations and their network engineers are increasingly tapping into:

Automation and AI

It's a proven fact: Most network outages stem from human error. These outages are increasingly costly and time-consuming. The larger and more complex networks get, the less wiggle room there is for mistakes. That's why enterprises are investing in network automation tools to assist with labor-intensive, manual processes, like network configuration. Higher-ups are also encouraging network teams to root out more manual processes ripe for machine learning-driven automation.

According to research from Gartner, organizations that automate more than 70 percent of their network activities reduce the number of outages by at least 50 percent and may be able to deliver services 50 percent faster. Network engineers who embrace automation instead of avoiding it will provide more value to their organizations in the long run.

Furthermore, as billions of new Internet of Things (IoT) devices connect to enterprise infrastructure, automation will be necessary. That's because AI can act quickly – even preemptively in some cases – by surveying massive amounts of data much faster than a human can to predict network behaviors and make changes that keep networks stable in real-time.

According to the NetBrain survey linked above, 71 percent of engineers report they still use command-line interfaces to troubleshoot network issues, and 40 percent said manual troubleshooting takes more than four hours. That kind of lag won't cut it anymore. That's why network engineers with master's degrees and automation skills will soon be as valuable, if not more valuable, than general network engineers.

Cloud Networking

At the onset of COVID-19, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella reported that the company's cloud-based collaboration software Microsoft Teams saw "two years' worth of digital transformation in two months." Millions of workers went remote over two years, and many industries decided to make remote or off-site working business-as-usual. Some went fully remote while others implemented a hybrid work model, and both turned to cloud networks to store files and facilitate collaboration.

The benefits of moving to public cloud infrastructure are numerous. Cloud computing reduces networking costs, ensures scalability and provides data delivery and storage rapidly, reliably and securely, eliminating the need for on-site networks. Some organizations use third-party providers with interconnected servers to access networked resources such as virtual routers, firewalls, bandwidth and network management software. Others build virtual private clouds (VPCs) that network engineers manage in-house.

One of the major benefits of cloud networks is that they allow fluid collaboration no matter where employees are located. A business' infrastructure isn't limited to one physical place, bound by its network's limited capability and security protocols. Instead, employees can access and share files from anywhere in the world.

Cross-IT Collaboration

Network engineers have traditionally been notorious lone wolves, often working alone or with a few other IT professionals on small teams that enjoyed a great deal of autonomy. They were usually the only ones in the office who understood the computing technology, inside and out, which meant only they could troubleshoot issues, lead network changes and initiate firewalls. The structure worked then because networks were small and local. Today's computing technology is so complex that it no longer makes sense to put one person in charge of setting up, maintaining and upgrading the network.

In NetBrain's 2017 State of the Network Engineer report, 45 percent of engineers said the lack of coordination between IT teams was the number one barrier to effective troubleshooting. Many reported siloing network administration made networks more vulnerable to cyberattacks. Cross-IT collaboration is more crucial than ever, as cyber security teams and application developers must share knowledge with engineers to protect their workplaces and data. Even non-IT departments across the enterprise should be familiar with essential network functions, cloud computing and network security protocols.

Heightened Network Security

Every single device added to a network widens the attack surface. Because so many devices connect to networks remotely, network attacks are becoming more frequent and damaging.

Cybercrime increased during the pandemic, and experts predict cyber threats will worsen. Gartner predicts that 99 percent of firewall breaches into 2023 will be due to misconfigurations by network engineers working manually, not technological flaws. Several high-level companies, including Twitch, Capital One and Facebook, have suffered recent data breaches that left their customers' information exposed. These breaches put sensitive data at risk, cost the companies egregious amounts of money and damaged their reputations. Network engineers must work with cyber security teams to preempt breaches, automate network configurations and implement zero-trust networking to secure companies' and consumers' assets and prevent similar large-scale cyberattacks in the future.

IT Telephony and VoIP

Zoom might have been the word of the year in 2020. Suddenly, an application most people had never heard of was a must-have for work and play. Zoom, Google Meet, Microsoft Teams and Skype use IT telephony technology – defined broadly as telephone-based communications that utilize the Internet. To be more specific, they use Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP), which allows users to make and receive calls online via the internet. Zoom recently unveiled Zoom Phone, a unified, cloud-based app for making and receiving phone and video calls and chatting. It delivers video conferencing, instant messaging and the most basic functions of analog phones in one package.

