As the traditional approach to networking is replaced by hybrid cloud, SD-WAN and edge networks, in-house skill sets haven't kept up.
Hiring new staff is one option to narrow the deficit, but there's a skills shortage in the industry right now, and hiring is expensive. According to McKinsey, it often costs around $30,000 to bring on a new employee, not counting the onboarding training. As a result, 82 per cent of global executives surveyed by McKinsey say that re-skilling and up-skilling will be at least half the solution to their skills gaps.
Adding to the skills challenge is Covid-19. The pandemic has heightened the need for trained networking professionals with cloud, network security and other essential skills.
Companies have had to scale up their online operations quickly, accelerating the transition to cloud infrastructure and services, while large numbers of employees started working remotely, putting pressure on VPNs and other remote access technologies.
At the same time, in-person education has been severely curtailed, as have in-person, proctored, certification exams.
"Traditionally, I had to go to a centre," said Myke Miller, dean of the Deloitte Cloud Institute. "I had to go to a lab for a hands-on certification process. But with the current environment, that's no longer a feasible option for a lot of people."
To help bridge the gap and provide a hands-on component, many companies are prioritising on-the-job training, mentoring, or even an in-house training program. That's the approach Deloitte took. The company created its own training academy, the Deloitte Cloud Institute, to not only arm its employees with the technical skills they need but also help them understand how those skills fit into a business context.
The institute combines traditional networking certifications like Cisco's CCNP and CCIE with new cloud certifications, such as the Amazon Web Services (AWS) and Google Cloud Platform (GCP) network certifications or the security certifications available from the major hyperscale cloud providers.
Training participants are assigned to cohorts that go through the training together, Miller added, "so there's a collaborative sense of shared experience." In addition, they assign learning coaches – similar to teaching assistants in college classes – that can work closely with the students and answer any questions they might have.
And the Institute covers not just the theoretical knowledge that professionals require but also opportunities to put it in practice. "Ultimately, what we found is that the hands-on labs where people have the experience to stand up network infrastructure is really key to their success," Miller said.
In addition, the training includes job shadowing, Miller added, with immediate opportunities to put the learning into practice.
"If a network engineer goes through and gets a particular skill set and then doesn't apply that skill set for six, nine, or 12 months, then there's going to be an erosion of those skills over time," he explained.
Which network skills to prioritise?
Research firm Gartner is estimating that 48 per cent of employees will work from home, even after the pandemic, compared with 30 per cent pre-pandemic. The shift to remote work is influencing tech training priorities for IT departments charged with keeping the enterprise workforce productive and secure.
Networking engineers facing the future need to start with upgrading their cyber security skills, outlined Alicia Johnson, consulting principal for technology transformation at EY.
"Enhancing network security standards, ensuring firewalls, testing, ensuring that governance is in place—that is number one," she said.
The next most pressing issue for enterprises during this pandemic is to have network architecture updated to support work-from-home employees, she added. That includes accommodating the rise in online meetings. "Today we have no choice. We need to be able to design video network infrastructure."
Long term, there's the need for cloud skills. More and more people are getting up to speed with a particular hyperscale provider's infrastructure. What's harder, Johnson said, is finding people who can work with multiple clouds, instead of having a narrow specialisation in one particular platform.
EY offers hands-on training courses and independent certifications, and it has a corporate policy requiring employees to maintain their education, Johnson said. "If resources need to learn skills, they're able to do so."
The basics are still important, even in the new cloud-based infrastructures, added Carl Fugate, managing enterprise architect at Capgemini's North American Cloud and Edge Center of Excellence.
"Most of the 'software defined' solutions today typically use overlays on top of IP and Ethernet networks," he said. "This means that you still need to understand how to configure and troubleshoot Layer 1 through 3 issues, as the endpoints that connect to the network have not evolved like the transport network."
And even with the older protocols, there are new ways to manage them, Fugate said. "In the past, we were lucky just to get statistics on the amount of data that was passing through the network. Now, we can do application inspection and flow monitoring to understand the performance not just of the network fabric itself but the applications that are using it."
To SASE and beyond
Cloud technologies aren't the only thing that's reshaping enterprise networking. Edge computing, SD-WAN, and secure access service edge (SASE) are here to stay.
"If it's a branch bank or a hospital with clinics distributed over a broad geographical area, the traditional networking architectures are changing and they need to understand how they can adapt to new architectures," said Deloitte's Miller.
Networking professionals need to understand SD-WAN's role at the core of the new approach, he said. It's no longer sufficient just to have Cisco's CCNA, CCNP or CCIE certifications, Miller added. "Those will carry you a long way, but the connectivity between enterprise networks and cloud networks – whether it's a SaaS solution like Salesforce or an IaaS solution like AWS or GCP – have really changed how the network works," Miller said. "Routing protocols, security – the impact is pretty dramatic."
Tech vendors can be a source of training, particularly for specific networking technologies such as SD-WAN. "If you've selected a particular SD-WAN provider, they have training for their implementation of SD-WAN," Miller said.
The big cloud vendors, including Microsoft and Amazon and Google, offer online training on their own cloud platforms, as do third-party organisations such as Udemy.
Use of one online training company – A Cloud Guru – has dramatically increased during the Covid-19 pandemic, for example. The amount of time students spent on AWS training rose 22 per cent from March to May, said Drew Firment, senior vice president for cloud transformation at A Cloud Guru, and Azure was up 167 per cent. At the same time, the percentage of users who logged in each week doubled, he said.
Right now, A Cloud Guru's three most popular networking-related courses are AWS Certified Advanced Networking - Specialty 2020, Google Certified Professional Cloud Network Engineer, and Network Routing Fundamentals.
For the most cutting-edge technologies, however, online courses may not be available yet. "You may need to go to things like white papers and emerging technology vendors," Miller said.
Open-source communities can also provide resources, added Jason Shepherd, Linux Foundation Edge board member and vice president of ecosystem at Santa Clara, Calif.-based Zededa. "For example, the Kubernetes community is offering certification programs, and KubeCon has grown to be a massive event," he said.
The Linux Foundation’s Edge and Networking umbrella organisations are also good places to learn about emerging technologies and architectures from industry peers, Shepherd summarised.