Learning the trade
The level and variety of training now available to IT executives in the Middle East is richer than it has even been. Piers Ford explores why network managers should never stop learning.
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Corporate networks in the Middle East are sophisticated beasts these days, driven as much by the habits and expectations of their users as they are by the needs of the business and the advance of virtualisation technology, with its potential to liberate the organisation from the bind of a physical infrastructure.
Network technology poses quite a conundrum for network managers and administrators these days. On the one hand, it’s more complex than ever, constantly evolving to meet the challenges of increasingly sophisticated, multimedia infrastructures. On the other, the manager is protected from that complexity by dashboard-style interfaces that imply all the ease of use and degrees of automation we’ve come to expect from modern technology.
So how much do network managers really need to know? The depth of knowledge required varies, and the levels and quality of training supplied by vendors and third-party providers should accordingly be assessed in as much detail as the products themselves.
And that’s a daunting prospect. Vendors’ training programmes can be as rich and multi-tiered as their products. Online modules vie with lab-and classroom-based courses to give network managers and users a bewildering range of options. So it’s vital that customers weigh up the potential benefits of different training packages to the business, and not just to the individual who might see a training course simply as a passport to a new job outside the organisation.
“IT managers in the Middle East maintain their expectation to have training delivered as part of the deal they make when purchasing hardware,” says Aziz Ala’ali, regional director, MEA, at Extreme Networks.
“For the majority, they don’t see it as a separate service that they need to budget for and purchase, which results in driving the product price higher, as partners tend to bundle training with hardware cost.
“Currently, the expectation is to have the training done on-site alongside the deployment of the project — on the job training. As Middle Eastern companies invest more in the technology, they are beginning to understand the need to have trained network managers and seek scheduled classroom training courses to enrol their team on. However, the demand is currently lower than in Europe. One of the challenges Middle Eastern companies have is retaining trained personnel after their qualifications.”
Like most vendors, Extreme Networks makes much of its multi-level training programme, delivered through its portfolio of authorised training partners. Ala’ali says the use of consistent operating software across its switches means students can operate anything once they’ve trained on their first platform.
“In order to make the training needs for our customers even lower, we have also developed a Cisco-based command line interface,” he comments. “This will allow customers who are trained and certified as Cisco engineers to use the same Cisco commands they are used to, to set up and configure an Extreme Networks switch.”
Cisco itself provides a comprehensive range of training, delivered by a network of authorised learning partners as well as a direct team, which tends to focus on higher end platforms, and self-study options such as the Cisco Learning Network site. Like most network vendors, Cisco also offers e-learning choices.
“We believe in the value of making Cisco training available anytime, anywhere and in any device as a way to support our customers’ fast-paced demands,” says global director, worldwide learning partners, Andres Sintes. “Together with our Cisco Authorised Learning Partners, we provide a number of incentives and solutions depending on the market and training needs.”
Another vendor, Juniper Networks, has also developed an e-learning facility, the Learning Academy, which is designed to help students achieve their goals in a cost-and time-efficient way. Customised curriculum options are increasingly popular, with training credits on offer to help students achieve individual qualifications that include Expert, Professional, Specialist and Associate Levels.
“The Junos fast track programme enables IT professionals to build on their current expertise and become more specialised on the new network characteristics of our products,” says Taj El-Khayat, regional director — channels and general business, MENA.
“We also offer free installation and configuration labs for our products, especially our newly released products. We provide a variety of flexible training formats: podcasts, videos, virtual demos, live, online testing, and an expanded virtual lab for virtual hands-on training. Also, free e-learning installation and hardware replacement courses are available on the Juniper Networks public website.”
This range of opportunities is a fair indication of how far vendor training has come in the last five years, taking advantage of the preferred formats and media of their customers and acknowledging that for most network professionals, the lack of substantial blocks of time for training is a significant factor.
Fortinet delivers courses at various geographical locations to eliminate or reduce associated travel costs, and certification exams can be taken in many cities in a proctored testing environment, explains regional director Bashar Bashaireh.
“Customer expectations depend on the kind of organisation and the solution deployed, where the flexibility and ability of a vendor to cater for various preferences and requirements is essential to most IT and network managers,” comments Bashaireh.
“Having direct training is important for customers to acquire enough knowledge and know-how to efficiently operate their infrastructure and handle first level issues before escalation. For large enterprises with a higher number of trainees, IT and network managers prefer to either have an on-site course or dispatch the trainees in groups for in-class courses,” he adds.
Another network security specialist, Cyberoam, offers classroom and web-based training programmes, both directly and through certified instructors. Courses tend to be limited to two days.
“Cyberoam’s security training programmes are not time-intensive,” says regional manager Surender Kumar Bishnoi. “At the most, they take two days to attend, apart from formal examination. The cost rationale of investing in security training can be understood from the fact that security is a vital component of an organisation’s IT infrastructure. It always pays to enable the security administrator to become more knowledgeable and certified in handling intricate security solutions like Cyberoam UTM,” he adds.
While most of the major vendors deliver training and certification through third parties, some still prefer the direct approach. Appliance specialist Exinda Networks, for example, provides classroom and hands-on training in the region — although VP, India, Middle East and Africa, Steven Brown-Cestero agrees that customers prefer the two to three-day window.
“The training we provide is often tailored to meet the needs of our training attendees and ensures that all participants receive the skills needed to fully deploy and configure our devices,” says Brown-Cestaro.
“It has been my experience, having been responsible for three major networking brands in the region, that most of our clients prefer classroom training that provides a form of certification — and most are looking for a two or three-day session,” he concludes.