In my last blog post, I defined network automation as a range of technologies, from script-level automation to policy-based networking, that automate manual tasks. In this post, I'll explain the benefits network automation offers network administrators, including a reduction of monotonous tasks and streamlined change control.
Here is how network automation can change your day and benefit the business.
Process improvements. The network administrator's workday gets simpler by reducing tedious tasks. This enables IT teams to be proactive rather than being reactive when systems detect problems automatically and react to resolve them. Troubleshooting can be done quickly when automated systems examine systems continuously.
Change control transformed. Automation avoids the cycle of “file a ticket, examine, approve, configure, verify.” You need to be careful if the automation systems perform what usually requires change control approval; it will bypass the controls put in place to inform various stakeholders. If the automation system lets you review a suggested change and get change control approval before implementing it, it may be a way to get started slowly until the IT department and end users are comfortable with automated decisions and changes.
Of course, this technique won’t work with real-time changes that some systems provide, such as automatic path selection, which can’t wait for a review cycle that takes human-scale reaction time.
Service-level improvements. If automation performs tasks quickly, you may be improving your service levels without even knowing it. Time to celebrate! But note that people’s expectations may be improved, so if you ever need to turn off automation, make sure that you’re not held to a higher service level since you may not be able to meet it.
Delegation of tasks. Policy-based networking enables different groups to perform networking design decisions. For example, the combination of corporate security, the apps development team, and the networking team can declare, “The web tier talks to the apps server only, and the app tier can talk to the database, and the database does not talk to the web servers.”
However, the configuration of items such as network fabrics, VLANs, and access control lists occur automatically behind the scenes. Products like the Cisco Application Policy Infrastructure Controller Enterprise Module figure out how to handle those functions in an automated manner, but the end user doesn't worry how it’s done. In SDN systems designed for cloud infrastructure such as OpenStack, it’s possible for the tenants of a private cloud to perform self-service network provisioning and configuration without the networking team’s involvement. This is a turn-key operation that's ideal for cloud environments.
Overall, by reducing tedious tasks, network automation may free up time for IT admins to perform more important, high-level tasks. IT organizations will benefit from an automation strategy that provides an understanding of how it affects different disciplines such as change control, architecture, security and operational management. The result can be an efficient organization that provides improved service levels at a lower cost.
Moreover, while network automation definitely reduces operational expenditures and improves service quality, I don't necessarily think its benefit is limited to reducing opex. If automation is a fundamental part of the network design, it can also help reduce capital expenditures.
For example, automation may enable the adoption of simpler network architectures by replacing some hardware appliances with virtual network appliances that are automatically deployed to meet increased load demands. This reduces the overprovisioning of network hardware, and is one of the benefits of network functions virtualization (NFV).