Last week Cisco Systems held its annual DevNet Create event at the super cool Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif. This was Year 3 for Create, and as the show has grown, so has the breadth of its audience. The first year Create was held, it was focused primarily on IoT and cloud developers as a way of helping them understand how to build applications that sit on the Cisco network platform.
The audience this year was split about 50/50 between developers and network engineers, highlighting that the DevNet program isn’t just for application programmers.
For those not familiar with DevNet, the program was the idea of Cisco Senior Vice-President Susie Wee, whose vision was that infrastructure needed to be programmable to interface with applications. The program today has almost 600,000 members, most of whom are developers, but there is a growing network engineer population. The value proposition to a software vendor or programmer is easy to understand because applications can now have access to network information, such as location information, identity, security capabilities and other data.
Despite the strong showing at Create by network engineers, I have found many network professionals somewhat resistant to the program, primarily because they lack understanding of what it is.
What Network Engineers Need to Know
Here are five things that network engineers should know when trying to determine if DevNet is right for them.
- It’s easy to get started. Without a doubt, the top concern regarding DevNet is a fear of getting started. It’s my estimate that about 70% of network pros have never made an API call in their careers. They’re great at working with CLI and writing scripts to automate some configuration changes, but APIs remain as foreign to them as emotions are to Spock. Because of this, the intimidation level can be extremely high. Cisco has structured the program around a number of self-paced learning labs that start at the very basics, where it assumes no programming skills. In fact, the first couple of labs are nothing more than a step-by-step guide to making an API. Cisco also has a number of “hot to” videos and sandboxes, so DevNet members can try things without having to purchase equipment. As the skill level increases, so do the labs. Literally, anyone can get started regardless of skill level.
- It’s not just for developers. When one hears “developer program,” it’s easy to get the impression that one needs to be a programmer. DevNet is structured to enable multiple audiences gain more value from Cisco infrastructure through the use of APIs. There’s obvious value to the developer, but it also makes the life of the network pro easier. More and more network configuration changes are being automated. Digital businesses move with speed, and doing things the old, box-by-box way is too slow. APIs let administrators write code once and then use it over and over again. This doesn’t require engineers to be programmers, but they do need to be software-fluent and comfortable with writing scripts using languages such as Python, making API calls and working with software. People who create apps need to know how to program. Engineers who work with Cisco equipment need to be software power users. In either case, DevNet can help.
- It’s relevant to all Cisco products. When DevNet first launched, there were only a few products with exposed APIs, limiting the scope of DevNet. Today, all Cisco products across all product areas are API accessible. The Technologies tab of developer.cisco.com is segmented by IoT, Cloud, Networking, Data Center, Collaboration, Analytics and Automation, Security, Open Source, Mobility and Services, so regardless of an engineer’s focus area, DevNet can make his/her life easier. An important point to understand is that DevNet has become the de facto standard way of working with Cisco equipment. Cisco has shifted to a software-first model, and while programs such as DevNet are relatively new to networking, they are common in the software industry.
- Create isn’t the only way to get involved with DevNet. As I mentioned earlier, the Create event was held last week. In addition to that conference, Cisco holds a number of smaller local events known as “DevNet Express.. A complete list of them can be found here, and there is a wide range of them held all over the world. Also, at each of the Cisco Live events, there is a DevNet Zone designed specifically for network professionals to kickstart their path to being a software power user. Cisco Live U.S. is coming up in June, so anyone attending that can check it out for themselves. The DevNet Zone at Cisco Live US 2018 was packed, and I expect it to be bigger this year. Cisco also uses Github as a code repository and has its own CodeExchange as a place to find working code that anyone can reuse.
- It’s important for your career. This is perhaps the most important point for network professionals: The world is changing, and the skills that were valued a decade ago aren’t the ones that will carry you into the future. I’ve spoken with IT leaders, senior networking professionals, CIOs and others, and they all agree that automation and programmability are necessary for the network to be better aligned with digital trends. Engineers who focus on mundane and repetitive tasks won’t be needed in the not-too-distant future. Skills in demand are software fluency, analytics, strategic planning and others that are aligned with digital trends. The challenge for network professionals is they can’t reskill if they’re busy running the day-to-day ops. My advice to network professionals is that if you’re doing something that isn’t strategic to your career, don’t do it. Find a way to automate it, and those capabilities are made possible by DevNet.
Given the age of Cisco, it’s fair to say that DevNet is still in its infancy. A half-million members is impressive in five years, but I expect that number to ramp sharply over the next few years. The network has never been more important, because it interfaces with users, IoT devices, mobile endpoints, the cloud and every other piece of technology a business uses.
Cisco has evolved from a proprietary hardware-first company to an open software driven organization. The question for network engineers is whether they have adapted their skills accordingly. If not, DevNet can provide a curated, fast track to doing that.
Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. He spent 10 years at Yankee Group and prior to that held a number of corporate IT positions.