Let’s face it – when it comes to a game of finger-pointing, the network team is where it all culminates. Any issue with an application that the development team cannot figure out or resolve is thrown over the wall to the NetOps team. Networks are known to be slow, unresponsive, and complex – reasons enough for DevOps to label them the bottleneck to agility.
But what if networks themselves could be made agile? Say it takes two days to service a network change request now. What if, by making changes to the way networks are managed, the same request could be serviced in half-an-hour? If your network team services hundreds of change requests a day, just imagine the amount of time that can be saved! The drastic reduction in turnaround times translates to more services being deployed to end-users, which in turn contributes to increased business. When the network is agile, everybody wins.
Below, we’ve listed down 5 rules that network administrators need to live by to drive network agility, and also some definitive pointers that can help you implement those rules. Read on.
5 Rules to Drive Network Agility
In the introduction, we alluded to some “small steps” that can be taken to steer NetOps towards intuitive, error-free, highly secure operations. In this section, we’ll discuss the resolutions that network teams must make to achieve the above objective.
Automate, automate, automate!
We can’t stress this enough. Most network complications arise because of manual, error-riddled processes that are a waste of time and resources. Automation, however, is sometimes an objective in itself and requires careful thought and meticulous planning to implement.
1. Identify manual, repetitive tasks
The simple yet tedious tasks that take up most of your workday are the tasks you need to automate right away. They could be routine configuration management, logging, or network-wide policy updates.
2. Standardize process workflows
Even out the bumps in your processes before you start automating. Standardizing and grouping processes helps you choose the best automation approach to take, lowers the incidence of errors, and increases the scope for collaboration.
3. Use APIs wherever possible
APIs allow you to orchestrate processes across devices, gather data from various sources, and integrate with cross-domain tools for holistic automation. Make sure the tools and devices you choose offer significant API functionality.
4. Invest in tools that fit your needs best
Choosing an automation tool that offers 30% of what you want and 70% sophisticated “features” that your network has no use for can only land you in trouble. Carefully analyze your network and evaluate multiple options before zeroing in on a tool.
5. Start small and expand as you go
Don’t try implementing an overarching automation strategy at one go. Start with the less complex but highly repetitive tasks (as mentioned at first), and once you’re confident enough about automation, gradually implement it for all your network operations.
Too much complexity just renders the network harder to manage. Ward off technical debt (unnecessary network complexity and rigidity) by taking a strategic, and not a tactical one, to achieve network agility.
1. Avoid incremental modifications
Frequently adding/modifying configurations to the network on a need-basis without proper planning can add layers of complexity to the infrastructure. Analyze the network first and determine if the result can/cannot be achieved with the existing configurations.
2. Virtualize wherever possible
Virtualization of network components like firewalls and load-balancers helps utilize the existing hardware to its optimal capacity, removes complexity, and results in enormous cost savings. It also enables the implementation of modern concepts like Network Functions Virtualization (NVF) and Software-Defined Networking (SDN)
3. Avoid vendor lock-ins
To drive stickiness, most vendors frequently increase the complexity of their products by way of “new features” and force customers to invest in specialized platforms to manage those products. Avoid vendor lock-ins by opting only for those features that you require, and investing in a vendor-agnostic platform.
4. Allow for oversight and governance
The secret to building a simple but secure and efficient infrastructure is good governance. Scanning your network routinely, discovering devices and components, and monitoring the health and performance of the devices will help you cut down the excesses and keep only what’s essential.
5. Embrace Net/Sec/DevOps approach
There’s often plenty of overlap between DevOps, SecOps, and NetOps, given that all three operations are interconnected. The extent of overlap, however, varies from one organization to another. I&O leaders must identify these regions of overlap and leverage them to invest in one tool that meets the requirements of three teams, rather than three separate tools for each.
Open up the network to DevSecOps
Most change requests coming the NetOps way have something to do with the application services infrastructure (firewalls and load balancers). Giving DevSecOps teams access to certain parts of the network reduces the strain on NetOps while driving fruitful collaboration.
1. Enable DevSecOps to self-service change requests
Create and share workflows for application-centric operations like application provisioning and updating firewall policies with the DevSecOps team. They can execute the workflows as needed without relying on network teams, bringing down delays.
