Automation and the Network Admin

Network automation is moving in lockstep with software-defined architectures and the emergence of Big Data and IoT infrastructure, which rightly has today’s network manager concerned that their role in the enterprise is about to be made obsolete.

But if the history of automation has proven anything, it’s that new human-driven functions emerge even as old ones are automated, allowing workers who leverage the technology correctly to enhance their value to their employer.

An interesting take on IT automation came from Ciena’s Joe Marsella recently, who compared today’s emerging technology to two of our beloved friends from Star Wars: R2-D2 and the newer BB-8. While R2 has cognitive abilities and a wealth of tools at his disposal to extricate himself from sticky situations, BB-8 represents a paradigm shift in the way he can assess his situation and adapt to it. In the first place, his ball design allows him to navigate much more diverse terrain that R2’s wheels and thrusters, while tethered hooks allow him to stabilize himself in an out-of-control space ship – a situation that sends R2 crashing into a bulkhead. Apply this to the enterprise network, and it shows how emerging automation platforms will be able to automatically adjust to shifting data patterns, outages and a host of other unforeseen events, all the while providing a sleeker, more streamlined footprint than today’s conglomeration of boxes, wires and divergent platforms.

This is primarily due to the fact that the next generation of automation will not simply address networking or even IT infrastructure, but all aspects of the business model. Companies like Zenoss and SaltStack are teaming up to enable event-driven automation that assesses existing and predicted operational requirements and then compiles the necessary hardware, software and related elements to achieve stated objectives. SaltStack provides intelligent orchestration for scale-out infrastructure and application stacks, which can tie into Zenoss’ hybrid IT monitoring and analytics systems to enable broad situational awareness of IT infrastructure and data patterns and then dynamically maintain optimal operating conditions and implement new apps and services without disrupting the old.

It is important to recognize, however, that not everything data-related is ripe for automation. As Mary Shacklett, president of technology research firm Transworld Data, noted recently, repetitive functions like resource provisioning and storage management can be easily adopted into intelligent, automated processes, but tasks that require higher-order intuition and judgement do not. These would include advanced customer service fulfillment, ruleset definition for specialized environments, and even most disaster recovery functions. Remember, automated processes, even intelligent ones, are limited by the parameters of their instructions, so they will never have the capacity to make the right call in every situation.

Which brings us back to the human operator’s role in an automated IT environment. On a fundamental level, today’s automation is no different from technology developments of the past – virtually all of which subsumed some form of human activity in order to improve productivity. A dozen field hands can be replaced by a single ox, while a tractor can do the work of a team of oxen. The challenge for workers, says network consultant Terry Slattery, is to get on the right side of the next wave of technological change by learning how to leverage it to improve your productivity. This won’t necessarily mean becoming a software coder, but it couldn’t hurt to become familiar with the new APIs and how they relate to VLANs, MPLS and other networking constructs.

Ultimately, automation will make IT administration more interesting and rewarding because it will take over nearly all of the boring, repetitive tasks that people hate to do while leaving the fun, creative stuff alone.

And who knows? Perhaps in time, IT will be able to shed its reputation as the department of “no” (No, you can’t have those resources. No, your application won’t be up next week, or next month) and take a seat at the table as an equal partner in the development of new business and the drive for greater productivity.

Arthur Cole covers networking and the data center for Enterprise Networking Planet and IT Business Edge. He has served as editor of numerous publications covering everything from audio/video production and distribution, multimedia and the Internet to video gaming.


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