An organization’s network is its lifeblood. If it is not up to par, the company cannot hope to succeed. Network administration has become increasingly complex as modern technology, along with its possibilities and demands, has evolved. Changes must be made quickly, and with minimal downtime.
IT teams are turning to automation and orchestration as much as they can to help manage the burden. However, automation is often not used to the fullest extent possible because of its initial cost. It can also feel difficult to implement because automation usually requires a learning curve – yet another thing for the IT team to take on.
A “DIY” automation infrastructure is simply not an option for many organizations, as they do not have the headcount or time for the required training to build and maintain it. Lean IT teams without dedicated development require a platform for automation with turn-key features built in to get started automating time-consuming tasks that are done manually today. Organizations with development resources need an open platform allowing them to customize and build the required automation and migrate from limited home-grown solutions.
Automation’s Helping Hand
Legacy networking equipment is, for the most part, configured via command line through the Command Line Interface (CLI). This type of interface may be acceptable in a lab or small network, but when you need to configure dozens to hundreds to thousands, manual CLI does not scale. In addition to being time-consuming to configure, using CLI requires deep knowledge of that particular vendor’s command structure and semantics, which must be configured in a very specific order.
The ability to implement changes in the network more quickly is the first and most important benefit of adopting network automation. This affects everything from new site installations to upgrades and ongoing changes. A recent Forrester research report shows that 80 percent of IT operations time is spent performing maintenance on the existing network. This takes away from time to address incoming change requests to keep up with business needs.
Reducing the amount of network downtime is another important benefit. Automated tasks are executed much faster and with a higher degree of accuracy over manual changes. One Gartner study shows that close to half of all network outages are due to manual misconfiguration. Leveraging network automation enables an operations team to accomplish more tasks with the existing team without needing to hire expensive contractors or reject change request, which slows the flow of business.
What to Look For
Today’s enterprise network has an average of 16 different network device platforms deployed. Some organizations selected “best of breed” devices, such as firewalls, load balancers, switches, routers and WAN acceleration. Other organizations have multiple platforms from a single vendor, yet each has a different operating system and management system.
Enterprises don’t add devices for no reason; this equipment certainly has merit. However, they create challenges and additional cost for network operations. IT teams must hire or train team members on each vendor platform, which results in siloed skill sets. Each vendor platform will also have its own specific management requirements, which could include manual CLI or a web-based interface. Some of the newer solutions provide an SDN controller that enables management of many devices, but this also provides an application or an API which must be developed on. Each of these vendor management platforms usually comes with annual support costs as well.
The multi-vendor, multi-platform network needs automation, but not just any variety will do. It must support those vendors and be extensible to add features and additional vendor platforms. Ideally, the automation platform is able to abstract feature configuration away from the vendor-specific method so that when configuring the same feature, like a VLAN ID on a switch, the workflow is the same, even if the underlying network is using multiple switch vendors.
Seven Steps Toward Automation
The decision to automate is supported by a multi-step process:
- First off, get to a known state on the network and normalize all the configurations that will involve inventory, discovery and remediation. This will enable you to regain control of the existing network, since it has likely undergone manual changes for many years.
- Determine which are the most time-consuming tasks for IT operations and use them as a starting point to implement network automation. It may be spin-up of new sites, ongoing change management such as quality-of-service policies, accessing control lists, or upgrading devices.
- Choose a network automation platform based on whether it has the required feature set and vendor support. This often means moving away from a home-grown platform and determining if the right fit is a platform for developers or one that has features ready for IT operations – ideally, one that is open and extensible as well.
- Put audit capabilities in place and regularly check that the network “policy” is properly configured for each feature and enforced on the network.
- Begin defining the automation process early on, ideally in the test lab when the network engineer is providing the “golden config” as to how a network feature works. This is the time to define how it can be automated for implementation at scale. Instead of a single working configuration, develop a feature template that can be automated across all network devices.
- When implementing network automation, there is no stopping point; there is always more to do. Practicing continuous integration is a smart move. Start small, get some of the mundane tasks automated and then move on to more and more tasks over time.
- Drive all changes through the automation platform and begin to minimize manual changes by updating the change management control process.
From Awkward to Awesome
Complexity is often the enemy of efficiency. That is certainly the case in today’s multi-vendor networks. The flow of the data is too rapid and the number of processes in motion too vast for humans alone to manage. For the network to function properly, IT teams need automation and orchestration. Yes, there is often an awkward learning phase involved, but perseverance will pay off as teams realize the benefits of automating the mundane so they can provide true business value to their enterprises.
For more in-depth information about the future of networking, check out Aberdeen’s comprehensive research report, Catching the Next Networking Wave.
Olivier Huynh Van is the visionary inventor of Gluware technology and leads R&D for Glue Networks.