Businesses' desire to streamline processes and reduce the number of devices and technologies required to do business has led to the "continued convergence of voice and data networks," which network design experts predict will continue unabated. The benefits of VoIP include reduced costs, international calling, less hardware and remote accessibility. For network engineers, this means adding one more essential piece of technology to their networked systems.

NetDevOps

You have likely heard of DevOps, which refers to the collaboration between development and operations teams in software production. NetDevOps brings networking professionals into the mix, allowing engineers to approach network implementation, upgrades and updates the same way software engineers design, deploy and test new features. NetDevOps encourages minor, regular and automated network updates that preempt possible issues to reduce downtime and the potential for human error. Network engineers with DevOps qualifications earn, on average, $100,000 to $105,000, with plenty of room to grow by skilling up in a specialization area.

Network Programming

Traditional networks consisting of physically linked hardware are giving way to hardware that is virtualized and programmable through software. This change affects everything from infrastructure to network applications to servers and entire data centers. Forward-thinking network engineers are proactively becoming software fluent and learning to code in various programming languages to build automated, virtualized and programmable networks. Programming is still a distinguishing skill in network engineering but will likely become necessary as more organizations turn to automation to manage capacity and performance. According to NetBrain, just over half of network engineers surveyed reported being required to know Python or Perl – skills that were not essential for network engineers just a few years ago. Lyle's online master's in network engineering program curriculum teaches students to program in those languages so they can build automated, virtualized and programmable networks.

Software-Defined Networking

Software-defined networking (SDN) uses software or APIs to monitor and control the behavior of cloud-based networks and direct traffic on those networks. Unlike a traditional network, which relies on hardware like routers and switches to control network traffic, an SDN can manage a virtual network via software, allowing for more flexibility. Here is how software company Ciena defines the benefits of an SDN: "By opening up traditionally closed network platforms and implementing a common SDN control layer, operators can manage the entire network and its devices consistently, regardless of the complexity of the underlying network technology."

Will Network Engineers Become Obsolete?

In short, no. Network engineers won't be replaced by the technology they help implement, but their responsibilities are transforming. Automation and AI will clear some of the more redundant, error-prone tasks from engineers' schedules, and their roles will evolve to meet new needs and new employer expectations.

The key to avoiding obsolescence is adaptation, as has always been the case in computer networking. Network engineers still need a fundamental grasp of routing and switching; network protocols including TCP/IP, DNS and DHCP and various hardware and software configurations. They need to build on those skill sets to keep up with the expansion of cloud computing, automation, virtualization and AI. Engineers who learn programming languages such as Python, which is compatible with open-source software like Ansible, will be a step ahead of the competition.

The network professionals who master technologies that can predict network behaviors and make necessary changes quickly, ensuring optimal network performance and stability, will have their pick of newly created jobs for network engineers. Upskilling in emerging areas of network engineering such as cloud networking, distributed networking and edge networking by pursuing advanced education in online programs such as SMU's MSNE is a good idea today. Pursuing a graduate degree might be necessary tomorrow.

Keeping Up with the Pace of Change in Network Engineering

We are more reliant on networks than ever. The structure of networks changes, but the fundamentals of the professional don't – computer networking careers have always involved lifelong learning. Change is inevitable, which means network engineers must proactively prepare for what's coming to stay relevant. Innovations in computing such as AI, fog computing, mist computing and multi-cloud computing are prompting sweeping transformations in the field.

It's an exciting time to become a network engineer or to advance in a network engineering career in a program such as SMU's online MSNE. Network engineers with the right skills can save their organizations money, scale technologies to meet changing needs and implement virtual network infrastructure and automation to speed up processes, protect systems from threats and drive efficiency. Along with technical skills, SMU's master's program gives graduates a deeper understanding of how the industry will evolve. Core courses intersect with topics in computer engineering, cyber security, software engineering and telecommunications to offer a well-rounded education and real-world skills.

Network engineering is changing, and the best engineers will change with it. The skills network engineers need to succeed in today's information technology job market aren't the same skills they needed five years ago. Five years from now, innovations in computer science may make today's leading-edge network engineering technologies obsolete. A single bachelor's degree or graduate program can't prepare you for the many transformations in computer networks you'll see in the course of your career. However, a top MSNE program such as Lyle School of Engineering's 100 percent online Master of Science in Network Engineering can make you more versatile and adaptable.