Network Automation: Where Does it Work?

Network automation tools abound. But getting them to work together is hard work.

Network Automation: Where Does it Work?
(Credit: Scharfsinn / Alamy Stock Photo)

Using network automation software, network administrators have the ability to let software manage network functions that include the configuration, testing, deployment, and monitoring of network assets. Rules can be placed into the software that also checks for conformance to enterprise security and governance standards.

Enterprises are adopting network automation to streamline and simplify network management. AI (Artificial Intelligence) and machine learning (ML) will further enhance network automation tools, and there will be keen interest in automating network processes for simplification and better network performance. Worldwide, the network automation market is projected to reach 31.37 billion dollars by 2028.

This is well and good, but where does network automation work best, and where is it challenged?

Network automation successes

Network automation works best in network processes that are highly predictable and routinely repetitious.

One of these areas is device configuration. As more IoT devices enter the enterprise, these devices need to be properly configured to meet enterprise security standards before they are deployed. At the same time, IT has a notorious reputation for overlooking this task. When incoming IoT services are not configured for enterprise-level security and are deployed anyway, this creates multiple points throughout the enterprise, and especially at enterprise edges, for security breaches to occur. By using network automation to perform this task, companies have lowered their risk for security breaches.

Another area where network automation has been successfully deployed is in software security updates. By automating the process of updating device and platform security with incoming security patches from vendors, IT can ensure that the latest security software is in place.   This is a boon to network managers, who have struggled in the past with keeping security updates current across all devices and platforms.

A third area of network automation success is in the 24/7 network monitoring of activities, events, security, and assets.

Challenges with network automation

Automating network functions is highly beneficial, but it also presents its challenges along the way. Here are the primary challenges that network managers encounter with increased automation:

Squaring the ideal, automated network with the reality of what exists

It’s easy to brief boards and the C-level about the benefits of an end-to-end network framework with full automation—but the reality is that most companies already have a plethora of vendor and home-grown software that they use for automation. This wide array of disparate tools doesn’t necessarily work or integrate well with each other.

Because of the broad array of tools, the only way that organizations can achieve a total, end-to-end automation process is to rip and replace whatever they have and replace it with a holistic, end-to-end automation solution, which can be both daunting and scary— or find the gaps in each end-to-end network integration and automation process and fix them.

NS1, an IBM network services company, said it well: “There’s no such thing as a network automation fairy. That’s not to say that people haven’t tried to build one. Yet even with the leg up these platforms provide, there’s still a lot of grunt work involved in network automation. You have to tell the automation platform what you want it to do and where you want it to apply the magic. In the end, this is something that only an in-house network team can do properly. Only network operators have the knowledge of assets and processes to make automation a tangible reality."

Network automation rules maintenance

Even if a site has an end-to-end network automation solution, the business rules that the software relies on must be kept current. Who is responsible for maintaining the currency of the rules? Who makes the rules?

Legacy applications

Legacy applications are still mission-critical in enterprises, and some of these apps might lack the APIs needed to interface and interact with network automation software. Fixing this issue requires cooperation from vendors and internal effort from IT.

Legacy network automation!

As many as 78% of organizations have internally developed their own network automation tools. This means that network staffs must maintain their own network automation software as well as work with it. The dual maintenance and work roles can quickly eat up any time savings that network staffs had envisioned from network automation.  

A final word on network automation

Total network automation is the ideal that most companies strive for, but it’s challenging to do this on your own. Companies will more than likely opt to purchase vendor network automation that may even be outsourced so internal IT personnel can focus elsewhere.

At the same time, it’s important not to “abstract away” the skills base that network automation replaces.

Once when I was CIO, our organization experienced a massive system outage from an earthquake. It took us 24 hours to recover. We were fortunate to still have a few “old hands” on board who could manually perform operations for customers that systems normally would. Time moves on, but the basic issue hasn’t changed. You still need on-staff network management know-how, no matter how much work your network automation does. 

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About the Author(s)

Mary E. Shacklett, President, Transworld Data

Mary E. Shacklett is an internationally recognized technology commentator and President of Transworld Data, a marketing and technology services firm.

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