What is network automation?
What is network automation software? It’s something we’re going to be seeing a lot of in the near future.
Networks worldwide continue to grow at astonishing rates to supply organizations with the access and bandwidth they need to operate. But in a survey by Oracle, 76% of respondents said network complexity was one of management’s biggest challenges.
As network growth increases—and complexity along with it—we’ll need efficient and scalable ways to handle it. You simply won’t have the human resources to manage it. That’s where network automation comes in.
Take this story I was told recently. A company was implementing some changes to its production network. They were working with three locations to change a few lines of code on a router that was connected to another part of the network.
It was a routine change that could have been implemented in an automated process. Instead, it tied up two of their networking engineers and many hours of their time to ensure everything went according to plan.
All they were doing was adding a VLAN (virtual LAN) on a specific group of physical interfaces. These are the types of tasks that are ideal for network automation software.
Network automation allows you to remove humans from both high- and low-value repetitive tasks, allowing teams to increase their levels of efficiency and avoid errors. (Like many processes, once automation is properly engaged it reduces error rates significantly.)
There’s no need to complete a forklift upgrade to start achieving some of the benefits of network automation. You can plan and grow into it. There are categories of network automation, covered below, that naturally lend themselves to earlier adoption than others. Automating network discovery is a good place to start, for example.
Benefits of network automation software
The benefits of network automation software are huge. With automated discovery and network monitoring, for example, there’s the initial benefit of having much greater visibility into your network immediately. You’ll know more about your systems and network than ever before.
You’ll also know where the problems are: Where are traffic jams occurring? Who on the network is using all the resources and when? This data is invaluable. Many times, it’s not who you think it is.
Another benefit is troubleshooting. Your engineers will have greater visibility into the workings of your network, making it much easier and faster to determine problems and get them resolved.
The ability to conserve resources also comes into play—not just human resources but software, hardware, and network resources too. These technology resources are limited just like all others. So the ability to understand how much is being used, how often, and how effectively the resources are working is invaluable. In this way, network automation allows network managers to effectively plan for new resources and deployment.
Top categories for network automation
Monitoring: The ability to monitor the current state of the network is already a task that’s done by network management software. But with network automation, you can leverage this collected knowledge to make informed decisions about implementing and changing processes.
Evaluation and Testing: Network performance is a primary concern for engineers. You need to know where the network’s weak points are. Stress testing and evaluation are key functions of networking automation software. Once you see the bottlenecks and flows in real time, you’ll know where adjustments need to be made.
Network Backups: Networking automation can perform automated configuration backups on regular schedules or whenever a change is made. During an outage, every second counts—you don’t want to be recreating a switch or router configuration from memory if the device happens to fail. Having current, reliable backups available at your fingertips is key to getting things up and running again quickly. An archive of automated backups is also handy for compliance documentation.
Visibility: The routine scanning and discovery of a network can be quite time-consuming and monotonous for a network engineer, and may also require time on site crawling under desks or up into ceiling tiles. What’s more, humans make mistakes. Automating discovery saves time and money, ensures accuracy, and means the information can always be in real-time to keep up with changes.
Configurations: Networking automation can help engineers implement configurations and configuration changes. Imagine you have a retail environment with 1,000 locations nationwide. You have three networking engineers on staff. Imagine trying to implement a change to all these locations at once. Do you send your engineers on a road trip to all 1,000 sites? Or hire a remote maintenance company? Even if you have the ability to make the change remotely, doing so on 1,000 sites at once is a monumental challenge. Network automation can eliminate that challenge.
Pros of Network Automation Software
Efficiency: Efficiency is a natural fit for the advantage of network automation. However, this could be better understood by management in terms of leverage. When changes need to be made to the network, it costs the company time and money. Increased efficiency speeds up these times and saves money.
Reduced risk: Human error is a common cause of operational issues. Through automation, additional pre-change workflows and post-change validations can be completed to reduce the risk of human error when changes are made, as well as identify any errors that occur more quickly.
Better planning: The ability to visualize the network and all of its components through the use of device discovery mapping is critical. Once you have a view of the network from the high level down to the individual device, it’s easier and quicker to make decisions. In management, you want the bottom line, and you want it quick. This visibility is crucial for feeding that information to management. Transitioning into network automation is a critical part of planning. Start with network discovery first. Then start adding network backups, and then move into more complex tasks such as network configuration changes.
Configuration backup: Backing up configurations in many network support operations is an ad hoc process that isn’t very well documented or updated. Years ago, when I used to work with clients on site the first thing I did when I went into the command line of a network device was to make a text copy of the current configuration to my laptop. Why did I do this? Because many times the client didn’t even have a recent copy, and my copy would end up being his only backup. Good, consistent, and formalized backups of all configurations should be standard.
Lower cost: All of these improvements in efficiency will result in lower costs. Once again, I point to leverage for management. The need to do more with less applies, and will continue to apply even more into the future. This leverage translates into greater cost savings for your organization.
Greater security: There are many elements to greater network security. But a big part of maintaining and complying with security is the need to keep up with the latest patches, firmware updates, bug fixes, and updates. This process can be time-consuming and cumbersome. And if not done right it can leave a hole in your network and jeopardize your security. Network automation ensures these updates and patches are done correctly and on time.
Cons of network automation software
Learning curve: There aren’t many cons to network automation software, but I’d have to say the learning curve can be an issue. If there’s a new software suite, it will take time to learn. So one of your main goals should be to look for software and processes that are easy to pick up, easy to install, and easy to integrate into your system. You’ll also want to look for responsive support for the software. The learning curve can be mitigated by transitioning smoothly into network automation in a stepwise approach, adding one function at a time as engineers come up to speed on the new tools.
Initial cost: To get the benefit of a true value-added tool, you’ll need to spend a bit of money. You don’t have to go overboard but don’t expect to get all of this functionality for free. Free systems aren’t the answer. The correct way to look at it is value. Understand how licensing is done and know that you get what you pay for. Looking at options that are good value for the dollar spent is critical.
The purpose of networking automation is to increase the efficiency of the network your organization has invested so much into—both through one-time investments and ongoing operating costs. Keeping an eye on the costs and their return on investment (ROI) is a constant need for managers and IT managers.
There are a few things you can use today that will deliver ROI better than network automation software. Yes, your network support staff needs to be trained on the latest technologies. And yes, you need to ensure you have the best, most secure network components on your network. But to leverage this large investment in your network, you’ll need the tools that make it worth the cost and effort.
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I was looking in the website for a way to automate or add bulk entries to the auvik inventory. I work for a managed Service company and it can take hours to add devices. Is there a way to add many devices at the same time through a spreadsheet or csv file?