2. Share customized dashboards for management
Enable application owners to monitor and manage application performance by giving them customized dashboards from which they can control traffic flows, perform emergency failovers, disable/enable servers, etc.
3. Implement role-based access controls
Enforce security with granular access permissions on various network operations by the stakeholders involved. Make sure application owners are granted access only to their applications to prevent accidental tampering.
4. Maintain logs of configuration changes
When you have multiple teams managing the network, it’s essential to have a proper change-tracking mechanism in place. This way, if there’s some accidental misconfiguration, the network administrator can refer to the logs to ascertain where the mistake is and revert to the prior configuration if required.
Take a proactive approach to troubleshooting
Don’t wait for issues to pop up before you resolve them. Institute an effective network monitoring system to identify potential troubles and preemptively remediate them. This guarantees high availability of applications and a low incidence of vulnerabilities.
1. Have your network devices accounted for
The first step to proactive troubleshooting is to inventory all network components, across vendors and infrastructures. Run frequent network scans, discover devices, nodes, and other configuration items, and keep your CMDB updated at all times.
2. Routinely backup configurations
Schedule configuration backups that you can store in your remote data center or the cloud. In case a configuration change fails or a troubleshooting maneuver doesn’t go as planned, you can easily roll the system back to the previous configuration.
3. Increase infrastructure visibility
Clearing out complexity helps gain more visibility into the network, which in turn aids faster issue identification, diagnostics, and resolution. Create application-centric network topology maps (automation tools can again be of help here) to identify and eliminate potential vulnerabilities and single points of failure.
4. Continuously monitor and test network performance
Collecting and analyzing data from network nodes in real-time can help predict outliers before they occur. This is done by NPMD (Network Performance Monitoring and Diagnostics) tools, or advanced AI-powered network automation tools that offer this feature. Further, routine disaster recovery drills and network failure testing should be done to determine failover characteristics and bring down MTTR.
5. Introduce context into the remediation process
When automating remediation, see to it that the tool doesn’t treat it as an isolated process, but rather as a part of the big scheme of network operations. This way, you can ensure the steps taken during remediation do not negatively affect the normal operations in some other segment of the network.
6. Stay in the know of troubleshooting
Make sure your team is immediately alerted of any deviance or discrepancy that the tool detects during troubleshooting. Get detailed reports on the issue that warranted troubleshooting, the subsequent steps taken to resolve the issue, and the current state and performance of the network – all that would help in planning for the future.
Pay close attention to network security
Ensuring security is the responsibility of not just the security team, but the network and application teams as well – the ramifications of a security breach range from outages to loss of data to near-bankruptcy. But with the right strategy and tools, an organization can effectively be made breach-proof. Here’s how.
1. Ensure endpoint security with access controls
Prevent unwelcome visitors to your infrastructure by enforcing stringent authorization measures. Clearly define roles and access permissions to enable secure collaboration across teams, devices, and applications.
2. Make sure your firewalls are properly configured
Network and web application firewalls are the first line-of-defence against a range of threats, such as DDoS, malware injection, etc. A carefully-devised firewall policy management system can go a long way in ensuring the security of your network and applications.
3. Frequently scan your network for vulnerabilities
As discussed already, routinely scanning the network exposes vulnerabilities and helps in sealing them before they blow up. Security Orchestration, Automation and Response (SOAR) is a concept that’s fast catching-on, and well worth looking into.
4. Protect your network with device certificates
Certificates aren’t just for applications; they’re for network devices too. SSH keys and certificates provide a secure route for devices to talk to each other. Make sure your devices have certificates on them to prevent unauthorized communication and subsequent attacks on the network.
5. Conduct regular audits to ensure compliance
Common issues such as configuration drift and shadow IT can be discovered and remediated with regular internal audits. It also ensures compliance with the company’s policies and helps in formulating plans to strengthen the security landscape.
AppViewX AUTOMATION+ is a leading network orchestration platform that monitors, manages, and automates Layer 2 to Layer 7 devices – from switches and routers, through ADCs and firewalls. It helps drive network agility by making the infrastructure intuitive and automated. Know more about AUTOMATION+ here.