Network labyrinth creates an opening

IT architecture

By Alistair Jones    

Calling all systems and telecommunications engineers: have you considered becoming a network systems architect? It’s one of the latest roles to emerge from the increasing sophistication of digital technology and our ever-growing reliance on it. According to the University of NSW, there’s already a candidate shortage.

UNSW’s school of electrical engineering and telecommunications has teamed up with the school of computer science and engineering to offer a new course — network systems architecture — with the first intake of 50 students already under way. The course is taught as a single subject during one semester at postgraduate level in both schools. Honours students who have completed enough prerequisite courses can also apply.

But what is it and why do we suddenly need it?

Says Sanjay Jha, a professor in UNSW’s school of computer science and engineering: “Networking technology started with a few bits and pieces in boxes and you could connect them together and transfer files around. [But] gradually it started to grow and it has become a very complex network.

“Earlier we used to have separate networks: one used to be [for] data, then we had telecommunications networks for voice. Now all of these are getting integrated. On top of that you have wireless networks — such as Wireless Lance, WiMax, LTE — [and] they’re all connected together. That’s why you need some structured way of studying this.

“We are preparing students not for tomorrow but for the day after. We are not teaching them how to do [the basic] plumbing of networking; that gets done in other courses.

“[Instead, it’s about] becoming someone who can envision larger systems and [come] up with innovative ideas.”

UNSW began developing the course more than a year ago in collaboration with networking giant Cisco Systems.

Vijay Sivaraman, a senior lecturer in the school of electrical engineering and telecommunications, was part of the UNSW delegation that met lead designers and executives from Cisco.

“Given the complexity of modern-day networks and their criticality to business, we agreed that the market gap was really in the top-down approach: understanding the business drivers, what’s trying to be achieved by building a network,” Sivaraman says.

The challenge has been in boiling down that big-picture overview into a measurable competence that stitches together all the individual technology competences that systems and telecommunications engineers need to achieve.

Sivaraman says that, so far, he and Jha are “driving the lectures and some of the Cisco folks are sitting in class and they contribute to the discussions”.

“They can give practical examples of scenarios they’ve encountered at customer sites and the impact it has had on design,” he says. Later in the course Cisco representatives will be among the guest lecturers.

And will students in the course provide a talent pipeline for Cisco? “What we’re hearing from the top management at Cisco is that this is a gap in the market,” Sivaraman says. “If they find students who have these skills, and they have gained them at university, they will definitely be . . . more employable at Cisco.”

The course is available in face-to-face format on campus and there are no plans for distance delivery. Jha says the lectures are recorded and can be downloaded but students are encouraged to attend classes because they are “very interactive and case-study based”.

Article from The Australian, September 4, 2010.

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