The Role of Automation in Network Operations Isn't What You Think
June 26, 2023

Song Pang
NetBrain Technologies

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Nearly all CIOs have seen IT automation projects get derailed, often because they try to do too much. But the IT skills gaps, layoffs or flat budgets and the increasing complexity of networks, automation is often the only way to scale up network management processes. Changes in technology have made network automation much more accessible to the point that there are low-code and no-code options available.

Any repetitive network management tasks can, and arguably should, be automated. Here are four examples of tasks that can be automated successfully with today's technology.

Task 1: Making network documentation more accurate and comprehensive

Network documentation is essential for a variety of reasons, but large enterprise networks change so quickly that documentation goes out of date almost as soon as it's completed. And more troubling, documentation that simply identifies device connectivity is simply not enough in an era of multi-vendor and multi-cloud digital infrastructures.

Documentation must have the ability to guide network engineers more intelligently as they solve service problems, which requires a clear understanding of all the device operating conditions (physical and virtual), the connection topology of devices, how traffic flows bi-directionally and the desired behaviors that results. And this all must be available at the touch of a button. Network automation is the perfect platform to enable this, since it can work in the background constantly maintaining this multi-facet model of any network in near real-time.

Task 2: Proactively looking for anomalous conditions such as outdated configurations or insecure passwords

Every network has a set of architectures that have been defined to support the business and its mission critical applications. By using no-code approaches to allow any engineer to translate the parameters of these architectures into validation logic, automation can be leveraged to execute verifications at scale.

By doing so, most network problems can be detected and corrected before they materially affect production services. These problem types range from available capacity and service delivery performance to security management and resilience. Device passwords must always be verified to be secure; failover links must be tested to assure they are available during times of stress; and device configurations must be tested to make sure required operating parameters are in effect. These and a hundred other scenarios can be crafted through automation to establish and maintain confidence in the operating baseline.

Task 3: The workflows associated with network troubleshooting

In every enterprise and MSP, there is a constant stream of operational service tasks, or tickets, that must be handled. The resolution of each of these tickets typically requires a set of repetitive steps that must be executed each time manually. And to make matters worse, the same service task being handled by different network engineers may be using completely different sets of steps based on their level of expertise and experience. The result is vastly inconsistent remedies.

Automation can capture the best practices for the majority of problem types and then make those available to engineers across the planet. And since those steps are repetitive, what may have taken hours to execute by hand may take minutes to execute by machine. Network engineers can leverage automation to run this golden set of diagnostics quickly, allowing them to focus on the harder networking issues which may be infrequent or deeply complex. This use of automation for troubleshooting results in lower MTTR, fewer tickets, faster MTTI, and improved resource management.

Task 4: Creating a more secure Change Management environment

Change is one of the most critical aspects of keeping every digital infrastructure up and running and in direct support of the business. And while there have been countless change management solutions over the years from more than a hundred vendors, they all lack the ability to understand the service delivery aspects of change, and they lack the ability to automatically verify that the change was not only completed successfully, but the results were as expected. Simply put, traditional change management solutions may successfully enable device changes to be made, but without an automated way to verify business service impacts, the business itself may suffer unforeseen dependencies.

A strong understanding of the network using a comprehensive digital twin coupled with an automation engine that can provide the means to verify the business services that traverse each and every device, both before and after change is made, is an entirely new way of thinking about change management- in the context of business service delivery, rather than device health.

Ensuring critical applications and IT services perform well is key to the operation and success of any business. No-code network automation enables fundamental change to long-established yet manual workflows, and in doing so, provides a level of consistency and operational performance never previously imagined. Network automation eliminates the tedium found in current processes and reduces the reliance on labor intensive tasks which are repetitive in nature. Network engineers can now rely on automation to handle the first two-thirds of the remedial work that they would otherwise manually do, allowing them to focus on more strategic and forward-looking work.

In broad strokes, automating NetOps enables outage prevention (which preserves the company's livelihood), troubleshooting scale (which saves time and money), application services to be delivered as needed (which increases revenue), network security to be continuously verified (which protects the business), and protected change (which eliminates the unintended consequences typically associated with change). Network automation can elevate network operations from tactical to strategic and bring simplicity and efficiency to NetOps teams.

Song Pang is SVP of Engineering at NetBrain Technologies
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