Considerations for network automation tools

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Here are the factors you need to weigh so you can make a smart decision about the network automation tool that’s best for your organisation

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16 December 2019 | 0

The concept of network automation has been around for as long as there have been networks, and until now the uptake has been slow for a number of reasons including resistance from network engineers. But now forces are coming together to create a perfect storm of sorts, driving a need for network automation tools.

One factor is that more and more
network teams are starting to feel the pain of working in the fast-paced
digital world where doing things the old way simply does not work. The manual,
box-by-box, method of configuring and updating routers and switches through a
command-line interface (CLI) is too slow and error prone.

Also, the rise of software-defined networks (SDN), including software-defined WANs (SD-WAN), has enabled network automation tools to evolve from operationally focused point products that address things like change management and configuration into policy and orchestration tools.

 

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Today, network automation tools are strategic, enable business alignment, and provide a roadmap to the Utopian state of a fully intent-based system where the network runs and secures itself. Their time is now, but there is a wide range of them. Below are seven key criteria that enterprises should consider when deciding which is best for them.

Single vendor or multi-vendor

There are several third-party and
vendor-specific network automation tools. Red Hat, NetBrain and Forward
Networks are three of the leading multi-vendor tools. All of the major network
vendors including Cisco, Juniper, Arista and Extreme have their own automation
platforms.

Customers need to determine if
they want to go all in with a single vendor or strive for multiple vendors.
Neither is better per se; it is a choice the enterprise needs to make. If a
single vendor platform is chosen, ensure it works with the vendor’s entire
product line and not just a subset. If a third-party tool is chosen, seek out
one that that supports the current and likely future vendors whose gear will be
in the organisation’s network.

Breadth of APIs

It is important that network
automation tools interface with other tools such as ServiceNow and Splunk. This
means every feature should be available as an API, which is not always the
case. Even if a tool is being used standalone today, it will likely need to
interface with another application in the near future for broader automation
capabilities, so this should not be overlooked.

Orchestration

When network devices change, it is
often the case that another element of the infrastructure must also change. For
example, when a network device is added, it may require changing a firewall
setting or connecting to a load balancer. This drives up the need for
orchestration capabilities so the network-automation tool can trigger other
automation frameworks to change devices that are upstream or downstream from
it.

AI/intent-based networking
capabilities

The concept of an intent-based
network is that it runs, heals and secures itself. This cannot be done with a
bevy of rules because the environment changes too fast. Instead, AI
capabilities should be included in the system to fully automate all operations
so the network itself can adapt to changes.

ZK Research recommends that the
system have two modes of operation – one that recommends changes for the
engineer to execute on and then one that fully executes changes without
requiring human intervention. This will let the customer get comfortable with
AI first. (One question ZK Research gets a lot is how one knows it is really AI
based. The answer is that the tool gets smarter over time. All changes should
feed back into the system as part of the learning data set and make the system
smarter. Rules-based systems will not.)

SaaS or on-premises

Traditional network automation
tools have been offered only as on-premises software or appliances. There is a
growing number of companies that prefer to buy the tools in a software as a
service (SaaS) model to ensure rapid deployment and continuous updates.

Again, there is no wrong choice. The
company needs to determine which option best fits its operating model and
compliance requirements.

An important note is that it is
the assertion by ZK Research that all solutions will eventually be hybrid,
where customers may keep the data on the local premises, but advanced,
artificial intelligence capabilities and cross-company comparisons will be done
in the cloud. On-prem solutions do not have the necessary horsepower to deliver
real-time AI capabilities

Compliance and security
reporting

There is a growing push from
leading organisations to bring IT and security operations together. This means network
automation tools need to provide information that shows security policies are
continually being adhered to and compliance mandates are being met. The
reporting capabilities need to provide visibility into every phase of the
network lifecycle including planning, deploying and optimisation.

Ease of use

This is an often-overlooked
component of management platforms. Feature-rich tools with long learning curves
can require years before IT teams realise their full value. Also, when a
product is too technical, the company is put at risk if people with the best
knowledge of it exit the organisation.

Network automation tools should
be fully GUI based, which means every feature available via the CLI should also
be accessible through the graphical interface. The tools should be easy to use
as well so lower level engineers can work with it. This will obviate the need
to always include a senior, more expensive engineer.

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