Network Automation, Done Right. Give Your Network Teams a Platform

Saju Pillai –Chief Executive Officer, Idea Device

Technology is transitioning intranet connected applications to internet connected applications and from there to software delivered as a service and now on cloud, be it public, private or hybrid. Networking has thus emerged as one of the more complex necessary evils within an organisation. Recent surveys shows that companies believe that downtime on networking costs an average $ 300,000 per hour in a datacenter. Of the 1300 respondents indicated that human error was the main cause of downtime.

With these new technologies, server virtualisations, cloud models and SaaS, the time to deploy a server has dropped from a few days or weeks to a matter of minutes or seconds. However when you have to manually provision the network to bring these servers into production, it often takes days to deliver. Zero-touch provisioning methods are being looked into, but unless you develop an in-house solution for this, this has been hard to do.

Complexity of not only deploying, but also maintaining and supporting these systems have increased and most companies are now looking at “Total Outsourcing Contracts” to deal with this. This has resulted in a rise in manual errors, loss of control and dropping of SLAs of IT.

Automation teams in IT

For a few years now, automation has been seen as the key to unlocking this knot. IT organisations in competitive industries, especially in finance and technology space, are setting up automation teams within their IT. These teams look at different IT processes and explore opportunities to automate different aspects of it. The main focus of this is to reduce manual errors, improve speed of execution, improve SLA adherence, thus making IT more nimble, agile and ready to scale.

Automation teams are trying to use orchestrators to pin together various tasks that needs to be executed. These can span over multiple devices and scheduled as per the process. Orchestrators work with monitors and service desk tools. Processes can be converted into a flow diagram of tasks. Typical examples of orchestrator related tasks are beginning of day (BOD) activities that does health checks on the complete infrastructure including network devices. If a particular router is down, an orchestrator can bring up another router, copy over the configurations from this new router and switch network route to this.

Current automation tools market is hardly complete. IT now has to fork out for different tools for different automation capabilities. This has led to much lower rates of adoption than what is currently needed. Some of the negative aspects we have seen in tools in the market are:

• Need to install agents. If you have to automate a machine, you need to install a third party agent on that machine.

• No good, intuitive user interface to design a workflow.

• Writing workflow often requires professional services from the provider.

• Fragmented and hence buying more tools ultimately increase your total cost of ownership

Foundations of an Automation tool

Gartner’s recently published “Know IT process automation” claims that all IT Process Automation(ITPA) tools are composed of three main functions:

• A workflow “designer” provides a mechanism to document the process workflow. Vendors provide templates of “canned” workflows.

• The automation engine is the heart of the tool.

• A framework or API enables integration with other tools, visualisations, dashboards, monitoring, debugging and reporting on workflow execution or other performance metrics.

Apart from the above, a good automation tool should give you an agent-less architecture with an intuitive user interface and a workflow system that can be mastered quickly so that your automation team can be productive with the platform within weeks. Ability to integrate with different kinds of devices from different providers are very important.

One very important aspect to consider for while buying a tool is not to go for a vendor specific platform. There are quite a few tools out there that work well with other applications of the same vendor, but are quite rough when dealing with other platforms. This will create vendor lock-ins where you will lose the freedom to switch not only the automation platform, but also all the other tools in your ecosystem. Remember when you are making this call, this is a 5 to 10 year timeframe you are looking at. Your network requirements and demands could drastically change during this time frame.

What your automation teams need are construction kits. Each comes with different sizes and shapes building materials to build out the specific design. This building material can be thought of as the content and prebuilt scripts that orchestrate various automation scenarios (for example, provisioning, fault and event recovery, cloud automation). While understanding the type and diversity of the content that the tools come with is important, it is imperative to understand that there will still be a requirement to customise it to meet your specific environment requirements. In the end you will need to customise to your needs, processes and ecosystem, hence your tool has to be general purpose tool which can integrate with a wide range of systems.

Automation teams within IT is what will drive the agility, speed of execution, scalability and ultimately the competitiveness of your IT and your organisation. They’ll need a platform be able to deliver that.