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Tomorrow’s Network Integrator

16 Feb 2016 by Howard M Cohen

You can’t talk about the future of information technology without talking about “the cloud.” In our last installment of “Tomorrow’s Tech: Tomorrow’s Systems Integrator,” we pointed out that cloud competition from Amazon, Microsoft, IBM, Google, Rackspace and others would erode, and replace the server and storage infrastructure marketplace.

We also pointed out that network integrators will be OK, emphasizing, “If you specialize in ‘network integration’ where you deploy, manage and maintain switches routers, and other network communications equipment, you probably have little to worry about. People will always need basic on premise ‘plumbing’ to move data around efficiently.”

You’re going to need a bigger wrench.

The plumbing analogy is almost unavoidable, and very appropriate. Over the years, plumbers have had to adapt to many new materials — from iron and copper pipe, to PVC, plastic and rubber tubing.

Similarly, network engineers started with coaxial cable, then twisted pair, then fiber-optic, then wireless in its many forms. Each new advance requires re-tooling, re-training, and you can expect Moore’s Law to remain in effect for a good long time to come. Data transmission, like transistors, will continue to double in capacity every few years, requiring us to double our capacity to provision, deploy, manage, monitor and optimize them. Even if the entire world gives up “brick and mortar” offices and everyone stays home to work, network integrators will be needed to provide the connections and efficient data transmission they’ll all require.

Then there’s that ‘Internet of Things’ thing.

Based on projections of sheer volume of data transmission, there is no question that the Internet of Things (IoT) will bring tremendous new opportunities to network integrators, and those network integrators will need to develop and learn new skills rapidly to keep up with those opportunities.

There really should be little question as to what IoT is.

Kevin Ashton coined the phrase “Internet of Things” while working at Proctor & Gamble in 1999. In a 2014 ComputerWorld article, writer Mike Elgan suggests that there will never be an Internet of Things, explaining that, “The ‘Internet of Things’ is a bad name because ‘things’ don't have their own Internet. They use the regular Internet. There is no separate ‘Internet of Things.’” Elgan suggests, “’Things of the Internet’" would be closer. And ‘things that interact with other things without human involvement’ would be even more accurate.”

If you’re thinking that someday “things of the internet” will outnumber people, former Cisco Chief Futurist Dave Evans, writing in the Cisco Blog on July 15, 2011, puts that in perspective, reporting, “This week at Cisco live, I shared that in 2008, the number of devices connected to the Internet exceeded the number of people on Earth.

A Cisco infographic accompanying that blog post predicts there will be more than 50 billion “things” on the Internet by 2020. Gartner, Inc. forecasts that 6.4 billion connected things will be in use worldwide in 2016, up 30% from 2015, and in 2016, 5.5 million new things will get connected every day.

It’s back to school for tomorrow’s network integrators.

The biggest challenge tomorrow’s Network Integrators face is that they’ll have to learn a completely new Internet Protocol (IP) addressing system.

On February 3, 2011, the Internet Assigned Names & Numbers Authority (IANA), which manages the distribution of IP addresses, announced that it had allocated the last of the remaining available blocks of addresses to regional authorities. The Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN) issued a news release announcing:

“A critical point in the history of the Internet was reached today with the allocation of the last remaining IPv4 (Internet Protocol version 4) Internet addresses from a central pool. It means the future expansion of the Internet is now dependent on the successful global deployment of the next generation of Internet protocol, called IPv6.”

The transition from IPv4 Internet addressing to IPv6 was planned to have already been completed by then. Most estimates put the conversion at only 17% completed as of this year.

IP addresses are the foundation upon which all Internet communications depend. Factors that are accelerating the dire need for transition include:

  • Every “virtualized” server that now runs dozens of servers in a single machine require numerous IP addresses per virtual server instance.
  • Billions of people all over the world are growing from having one device to having as many as five or more, each requiring its own IP address.
  • All the automobiles that now feature remote locking, remote diagnostics and streaming music via the Internet require IP addresses.
  • The emergence of smart cities that are leveraging automation to improve transportation, energy, water and other utilities require IP addresses.
  • Industrial automation of heating, lighting, manufacturing and other processing depends on IP-based automation.
  • Any households that put home appliances, light switches, door locks, thermostats and more into their home automation require IP addresses.

With multiple “sensor array” projects being planned by Intel, Cisco and others, we are talking about tens of billions more “things” being added to the Internet in just the next few years, and each will need IP addresses.

The biggest near-term opportunity for network integrators.

It should come as no surprise that the biggest challenge brings with it the greatest immediate opportunity. Also in that February 3, 2011, announcement by ICANN:

“This is a major turning point in the on-going development of the Internet,” said Rod Beckstrom, ICANN’s president and CEO. “No one was caught off guard by this. The Internet technical community has been planning for IPv4 depletion for some time. But it means the adoption of IPv6 is now of paramount importance, since it will allow the Internet to continue its amazing growth and foster the global innovation we’ve all come to expect."

At the end of the news release, Raúl Echeberría, chairman of the Number Resource Organization, intoned, “Deploying IPv6 is now a requirement, not an option.”

The “IPv6” Beckstrom and Echeberría refer to is the replacement for the original IPv4 Internet address structure. Where IPv4 only provided 4.3 billion addresses, IPv6 uses a much larger format that provides 32 undecillion addresses. The easiest way to depict the difference is to show you the digits:

  • IPv4: 4,300,000,000 addresses
  • IPv6: 3,200,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 addresses

Revise the carpenter’s rule: Measure twice, cut twice.

The fact that an overwhelming majority of organizations haven’t begun planning for IPv6 transition creates enormous opportunities for network integrators to help perform planning and implementation — twice.

Yes, twice. 

First, they’ll move clients to a hybrid environment where both IPv4 and IP6 co-exist. For many, the transition to IPv6 began years ago. Most analysts predicted that it would take years, but hybrid strategies allowed more time as users ran their networks using both address structures. Since the address structures are so different from one another, and IPv6 uses a different data packet structure, IPv4 devices and IPv6 devices cannot interoperate without using some form of gateway. 

The most popular co-existence hybrid strategies include tunneling in which the IPv6 traffic is encapsulated into the IPv4 header, though this introduces additional overhead; and dual-stack, which basically does the reverse using address translation, or cloud-based translation services.

Then, when the customer is no longer connecting to services that still use IPv4 it will be time to transition from the hybrid environment to a fully IPv6 network. 

Anticipate remaining busy with these transition projects for the next decade, all the while scrapping most everything you ever learned in a 32-bit-based Internet and relearning it all in a much more complex 128-bit space.

Just remember that every increase in complexity brings with it an increase in value, your value.