It has been said that software is eating the world. In the world of networking, however, the food has been slow to digest. Network engineers can be a stodgy bunch, and change is not only slow to come but fast to be bludgeoned angrily. If this year’s Cisco Live conference is any indication, however, software, it seems, has started bludgeoning back.
Hardware has remained king for decades, with the software operating systems taking second position in the dance of features and functionality. Purchasers of network gear would base their decisions almost exclusively on hardware capabilities while accepting whatever software came on the box as just the way things were. Buy speeds and feeds, and you hoped that the software was up to snuff.
Network engineers considered–many still consider–that the software was difficult to master as a badge of honor; if you wanted to call yourself a network engineer it was not enough to understand protocols and architectures, you had to master painful operating systems, arcane syntax, and often contradictory configurations as well. Industries were born to train and certify engineers on network operating systems, and those engineers would then go on with biases toward the gear with which they had familiarity. And the cycle of life rolled onward.
With the advent of the hackneyed software defined movement a few years ago, this all began to slowly change. The focus started shifting towards the software as the driver of features and functionality, with the hardware increasingly seen as fulfilling a supporting role in pushing data around our insular connected worlds. The hardware was beginning to be seen as good enough so as to not require a particular badge or pedigree. The purveyors of pedigreed hardware were looking at an uncertain future.
The software defined movement came from a place of optimism, of a legitimate desire to make things better and to put the world of networking back on the right tracks that were seen as long ago abandoned. The way had been lost, and software defined was going to lead the industry out of the dark. Large and established companies, however, did not get that way by accident and, though initially slow to react, pivoted and began to embrace and extend, some would say co-opt, the fledgling movement. Soon, everyone was leading with software.
Nowhere was this pivot so jarring as with Cisco, a stalwart, dominant, market-leading behemoth of the networking equipment world. And as with other industry shifts before (VoIP, computing hardware), Cisco quickly (or, as quickly as they could given their size) adapted themselves to the new world order. They began rolling out application programming interfaces, a kind of inside-baseball way of making hardware do what you want while bypassing the traditional, company-written, software operating system. They started opening up more and more of their hardware, and they began contributing to various open-source software projects ostensibly designed to marginalize their very same hardware.
It is in this climate that Cisco established their developer network, DevNet, as a place for code-exchange among software developers. They published more and more APIs, more documentation, and began to dip a proverbial toe in the waters of more formalized training, inculcating engineers into the software defined mentality as seen through Cisco’s eyes. They started a specialized DevNet conference called DevNet Create, and they began bringing DevNet wherever they went. And it grew, and it grew, and it kept growing.
According to Cisco DevNet now has over 500,000 registered developers, over 38,000 contributing companies, 72,500 learning labs, and over 60,000 regular active users. There are reservable sandboxes for testing and development, almost all Cisco hardware as well as Kubernetes clusters, and multiple code repositories with code curated exchanges open to any developers to use. This entire ecosystem is separate from Cisco’s existing D‑Cloud demo environment, and doesn’t depend on any particular relationship with Cisco or third-party resellers. Those numbers are impressive by anyone’s standards, especially for something which has only existed for a few short years. It truly is an example of build it and they will come.
This year at the annual Cisco Live conference, held in lovely summertime Orlando, the DevNet portion of the show was the most impressive piece of the conference. And not just the raw numbers, which were impressive on their own, but in the acreage the DevNet zone consumed on the World of Solutions show floor as well as the excitement and buzz surrounding the thing. The most difficult classes and sessions to get into were all within the DevNet sphere, and it wouldn’t surprise me if next year’s conference saw the DevNet ecosystem called out with a separate fee structure from the rest of the conference.
Cisco’s evolution is just one example–perhaps the biggest–of the changes occurring in the networking industry. New businesses coming out of the Valley and other places with new notions of what networking can and should be is one thing, watching the industry giants pivot in that same direction brings a level of validation that we would be remiss to overlook or discount. Change is not just coming, it’s already here, and if you’re looking at your career thinking it’s only a fad, you are running out of time to stay ahead of, or even keep up with, the monumental changes still to come.