Network skills gap imperils organizations

The shaky economy is eating into the network spending plans of many organizations, but architectures rarely stay frozen.

Before the crisis hit new technologies such as unified communications, voice over IP, wireless LANs and remote access may have been in the middle of being implemented or just starting. In some organizations, management may still be willing to start investing in them as ways to help cut costs and improve productivity.

Yet according to Forrester Research, there’s a skills disparity in many IT departments still wedded to traditional technologies, network architectures and “install and run” competencies.

“We think there’s a huge gap,” said Usman Sindhu, a member of the team that wrote the first of a two-part report.

“Just to take network management, many organizations run on the traditional FCAPS (fault, configuration, accounting, performance and security management) model, where they are looking at the world from the network only. There’s no proactive monitoring going on and there’s not integrating into instant management initiatives. Certainly those skills are lacking.”

Most network managers are experienced in designing and implementing what Forrester calls traditional technologies – routing, switching, LAN and WAN design, 802.11x security. However, network design is changing. Multi-layer switching and modular platforms allow more services to be easily added to the network. Converged voice, video and data networks are increasingly common. An increasing number of dual mode wireless devices means the wireless LAN can be configured not only for primary transporting but also for failover protection. Meanwhile branch office consolidation means an increasing demand for server virtualization, virtual private network and mobile WAN technologies.

Specifically, Forrester believes network staff will have to increase their skills these six fast-growing technologies:

80211n. Although still pre-standard, the next generation of WiFI is close enough than an increasing number of organizations are either preparing to upgrade their a/b/g WLANs or have started to roll out equipment. Its speed will allow voice over WLAN and location-based services;

WiMAX. Even faster than WiFi, it can be used for WLAN access or to provide extra bandwidth for mobile users. With an increasing number of vendors shipping WiMAX infrastructure gear, Forrester says its an important skill to acquire;

— Enterprise mesh. This allows the WLAN to provider resiliency and failover between access points or for backhaul. Mastering central WLAN management and design are crucial;

— WAN optimization. Latency, not bandwidth, is more of an issue in network bottlenecks, says Forrester. WAN optimization helps application delivery and will be vital for successful organizations;

— Remote access. Employees and partners are increasingly demanding remote access to organization’s networks, raising problems with security and traffic segmentation. The intersection of security, access control and application management requires a holistic view of the network, says Forrester.

— IPv6. It may not be on your organization’s hotlist now, but Forrester believes it will be. Moving to IPv6 is more a management than an equipment problem, it warns. It’s not just these hard skills that need to be upgraded, Sindhu adds. Network operations professionals should develop or upgrade their so-called soft skills to deal with users, partners, vendors and service providers. In other words, networks are moving from deploying hardware to enabling services.

All this means that the role of network managers has to evolve, says Forrester, to ensure the core infrastructure can help the organization achieve cost saving and efficiency goals. Mangers have to look at their objectives and what will be implemented over the next three to five years. Based on that, training and certification resources have to be allocated.

A training road map, says Forrester, is as important as a technology map.

For those whose budgets are being constrained now, Sindhu warns that “it’s going to hit eventually. Maybe you’re not looking to invest in these things (technologies) right now, but those with a larger staff need to look how you will transform them to the future.”

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