What are Virtual Network Assistants?

Companies are increasingly managing their LAN, WLAN, WAN, and SD-WAN with virtual network assistants (VNA). VNAs are just one way that enterprises are harnessing the power of artificial intelligence (AI) and IT hyperautomation for network management. 

A virtual network assistant is an AI-driven network monitoring tool that:

  • Gives network administrators insight into the network’s performance, such as bandwidth.
  • Helps with troubleshooting.
  • Indicates the health of the network’s software, such as virtual firewalls, virtual routers, and network management software.

VNAs cannot be separated from broader trends in the networking space, and this gives key vendors in this space their competitive edge.

VNAs are Part of Broader IT Trends

The broader category of virtual assistants is experiencing explosive growth, projecting to reach a value of just under $51 billion USD by 2028. Though this category includes sectors like retail, virtual assistants for networking purposes are certainly part of this trend. The narrower market of network automation alone is forecasted to reach a value of over $32 billion by 2027.

VNAs have emerged because of hyperautomation and the growing functionality of software-defined wide-area networks (SD-WAN). 

VNAs are born out of a broader trend towards hyperautomation. Hyperautomation describes enterprises’ increasing adoption of not only virtual network assistants but also robotic process automation, low-code application platforms, and AI. 

The difference between automation and hyperautomation lies in the breadth of tools companies utilize for an automated approach to managing their IT network. Vendors sometimes collect these tools under one roof in the form of a hyperautomation platform.

Also read: Best Network Automation Tools for 2022

In addition, VNAs have emerged as SD-WANs gain in popularity and accrue more AI capability. While SD-WAN vendors first combined network and security functionality, they are also adding AI capability, such as a VNA, to their product purview. Augmenting SD-WAN functionality enables network administrators to manage, secure, and automate their networks.

Why VNAs are Important for Networking

Virtual network assistants are just one AI-driven hyperautomation tool that stands at the intersection of automation and AI. While automation is often merely rules-based, VNAs take automation a step further because of their AI capabilities. They adapt, assist in decisions that benefit the network, and even learn how to make decisions on their own without needing human intervention.

VNAs are particularly useful for network security and troubleshooting.

Read more: What is AI for Networking?

Security

VNAs automate and streamline devices’ connection to the network. They scour device logs and data—whether structured or unstructured—to enforce and learn from established security policies for a device or group of devices. 

They learn, for example, by detecting deviations from the policy and alerting network engineers to such deviations. They are constantly learning from user behavior. 

Read more: Best Network Security Software & Tools of 2022

Troubleshooting

Comparing historical data to real-time data, a VNA can learn from previous security incidents to anticipate and remediate future network glitches.

A VNA is capable of sifting through terabytes of data—from firmware, equipment, activity logs, and other indicators—to uncover a network problem. 

If external or internal end users have a subpar app experience, a VNA can assist that user through a conversational interface or other data sources. Taking in the data from a chat conversation as one of several sources of terabytes of data, the VNA automatically generates an IT ticket that, in turn, helps internal users, namely network administrators, diagnose and correct the issue. Even better, the VNA is capable of solving some problems all on its own.

Key Vendors and What Their VNAs Do

VNAs are available separately or as part of a hyperautomation AIOps platform. Several vendors offer network automation agents under the name virtual network assistant (Juniper), digital network assistant (Masergy), automated network assistant (Loni), or with no specific, catchy name at all (Moogsoft, Zif, and Broadcom).

Juniper’s Marvis VNA

Juniper’s Marvis Virtual Network Assistant—formerly known as Mist Virtual Network Assistant—is one of the most well-known VNAs on the market today and is used for enterprise WLANs, LANs, and WANs. 

The Marvis VNA is designed with network administrators in mind. It works in conjunction with Marvis Action to monitor the health of the Juniper Mist network. It also harnesses the power of AI to sift through data and logs to generate insights about the root cause of network problems. Beyond diagnosis, however, Marvis corrects the issue itself—using Marvis Actions—or makes smart recommendations to network administrators on how to remedy the problem. 

Marvis even has a conversational assistant that understands user intent by contextualizing their requests to accelerate what they are trying to achieve, such as troubleshooting a network issue or finding a device on the network. Either way, Marvis’s Mist AI engine collects data from each remediation in order to learn from it. 

