What Is Network Automation? — How It Works and Its Benefits
You roll into work on Monday morning after a relaxing weekend – life is good! After checking your network status, you move onto your email and your stomach drops. Your company just completed a new acquisition, and you need to update network configurations for thousands of devices across tens of new locations to meet corporate standards. This entails weeks of work… and the job needs done by this Friday.
As a Network Admin, there’s a strong chance something like this has happened to you at least once. Fortunately for your performance (and mental wellbeing), network automation solutions exist to help reduce the risk of network downtime and maintain steady operations.
Network automation is growing with network automation being reported by over 75% of organizations. Another interesting statistic from these studies is, “Businesses that implement network automation outperform those who don’t.”
What Is Network Automation?
Networking automation is the usage of software tools to automate network tasks, such as configuration, provisioning, managing, and testing devices on a network. Network automation tools aim to reduce human interventions on networks, which leads to improved efficiency and reduced risk of human error.
- Automated network management typical focuses on areas such as:
- Automated backups
- Automated provisioning tasks (port assignments, etc.)
- Automated firmware patching
- Automated change management
- Tested changes in CNS3 prior to production push
- Phased rollouts with milestone testing
Benefits of Network Automation
Obviously, there are different goals that organizations have when automating network activities. The goal of automating your network is to improve efficiency. This is linked to efficiency in operations through fewer human activities and greater network efficiency.
Lower Operating Expenditure
Operating expenditures are reduced by having fewer basic network configuration and monitoring activities that are performed by a human. Through automation, large network topologies can be managed with little or no human intervention through a network management solution with a built-in network mapping tool.
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In addition, the elimination of human intervention reduces the risk of human error and inconsistencies. Obviously, network automation requires human activities to be set up, but once implemented, automation is designed to run without intervention. Current estimates put the amount of human intervention in network changes at 95%.
Improved Network Efficiency
Network automation software is designed to efficiently perform tasks such as automated network mapping, configuring, provisioning and managing of a network. Network automation can be driven to meet business goals and achieve an optimal network configuration to support those goals. For example, a network administrator may have several network configuration options that can be selected based on immediate requirements and changing capacity needs.
So, how does network automation work?
How Does Network Automation Work?
Network automation can be compared to the popular If-This-Then-That (IFTTT) but applied to automation of network events, rather than events in the world. These network automation tasks might also be scheduled rather than purely reactive.
This programmable logic is used to manage network devices and services. Automated network operations teams use network automation to consistently and efficiently configure, protect and manage network infrastructure.
As we will discuss later, there are two main approaches to network automation: script-driven and software-driven; in addition, there is growing interest in intent-based (artificial intelligence and machine learning-based) network automation, but this is a fairly nascent area.
Network Automation Types
Different platforms and solutions exist to implement network automation.
We will consider different automated network management systems that provide the benefits enterprises seek, with a focus on network automation tools that leverage software-based and script-driven logic. Both are completely valid approaches, but each has its own set of use cases. This is like the typical quandary of “build versus buy” – can you translate your network knowledge into a working automation solution or will you make use of someone else’s investment in a software-based solution.
While we will not discuss the relative merits of any specific network automation solutions, we can explore each of the categories.
Software-driven Network Automation
Typically, software-driven network automation systems are more appropriate for organizations that do not have as many human developers. These organizations want ready-made solutions that are based on a software-driven approach that simply require configuration to their unique network devices, network topology and goals to provide automated network management.
The main challenge with software-driven network automation systems is that they may not precisely meet the requirements of the organization. However, these systems typically provide better support through an external organization that can manage bugs and fixes, provided the supplier is responsive to customers’ needs.
These commercial software-driven network automation alternatives have traditionally been created by network infrastructure vendors for their own products. There is a growing trend for vendors to move away from proprietary APIs to open APIs, which is allowing third-party tools to automate a multi-vendor network.
Script-driven Network Automation
In contrast, script-driven network automation tools are typically chosen by organizations that have development resources that can hand-craft a specific solution to meet their precise network automation needs.
One challenge with this approach is the future need for updates and fixes. No solution, neither software nor script, is ever perfect and it will require changes. Do you count on an external supplier or an internal resource for ongoing development?
In the current market, it can be challenging to keep internal resources and there is always the risk of internal resources becoming suddenly unavailable. In addition, this approach can make troubleshooting a challenge.
4 Network Automation Use Cases
Let’s consider some practical network automation examples, so that we can investigate key network automation use cases and associated network automation benefits.
Network provisioning is the deployment and configuration of physical and virtual network components that enable user, device, and server access. Provisioning is a repetitive activity that is often done for many devices.
Network provisioning is often used to make configuration changes to numerous network devices. This “bulk provisioning” further reduces time and potential errors due to manual work.
Network Security Management
These days, network security is key to sustainable operations. Security can be implemented through firewall rules, compliance to security standards, and upgrades and patching of devices and software. Gartner identified firewall misconfigurations as the prime source of breaches in as much as 99% of cases.
Firewall rule configuration requires care to avoid conflicting rules across a varied network topography. Monitoring and alerting to security standards and avoiding security vulnerabilities is a full-time job. The management of network security through automation tools to check for, alert, and/or fix critical vulnerability issues improves the network security profile. However, studies show that this critical matter is often overlooked.
Whether this is to avoid the risk of upgrades or a conscious decision to remain on older versions that have known vulnerabilities is not clear. Another security area that is well suited for automation is SSL certificate updates as these are infrequent and therefore frequently forgotten.
Network Monitoring and Failure Analysis
While network provisioning is at the bottom of the priority list of daily tasks (32%), network monitoring is a top priority (71%). Monitoring, automated network troubleshooting, and root cause failure analysis are important and work together, as both rely on gathering and analyzing relevant information before and during a network disruption.
Network fault management software can speed this process up dramatically and give you the ability to tailor event, syslog, and trap management to your unique needs.
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Mitigating Configuration Drift
Configuration Drift occurs when devices and services do not adhere to an organization’s standard configuration and leads to inconsistently configured components.
When device configuration changes are not properly documented and made in an ad hoc manner, configuration drift results. As a result, configuration drift runs the risk of a temporary or minor change resulting in a significant outage at a later stage. Network configuration automation helps to eliminate configuration drift.
Find the Right Network Partner
Whether your team is suited to operate enterprise network monitoring software in-house, or supplement your networking operations with IT infrastructure management services – Park Place Technologies can provide the support you need!
From simple network device discovery, to comprehensive network flow analysis, Entuity Software™, Park Place Technologies’ award-winning network monitoring platform, can empower your team to operate more efficiently with fewer disruptions.
Schedule a demo today to see how we can make your life easier!