Automation is Tricky, So Get Started Now

If you think you have time to figure out how to automate your network, think again. The technology is quickly entering the mainstream, despite the many questions as to what exactly should be automated, and how.

According to Ciena and ACG Research, three-quarters of current network providers expect to achieve full or nearly full network automation in the next five years, driven by demands for faster service delivery, improved customer satisfaction and increased agility. The two critical elements of an effective network automation stack are analytics and security. Other factors such as programmability and access to performance data rate higher in some organizations than others. But more than half of the survey field considers openness and interoperability as very important to their automated environment, and more than 80 percent plan to use open source software in some capacity.

At first blush, the fact that network automation is also taking place alongside other significant changes to infrastructure, namely hyperconvergence and hyperscalability, may appear to be a significant challenge. But if handled properly, the enterprise may be able to turn this to its advantage. Emerging hyperconverged platforms like Nutanix may provide the means to implement network automation far more quickly compared to legacy infrastructure with the addition of systems like Big Switch’s Big Cloud Fabric (BCF). Big Switch is currently demoing BCF in conjunction with the Nutanix Acropolis Hypervisor as a means to provide seamless orchestration and full visibility into HCI environments. The companies are calling it an “easy button” for the software defined data center. The fabric is compatible with industry-standard switches from Dell EMC, HPE and others, as well.

Meanwhile, Cisco is drawing a sizable developer community to its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) platform in order to provide a wide range of automation, security and other functions. One recent addition is NetBrain Technologies, which makes dynamic network mapping, visibility and other tools to support automated intent-based provisioning and management. The company recently extended its toolkit to ACI via the platform’s REST-based Application Policy Infrastructure Controller (APIC), giving NetBrain the ability to learn about physical and logical constructs of an ACI environment. In this way, NetBrain Executable Runbooks can be used to automate tasks like troubleshooting, access control and performance data analysis.

Organizations should also look to extend automation beyond the data center and onto the campus network and the cloud. Arista Networks recently announced a new Cognitive Cloud Networking solution aimed at incorporating IoT-style networking across distributed architectures with an eye toward maintaining operational consistency and data-driven analytics in multi-platform environments. The system leverages the EOS operating system and CloudVision orchestration stack to flatten out multi-tiered architectures in favor of a simplified Spline-based topology that can more easily extend to multiple sites. At the same time, it features an open Cognitive Management Plane that combines a state repository, a computational engine and key application components to provide stable horizontal clustering for mixed-vendor device environments.

Ultimately, there isn’t much of the network stack that automation will not be able to touch. But that doesn’t mean the enterprise can simply add an automation layer on top of existing management platforms and then let it go to work. With the kinds of advanced, intelligent automation systems entering the channel, it is best to take a gradual approach – automating the most routine, predictable aspects of network management first before moving on to higher-order functions.

It’s for that reason that the enterprise needs to embark on its automation journey now. Waiting too long will force you into a forklift upgrade later to avoid falling behind on the productivity curve that more automated organizations will be seeing.

And rushing through a transition like this is a sure-fire way to make things worse before you can make them better.

Arthur Cole is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering enterprise IT, telecommunications and other high-tech industries.

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