Read more: The Role of AI and ML in Enterprise Networking

Massage’s Digital Network Assistant 

Masergy launched its AIOps digital network assistant that integrates with SD-WANs to analyze and monitor the network and its applications for performance and security. 

Like Marvis, this virtual network assistant acts as a virtual network engineer by alerting and advising network admin on how to best handle network vulnerabilities. 

Loni’s Automated Network Assistant (ANA)

Loni also offers an automated network assistant on its device, vendor, and infrastructure agnostic networking platform.

Like Marvis, Loni’s ANA also features a conversational interface and runs on machine learning and natural language processing, however, it can also respond to voice commands.

Moogsoft’s AIOps Platform

Moogsoft deploys AI to prioritize threats and provide network professionals with only the most pressing network concerns. 

In the process of scanning the network for threats, Moogsoft picks up on anomalies through deduplication and correlation and reports on the most likely cause of the deviation. 

After identifying the root cause, Moogsoft suggests a recommended course of action that the network engineer can either accept or override in favor of a different approach. 

Zif AIOps Platform

Zif’s AIOps solution includes a variety of features to ensure a network is performing at its best. The platform includes:

  • Predictive analytics
  • Real-time network topology mapping
  • Automatic app discovery
  • End-to-end monitoring 

Zif predicts resource utilization, usage patterns, and incident volume with a high degree of accuracy, keeping NetOps teams ahead of the curve. Though Zif ingests data from a range of sources, it helps network administrators pay attention only to the high priority threats to the network’s performance. It also does the heavy lifting by running over 500 pre-defined workflows for routine, repetitive tasks.

Broadcom’s AIOps and Observability

Broadcom offers AIOps Observability that monitors the network through full tech stack observability, prioritizes network issues for NetOps teams, and ultimately helps NetOps align network performance with business goals.

Broadcom addresses the end-user perspective—whether that user is internal, like an employee, or external, like a vendor or customer—with its Appneta product. 

Appneta provides a comprehensive understanding of users’ network experience and usage of apps, ISP, SaaS, and cloud provider networks. This means that network administrators can monitor the performance of any application or program on the network for any user, any location, and at any time. They can proactively identify and address issues before the end user ever notices.

Like other vendors, to monitor the network, Broadcom’s solution compares data from apps, network services, devices and other components of the tech stack. It then applies AI and automation to provide visibility and actionable, data-driven insights to network administrators.  

What differentiates Broadcom’s AIOps solution is that it can be both domain-centric and domain-agnostic. Domain-centric AIOps solutions are designed for first-party data, which is data that the company collects and owns. Domain-agnostic AIOps solutions, on the other hand, are able to draw from various data sets and data types for analysis and insights. It’s best to have an AIOps platform that can handle homogenous data from one part of the organization as well as data from the organization’s broader digital ecosystem.

Read more: Top AIOps Tools & Platforms of 2022

Benefits of VNAs

Virtual network assistants elevate an enterprise’s network management by:

  • Saving network professionals time by collecting information and taking care of manual tasks.
  • Allowing network engineers to focus on more strategic projects and tasks.
  • Increasing network efficiency and performance through accelerated network troubleshooting.
  • Improving end-user experience and thus fostering greater customer satisfaction.
  • Reducing and preventing downtime.
  • Enhancing network performance and security.
  • Reducing human error, which causes up to 70% of network failures.

Enhance Your Network With a VNA

VNAs are not so much a replacement of network engineers as they are an extension of them. VNAs assist human network administrators by helping them do their job more efficiently, as they spend roughly 20% of their time troubleshooting wireless networks and are prone to error.  

Since VNAs help network engineers manage, secure, and optimize increasingly complex enterprise networks, vendors are likely to add some form of a virtual agent or improve their current VNA tool.

Read next: The Future of Network Management with AIOps 

Lauren Hansen
Lauren Hansen
Lauren Hansen is a writer for TechnologyAdvice, covering IT strategy and trends, enterprise networking, and PM software for CIOInsight.com, enterprisenetworkingplanet.com, project-management.com, and technologyadvice.com. When she's not writing about technology trends, she's working out or spending time with family.

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