Virtualization widens schism between server and networking teams

Virtual networking has revived tensions between server and networking teams within data centers, but it's a dynamic both sides must embrace.

There is a lot of talk about the software-defined data center lately, though the shift from hardware to software has been going on since the first logical partitions appeared in mainframe computing. Surprisingly, this shift continues to sneak up on people. When that happens, there can be power struggles and confusion as to who's responsible for what. Many technology disciplines -- networking teams, for example -- still see themselves as focused on managing hardware rather than software and fail to see that virtualization has moved us beyond these distinctions.

How server and networking teams grew apart

Networking teams have been used to controlling the flow of data to and from network devices and physical servers, not dealing with the internal networking of the software within those servers. When server virtualization first emerged, there was little to administer, so why bother? But virtualization began to spread, encompassing large portions of the data center. Before network admins knew it, a significant portion of network traffic within the data center was happening inside a black box into which the networking team had no visibility. They had painted themselves into a corner and greatly limited their ability to perform their job.

To be fair, the server administration teams were all too happy to let this happen. In fact, they likely encouraged it. They did not want to be weighed down by the heavy burden of change control and best practices that networking teams had adopted over the years. When virtual environments were small, they could get away without these practices. Some may even attribute the rapid growth of virtualization, in part, to the fact that it was allowed to operate under the radar and avoid some of these obstacles.

Why a new partnership is crucial

Today, virtual environments are a significant part of the data center, and mistakes in virtual networking cannot be tolerated. Most hypervisor platforms now include enterprise-class tools and management features that were lacking in the early years. Networking teams no longer have an excuse not to embrace the virtual network, and server teams will have a hard time justifying their exclusion. This new partnership is something neither team is used to. Cooperation between these two divisions will be critical to a business's success in next few years. These teams will share common tools and mixed roles within the environment. Each team will need to have oversight privileges and input into the other team's work. In some organizations, this may actually lead to the creation of a hybrid role: A server administrator familiar with virtualization who understands the advanced concepts of networking and how a virtual network device fits into the flow of data within the greater enterprise network.

As virtualization continues to reinvent the data center, teams will continue to struggle with the new alliances needed to make this all work. Some will resist, clinging to a status quo that will never come back. Others will see the opportunity to grow, to learn and to add value. It has not been easy and is not likely to get any better. As much as we focus on technology, it is the social aspects of implementing technology that proves most difficult. In this increasingly software-defined world, there is little room for silos in IT. Storage administrators, beware: you're next.

This was first published in May 2013

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