When DevOps Turns into NetOps

DevOps is rapidly taking over the enterprise IT model, which naturally means it will incorporate networking to a great degree. In fact, you can’t have DevOps without NetOps, so like it or not, today’s network engineer will have to learn how to function as part of a development and operational team in the fairly near future.

Still, what’s different in a NetOps environment? How will the day-to-day responsibilities differ from the hands-on network management of today?  

Cisco is hoping to answer these and other questions with a new DevNet community designed to foster the programming and other skills needed to support the app-centric, continuous integration/development (CI/CD) workflows of a DevOps environment. 

As Cisco’s Susie Wee explained to DevOps.com recently, one of the chief advantages of DevOps is that it allows applications to be deployed directly on the general-purpose silicon found in most routers and switches, allowing Cisco ASICs to vastly reduce latency by focusing strictly on network functions. The end result of this is that networking skill sets will be divided into two classes: those that support traditional application development, and those that allow network infrastructure to be managed as code.

For NetOps to truly shine, the network layer itself requires a high degree of automation. This is what Opengear is striving for with its new NetOps Automation system, which leverages platforms like the Lighthouse management stack and LogZilla event management to support vendor-neutral automation of NetOps workflows. The system enables initial provisioning, configuration management, re-provisioning, disaster recovery and other functions using a secure, zero-touch approach, giving network managers the ability to define network requirements within the DevOps process without slowing it down with a lengthy string of manual tasks. 

Nevertheless, this will require a vastly different mindset on the part of network specialists. Not only will they shed the dull drudgery of provisioning, configuration and manual troubleshooting, they will also have to rethink the very notion of what constitutes a proper network. As F5’s Lori MacVittie noted to Networks Asia recently, DevOps introduces the concept of the “minimum viable product” (MVP), the most basic level of functionality needed to get a service up and running. Once that’s accomplished, add-ons and improvements can be implemented fairly quickly, most of them guided by user feedback. When applied to the networking component, this means the app is launched even if connectivity is not perfect, which to today’s tech is a big no-no. With CI/CD, of course, it can be continuously improved over time, but even this is a big change from today’s method of creating a full network ecosystem for one application before moving on to the next. 

This is what most experts mean when they say DevOps is more of a cultural shift than a technological one. Still, as Solutions Review’s Tyler W. Stearns notes, NetOps differs from the rest of DevOps in one crucial way: new networking tools like automation and SDN are driving the cultural shift, whereas elsewhere the cultural shift is driving the development of new tools. In most cases, the tools catering to NetOps are not intended to boost speed, as is usually the case in traditional network environments, but to improve qualities like reliability, flexibility and overall innovation.  In this light, expect network performance tools to take center stage going forward, rather than routers, switches and other devices, touting steadily higher throughput and bandwidth.

None of this promises to be easy. In fact, the failure rate for DevOps initiatives is about 78 percent, according to Second Watch. But those who have figured it out are poised to lead the digital economy in the coming decade, and networking will undoubtedly be a crucial element in their success.

The way we manage networks may change radically in the next few years, but networking’s importance to the business model will be as strong as ever. 

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

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