Networks have always been a critical part of any IT infrastructure, but despite increasing demand and complexity, network operations have not changed dramatically in the last twenty years.
Becoming an early adopter of innovative practices can be a gamble, even more so when an organisation is reliant on a technology to work. If network connectivity is down, everything is down regardless of how many redundant servers, databases and applications organisations might have.
Network solutions have evolved with the rise of SD-WAN, SDN and Cloud Networking, but a conserative ‘if it’s not broken, don’t fix it” approach has stifled innovation with regards to network operations. Network Engineers are still manually connecting via SSH to network devices to perform configuration and troubleshooting tasks.
The networking world has tentatively sought validation from other industries to accept and adopt automation. DevOps demonstrating predictable outcomes over the last few years, coupled with demands from users, applications and businesses has forced the industry to rethink both practices and attitudes.
What Is Network Automation?
Often appearing under the moniker of NetOps or NetDevOps, Network Automation is the process of automating the operations of physical and virtual devices within a network. NetOps has taken inspiration from DevOps but focuses on transforming network operations within an organisation. Although both drive efficiency, speed up internal processes and improve agility, whereas DevOps often adopts a risk tasking, iterative approach, NetOps prioritises uptime and minimises risk.
What Are The Benefits?
The benefits of more stable, scalable and resilient networks have teased the industry from eering on the side of caution. Alongside being a huge technological advantage, network automation has allowed organisations to achieve crucial business goals.
Increasing Operational Efficiency: Automated provisioning allows organisations to accelerate service delivery to customers from weeks to just hours. Automated change management shrinks maintenance windows from hours to minutes, minimising downtime and business impact.
Cost Reduction: Replacing lengthy, repetitives (and often error prone) taks with automation greatly reduces man-hours and cuts costs dramatically. Replacing manual tasks with predictable, repeatable network changes will increase productivity and create simpler management tasks.
Staff Retention: IT professionals, like most, do not like to be inundated with boring repetitive and monotonous tasks. Alleviating such tasks allows professionals to perform more fulfilling tasks that lead to drive business growth and personal development.
Compliance & Risk Management: Financial institutions and other industry-regulated organisations very often rely on security audit reports from the distant past. Automated security audits ensure that network device configuration is compliant with best practices and industry standards at all times.
Why Now Is The Right Time To Automate?
Network Automation has been mooted as a method of delivering more efficient services at a reduced cost, while freeing up IT teams to innovate. But what validation factors have led to the practices being adopted considering years of hesitancy?
Maturity Of DevOps: As discussed earlier, NetDevOps looked to validation from DevOps which has become a mature approach in organisations across the world. It has proved to be hugely valuable and transformed systems provision and orchestration in the deployments of all scales, giving the endorsement to transfer the concept into the network world.
Proliferation Of Tools: Six to seven years ago, organisations would have faced the daunting challenge of developing tools from scratch. There is now a great variety of open source tools available – Python libraries (Paramiko, Nornir, Batfish), automation platform Ansible, CI/CD tool Jenkins and many more. Spinning up a first automated use case now requires far less investment.
Network Vendors & Producers: Predicting this coming trend, vendors and producers introduced best-practice automation guidelines for their hardware and software. Many of the latest network devices and platforms deliver rich API interfaces to provide specialists with unparalleled flexibility to automate.
Knowledge Sharing: Becoming accustomed to NetDevOps has become easier thanks to the amount of information, courses, blog articles and guides available online. A greater number of resources also allows Network professionals to remain familiar with the latest technologies, trends and tools.