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Networking's generational divide

by Trusted Contributor on ‎08-16-2017 09:01 AM

Typically when we talk about a generational divide, we are talking about an age gap in our workers. In an IT context, we might imagine differences in the way that millennials and their predecessors interact with the devices for which they are responsible. 
 
But while there is indeed a generational divide that is beginning to take firm root in IT, it is the companies more than the workers that are driving changes.
 
Mid-market enterprise
To bound this discussion some, let me first limit the conversation primarily to mid-market enterprise and below. This is a statement about size of company more than type of company. A tech startup, for instance, would fall into this category. Coca Cola (or some similarly large company) would not. 
 
The web scale companies are usually considered web scale because they have reached some tipping point in terms of number of users, and assuming they have a sound business model, that critical mass of people using the service means that the revenue will lift them above what I would consider mid-market. This takes players like Snap, LinkedIn, and Twitter (no jokes about their business model, please) out of the discussion. 
 
The telcos and major cloud properties are also very obviously out of scope.
 
AC/BC
The major distinction between companies in my target group is whether they were born before or after cloud (pardon my liberties in changing the ordering to make it sound closer to the legends that brought us Thunderstruck). 
 
Companies born before the cloud was a viable alternative to traditional IT infrastructure obviously had no choice but to do it themselves. In doing so, they developed two important things: a way of thinking about the IT space in general, and some channel through which they acquire both equipment and information.
 
On the first, it’s worth noting that humans are a flawed species. We are hard-wired to trust in the decisions we have made. I won’t go into psychology here, but anyone who is interested in why we tend to spot lots of data that supports our decisions, do some reading on choice supportive bias
 
The second is a bit more interesting in the context of this blog. The channel is much more than a distribution mechanism for mid-market enterprise. Indeed, the resellers take the role of trusted advisor. They are responsible for understanding what the major suppliers are doing, and then translating that in a way that is consumable and tailored to individual companies. Because they have a veritable stranglehold on the trusted advisor role, in many (maybe even most) mid-market companies, they determine more or less what gets deployed, along with when and how.
 
The role of the channel in cloud
If the channel owns the recommendations on what the go-forward architecture looks like, it’s important to understand what motivates their decisions.
 
Now, I want to say first and foremost that the people in virtually all companies tend to be good. Their relationships are real and their interests sincere. I don’t personally subscribe to the cynical beliefs that people are only out for their own interests. That’s not to say that they won’t serve their own interests, but they don’t tend to act in nefarious ways simply to line their pockets. 
 
But the companies they work for do behave like living organisms, and they will tend over time to do things that do preserve there role, even if through the collective subconscious actions of the people that make these companies work. So it’s not terribly far fetched to suggest that when faced with a potential cloud migration, the preference will tend to fall on the side of whatever drives the most business.
 
Put more plainly, driving your customers to cloud if you make your money on BC (Before Cloud) architectures would be a tough business proposition. 
 
Changing nature of the channel in AC/BC companies
And this is where the generational divide comes in. Minimally, I would suggest that companies born after cloud and for whom cloud is a reasonable way to bootstrap a company will look to a different set of partners for help. Those partners range from community members (in the DevOps-type case) but also includes a growing set of resellers who see the AWS (or Azure or GCP) ecosystems as nascent and potentially lucrative. 
 
If these channel relationships drive major architectural directions, even if only because they shape what information is made available, then the AC companies will tend to learn best practices from a different set of practitioners. And that will certainly change what the go-forward strategy looks like.
 
Can Cloumageddon be both real and overstated?
I think this dynamic is why there are such strong opinions about whether everything or nothing (or something in between) eventually goes to cloud. The companies born after the cloud will have started in the cloud, and I see no compelling reason that they would ever come back. While there might be financial reasons to own infrastructure for the ones that become ultra-massive and for whom IT is a core part of their business, I simply think that a company that builds a workforce around everything being in the cloud will continue to hire in their own likeness. Barring a major strategic imperative launched by a C-level executive, I just don’t see companies changing their IT DNA in such fundamental ways.
 
And the same argument holds true for BC companies. If you fundamentally have built your business around owning your own infrastructure, there is a serious skills gap about just moving to the cloud. And for anyone who says “just move it to the cloud”, please at least start having a broad conversation about things like cloud connectivity and the need to maintain some architectural discipline even if you are using outsourced resources.
 
So does this mean Cloudmageddon won’t ever happen?
Nothing in enterprise IT is an absolute, so there will no doubt be differences in what moves to the cloud. Minimally, there will be some things that are legacy and just run better where they are, primarily because it isn’t worth the effort to rewrite the application. And there will be data issues that favor one or another solution. And of course, there will be geographical differences, especially around fiber access and data sovereignty. 
 
But beyond that, we need to acknowledge that not all companies survive forever. Digital transformation might be an annoying term, but digital disruption is real. And the future favors the agile. And there is little doubt that there is a real agility advantage when using the cloud. If you doubt this, take a look at how many features AWS has released in the last year. 
 
And as companies fail or become less relevant or get replaced by someone newer, those newer players will be AC companies. Which means, on the balance, there will be more AC companies than BC companies at some point. The question is when. 
 
One final point on Cloudmageddon, the nature of cloud will also change. Things like multi-access edge computing (MEC), for instance, will favor a distributed cloud, so Cloudmageddon is not synonymous with AWS owns every workload and the rest of us all work for Bezos. I think the future will be far more fractured than most people talk about. 
 
The bottom line
I hear lots of people who say that Cloudmageddon isn’t real. They use this as a means of justifying why their jobs will be around until the end of time. I think this is somewhat incomplete thinking. 
 
There are two things that are almost always true: we underestimate how long it will take for technology transitions to happen, and we underestimate how disruptive they will eventually be. We will not see a wholesale move to the cloud for awhile. And for some companies, it might be never.
 
But any company founded AC will be born in the cloud. And as older companies die and newer companies take their places (circle of life), this means that more and more jobs will have at least a cloud component. So if your career has maybe a 5-10 year horizon on it, you can probably get away with just holding on. But if your career has a 20-30 year useful lifespan remaining, I would start working on how you will navigate networking’s generational divide.

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  • Mike is currently acting as a Senior Director of Strategic Marketing at Juniper Networks. Mike spent 12 years at Juniper in a previous tour of duty, running product management, strategy, and marketing for Junos Software. In that role, he was responsible for driving Juniper's automation ambitions and incubating efforts across emerging technology spaces (notably SDN, NFV, virtualization, portable network OS, and DevOps). After the first Juniper stint, Mike joined datacenter switching startup Plexxi as the head of marketing. In that role, he was named a top social media personality for SDN. Most recently, Mike was responsible for Brocade's datacenter business as VP of Datacenter Routing and Switching, and then Brocade's software business as VP of Product Management, Software Networking.
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