Network Automation: From Dream to Reality

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Network automation offers a compelling vision of what data environments could be, but most enterprises are still struggling with the practical issues of implementing the technology on legacy infrastructure.

This should come as no surprise, considering the network is the one piece of the data ecosystem that touches literally everything. Add to this the fact that what was once a relatively closed, internal environment is now a global architecture consisting of multiple third-party deployments, and it becomes clear that the biggest obstacle to automating the network is the network itself.

To be sure, there are compelling reasons to forge ahead despite the uncertainties. According to Orbis Research, the network automation field is set to grow nearly 50 percent over the next five years as everybody from IT and telecommunications firms to manufacturers, banks and utilities strive to bring a little order to their chaotic data operations. For the typical enterprise, the prize at the bottom of the automation box is the ability to manage bandwidth consumption more effectively and extend visibility into distributed data environments, which are already moving past the cloud to the Internet of Things (IoT) edge. Ideally, this will translate into reduced downtime and better performance in an increasingly service-based economy.

Still, the dream of an “automated network” remains elusive. Network analytics firm Kentik Technologies reports that a recent survey of network managers shows that many are growing disillusioned with the whole concept. This is primary the result of buzzword fatigue from the multiple platforms entering the channel all promising automation in one form or another. Terms like “artificial intelligence” and “machine learning” are particularly problematics, because they are widely seen as effective only if they have access to extremely large data sets related to network operations – a requirement that few organizations are currently prepared to meet.

As well, few enterprises are comfortable with the security challenges that automation presents, even as many organizations move forward with implementation. As Ciena’s Rebecca Prudhomme pointed out recently, the stakes are much higher when securing an automated network as opposed to a non-automated one. With mundane tasks like provisioning and forwarding now carried out rapidly and at scale, a single error or piece of malicious code can easily be replicated thousands, even millions, of times. Going forward, the enterprise will likely have to de-emphasize traditional security measures like firewalls in favor of more stringent access control and data encryption.

But probably the biggest challenge to automating the network is getting started. Network consultant and Netcordia founder Terry Slattery says that while any new technology these days should be evaluated according to key goals that the enterprise has set for itself, most network automation deployments should focus on four key benefits:

  • Initial provisioning – a must for organizations planning to network a large number of devices from multiple vendors
  • Configuration management – to handle configuration drift, performance upgrades and the like
  • OS upgrades – not only for improved performance and efficiency, but better security as well
  • Operational validation – to continuously ensure that everything is working as it should
  • From there, the process follows the familiar trajectory of platform evaluation, testing, initial roll-out and scaled deployment — but don’t expect any of these steps to be trouble-free.

In the end, network automation is like any other technology: it hit the channel with big promises of a sparkling new way of doing things, then ran headlong into the reality of actual production environments before finding some level of equilibrium between what exists today and what was promised.

It is very doubtful that we’ll ever have a fully intelligent, autonomous, hands-free network environment. However, it’s a good bet that we will get something that is far more flexible, scalable and budget-friendly than what we have now.

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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