Network automation is the practice of automating configuration, provisioning, management, testing, maintenance, and operation of a network and its devices – both physical and virtual.
The term network automation applies to the automation of network processes such as change management, configuration management, device discovery and inventory, device provisioning, etc. These processes are chiefly manual, and conversely error-prone and time-consuming. Automating them helps enterprises save time, reduces errors, lower operating expenses, and improve network efficiency.
Networks are traditionally automated through CLI of devices, in which case the scope of automation is limited to a device or a module at best. It requires network engineers to have prior knowledge of programming languages, which not everybody has. Command-line scripting works for standard processes and consistent procedures but falls apart if strategic changes are made to the infrastructure and operations. This way, it acts as a dampener to adopting newer network technologies – network engineers who are used to making changes on the CLI are hesitant to try out any new thing that doesn’t support command-line scripting.
Newer automation methodologies endorse the use of GUI-based software that eliminate the need to code and also make the automation itself quicker and more efficient. Automation depends heavily on the network devices’ having APIs – one of the main reasons why legacy systems aren’t amenable to it.
The evolving digital landscape requires businesses to shift gears and embrace agility – something that the DevOps (development and operations teams) have done already. Networks, however, are traditionally known to be slow and unresponsive. Their complex, bulky nature combined with manual operations makes them prone to delays – deploying one configuration change can take days. With applications and changes being churned out at a rapid pace, manually managed networks become a bottleneck in deploying those changes, thereby decelerating the business processes as a whole.
Automating networks makes them agile and responsive to changes, dramatically supporting DevOps initiatives. It also makes networks more secure by eliminating the errors that accompany manual processes.
Improved operational efficiency: Automating network tasks gets them done in less than half the time it takes to do the same tasks manually, significantly improving efficiency.
Reduced probability of errors: Since the human factor is removed from complex network processes, the likelihood of errors due to negligence and oversight goes down.
Lower operational expenses: This benefit is a consequence of the previous two benefits. Reduction in time, errors, and improved efficiency make the network fast and agile, which in turn aids application development and deployment initiatives. Businesses are thus able to achieve faster results at reduced costs. Automation also cuts down the resources that need to be allocated to repetitive network tasks and puts them instead to good use, resulting in further cost savings.
With enterprises increasingly realizing the value in automating networks, there are several methods, tools, platforms, and software for both CLI-based and GUI-based automation.
As discussed in a previous section, CLI is traditionally used as the means for network automation, but it requires scripting knowledge, which makes it a poor choice for complex networks. However, there are open-source tools such as Red Hat Ansible, Chef, and Puppet that provide a library of CLI-based commands that can be deployed, modified, and reused for various tasks.
An improvement from CLI-based tools is proprietary GUI-based software offered by network device vendors. Though these GUI-based software greatly simplify network management and automation, they’re vendor-specific. This can prove to be very expensive for enterprises that employ network devices by different vendors, as they have to invest in a multitude of such software.
Then there are GUI-based platforms that are vendor-agnostic. These platforms, once deployed, manage all devices that are added in their inventory, regardless of the vendor. Apart from being easy to use, they’re also less expensive than their vendor-specific counterparts as one such platform can replace several other proprietary ones.
Below are a set of tried-and-tested practices to effectively automate networks:
Take a thorough inventory of your network devices and components – servers, switches, routers, firewalls, ADCs, LANs, and VLANs. Gather and maintain accurate data (or Network Source of Truth), like versions, health and performance metrics, and a log of service changes they’ve undergone over the years. This will help you determine how ready your network is to automation, and whether it requires some fundamental restructuring.
Start by making a list of the top time-consuming, resource-hungry, usually repetitive processes in your network. These are the ones that you should automate right away. They could be change management, processes associated with network configuration (those two that were mentioned in a result above), or anything that would be better off automated.
Choose an automation platform that’s best aligned with your business processes, existing IT technologies, and needs. See if it checks most, if not all, the boxes on your automation platform must-have list. Other than cost and a mandatory feature-set, the list may include points like vendor support, scalability, and the ability to integrate/work alongside your existing solution(s), if any.
Gartner says that a siloed view toward tool acquisitions critically undermines network automation initiatives for nearly 70% of enterprises. Often, there’s considerable overlap between the requirements of NetOps, SecOps, and DevOps teams that can be met by extending the capabilities of the purchased tool. Not involving the teams in the acquisition discussions can result in serious gaps in overall operations.
The platform needs some getting-used-to before it can be deployed effectively. Make sure your engineers are given appropriate training by the vendor to acclimatize them to the platform. Even the most powerful tool can yield abysmal results when not used properly.
It’s natural for devices to gradually veer off the track with changes and updates to the network (known as configuration drift). With time, such incremental deviations can amount to a critical violation that can wreak havoc on your network. Make sure your automation platform keeps your network in line with security measures and policies by routinely conducting audits that help you detect and remediate those deviations as and when they occur.
Don’t just stop with automating one or two processes. With the right platform, most moderately modern networks can be made amenable to full-cycle orchestration. Once you’ve got the desired results with the platform in the initial phases of automation, gradually step-up its scope and let it take over the entire network and all of its processes.
Sensible network automation is key to adopting newer network technologies like software-defined networking (SDN), intent-based networking (IBN), and network function virtualization (NFV), that are much needed in the highly-digitalized business environment. The future is in the cloud, which means the automation should span hybrid and multi-cloud environments, along with the traditional on-premise ones.
As enterprises scale up their networks and adopt new technologies, threats to the network go up too. Network automation platforms should not just limit themselves to automation, but also keep networks secure with intuitive vulnerability detection and mitigation methods.
Incorporating AI and ML into network automation methodologies can help enterprises go a long way in keeping their network agile, secure, and updated.