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Network Automation: 7 Basic Steps

  • Next-generation network architectures are undoubtedly growing more complex. Because of this, administrators are struggling to manage the day-to-day operations of their existing network while also tackling  new projects. While one way to gain additional time is to increase network support head count, it’s simply too expensive for many organizations. That’s why many IT shops are increasingly interested in automation tools that can significantly cut down on the amount of time network staff must spend keeping the lights on.

    But unless you already have significant experience, the planning, implementation and ongoing maintenance of network automation processes can be overwhelming. In this slideshow, we’ll look a seven basic steps you can use to formulate your network automation strategy. The slides will take you from the early planning stages, through the implementation stage and finally ongoing maintenance and optimization of automated processes.

    The key to a successful network automation project is to keep your eye on tasks that are eating up a great deal of time. Whether your network staff is wasting time manually creating status reports for upper management, performing simple moves/adds/changes, or dealing with the same troubleshooting tasks over and over again, your goal should be to identify repetitive tasks -- and use tools to automate them.  

    Remember, your goal here is to create efficiencies that should free up your network team’s time so it can focus on tasks that can’t be automated, like designing those complex next-generation network architectures. And while automation will add new maintenance chores for in-house staff, the amount of time spent managing your automation processes should be significantly lower than the time spent manually performing the functions.

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  • Identify repetitive, time-consuming tasks

    The first step of any automation process is to figure out what can or cannot be automated. Network administrators may have a few ideas off the top of their heads. Other times, network tools such as SNMP monitors, NetFlow and syslog collectors can be used to identify tasks.

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  • Determine automated tasks

    Once tasks are earmarked for automation, the next step is to build a decision matrix for the process based on what tasks the automated process will actually perform. This can be done manually or through the use of machine learning tools. For example, many commercial network automation tools come with the ability to ensure they meet the various regulations within their industry vertical. These tools can be set to run on a specific schedule and will automatically identify what configuration changes are needed to bring the network back into compliance.

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  • Determine what tools will best automate the process

    When it comes to network automation, there are often multiple ways to achieve the same outcome. Your goal should be to identify the simplest and most logical point on your network for the automation process to occur. Typically, this is the spot on the network which makes the automation process the most efficient. Next, figure out which network automation tools are best suited for what you need, and what your budget allows for. These can be in the form of simple, home-grown scripts, open source automation tools or pre-packaged vendor solutions.

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  • Perform a security audit on planned automated tasks

    One often overlooked step of any network automation process is to make sure that SSH, encryption and other security methods are incorporated into your processes. One huge risk is the management of SSH keys for machine-to-machine (M2M) communication. If not properly handled, it provides a simple path for hackers to gain deep into your infrastructure.

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  • Configuration and deployment strategy

    Once you are ready to roll out your automation process onto the production network, make sure you have a sound testing strategy in place. During a maintenance window, automated tasks should be tested as best as possible to make sure the processes work as intended.

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  • Monitor and maintain automated tasks

    Automated tasks can often break when seemingly non-impacting network changes occur. The last thing you want is to get caught with a non-functioning system that eventually causes an outage on the network. That's why it's imperative that automated tasks be monitored and re-tested on a regular basis to ensure they are operating properly. You can never assume that once an automated process is implemented, it's going to continue to work forever. Proper maintenance is required to ensure tasks continue to perform as intended.

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  • Optimize and expand

    Last, continue to improve and build upon your network automation processes. Automated tasks can build on each another to create much more complex and intelligent tasks. The key is to optimize all underlying automation processes and then use those to build new processes off of.

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