Network Automation: Accelerating Adoption to Increase Your Efficiency
Automation can be a tough noun to wrestle with. Negative connotations quickly come to mind, such as being expendable, or employees being replaced by software.
Yet, it is important to understand how adopting network automation can accelerate your company’s efficiency and growth without creating collateral damage to your culture.
Software-Defined Networking (SDN) or Network Automation may sound new—but it really isn't. Many forms of automation tools and techniques have been around for 10 years or more, and Linux server admins were using automation tools years before that.
Network automation is truly the only way to effectively scale an organization, yet there is still a lot of hesitancy to adopt even a basic, white belt type of automation solution. This isn’t about reducing headcount, but rather, it’s about doing more with what you have.
Automation can be the stepping stone toward accelerated growth and the experts at CCI Systems help develop a path toward adoption within your company. CCI has the experience and knowledge to introduce, train, and implement network automation to fuel your growth and be competitive within your market.
Your journey through network automation will go through phases of weighing the pros and cons, validating the process, educating your engineers and exploring the tools, and implementing automation techniques with your company.
The Pros and Cons of Network Automation
When you ask an organization why they haven't adopted automation of any kind, it typically boils down to time and experience. The truth is most network engineers haven't made the leap into a NextGen type, Network Engineer skillset.
Day-to-day operational tasks keep companies so busy that they do not find the time or make the time to introduce automation into their network engineering teams. While upskilling your teams may reduce the time spent on those day-to-day tasks, the ongoing benefits will begin to snowball after adoption.
In the most recent Gartner report, automation can result in a culture challenge of driving innovation.
Weighing the Benefits of Automation
Network automation has many benefits, but your true focus should be on efficiency and accuracy.
As network engineers become more efficient and accurate through automation, more time will be dedicated to network planning and being proactive, as opposed to working as reactive firefighters. Something as simple as building basic Python scripts to automate repetitive tasks has immense benefits.
Network Automation is a Journey
- Automation is like Martial Arts: a long never-ending journey.
- There are no shortcuts to black belt—but what’s the rush?
- You can’t be a black belt without learning the foundational knowledge.
When describing the network automation journey, you can draw parallels with martial arts. It’s no different than the journey a martial artist goes through in earning a black belt. Starting small and choosing a low-risk, read-only type of automation is always the right choice.
At the beginning of a martial arts journey to earning a black belt, you memorize techniques and perform them, but the more you do them, you understand them at a deeper level. This also applies to network automation techniques.
Over time and after countless cycles of repetition, your thinking and motions become automatic, and how you perform a task becomes second nature. As you progress through the ranks, you constantly build on your foundation.
The Validation Phase
One area where there is a significant opportunity for improvement is the validation phase when you make changes to a network or device.
How do you truly (and quickly) evaluate if you left the network or device in a good state after making changes?
Every network engineer has a handful of things they will note before and after work is performed. Some carry a physical notebook, others a tablet and others utilize project management tools. This checklist allows the engineer to manually review items like up interfaces, routing protocol peerings, VPN services operational status, etc.
Network automation can empower a team to do more validations and automatically determine what’s changed. The efficiency the automation creates saves the network engineer time and prevents the stare and comparegame from occurring.
Reviewing Your Data Points: Manual vs. Automation
Reviewing hundreds to thousands of unique data points can be a challenge, especially in the middle of the night during a maintenance window. Why not have a tool that automates and summarizes those data points for the network engineer?
One argument is: “It’s just one router. I don’t need automation”. However, you can still make the case for automation.
Automation standardizes the process across the board and ensures you are doing the same procedures every time. The choice to automate may not directly correlate to measurable time savings, but the real benefits are accuracy and consistency.
Consistency will improve your overall performance, outcomes, and solutions.
Open-Source Automation Solutions
One of the best open-source Python solutions is called PyATS.
PyATS and Genie are very powerful and flexible. If you go diving into pyATS and Genie without the foundational Python skills, you’ll quickly be in over your head.
Try starting even smaller than pre/post check. Instead, learn how to write a script that loops through a bunch of devices and runs commands to gather data. This is a great white belt technique that will lead you toward performing yellow and green belt techniques in the future.
One of the best introduction courses to Python is called “Python for Everybody Specialization” through Coursera. This course is offered by the University of Michigan and you will learn how to:
- install Python and run your first program.
- describe the basics of the Python programming language.
- use variables to store, retrieve, and calculate information.
- utilize core programming, such as functions and loops.
As you learn foundational Python skills and dive into leveraging Python modules designed for network automation, you’ll soon move to your green and blue belt type solutions.
The Phases of Network Automation Tools
Modern service provider networks tend to have many moves, adds, and changes.
From a security standpoint alone, you can show immediate value by changing Simple Network Management Protocol (SNMP) strings and local admin passwords quickly. There is an inherent value in identifying the usage of a tool to administer these types of changes infinitely faster than an engineer could attempt to do manually. Communicating this within a security plan is extremely valuable.
Moving from a crawl read-only phase to a walk means pushing mass updates out to your network devices. Again, you can leverage available tools to be more efficient, such as Napalm, NetMiko, and Ansible.
Techniques you learned in the crawl phase directly apply to the walk phase.
For instance, your foundational script of looping through a list of devices to gather data is the same framework for pushing mass updates to your network devices.
Continuing Your Journey of Automation
While moving up the ranks on your network automation journey, you’ll start to incorporate multiple tools together, or even implement a full lifecycle network automation solution, like Cisco Crosswork, Juniper Paragon, Anuta, and Apstra.
Centrally managing the lifecycle of your configurations and network services is a large task that requires proven experience and knowledge to adopt into your organization. Here, executive buy-in is critical for solutions, like network automation, to be approved.
The capital investment needed is one component but understanding the cultural shift that comes along with introducing black belt level automation solutions is a major obstacle to overcome for companies. By creating a unified front with your leadership, educating your employees on the culture change will help to mitigate pushback. It is common for operators to leverage a partner to navigate this level of solution.
Finding a partner with experience in both the operation and implementation is very important for your success.
CCI Systems has an intimate knowledge of network automation implementation and operating within NextGen environments. Our experts are experienced and know how to navigate the intricacies of new technology paired with culture change.
Do not hold back on propelling your company forward with network automation tools, techniques, and processes if you don’t know where to start.
Still having issues implementing network automation within your company? Explore the benefits of clearing a path to network automation here.