Network automation is now a “must-have”

The whirlwind of tech innovation has had a major impact on hardware, software, and of course, network management. Automation is fast becoming a network must-have as organizations seek efficiency and scale without adding costs. Those who ignore it are missing an opportunity to:

  • simplify network operations
  • mistake-proof their infrastructure
  • enhance security
  • expand the skills of some of their most valuable staff

The challenge of network management today is that – much like network management of yesterday – it’s repetitive, hands-on, and error-prone. A majority of today’s network changes, in fact, are still done manually, as they have been for years. And they’re still made, device by device, through terminal connections. No fancy UIs here.

The process is costly and time-consuming. It’s also not scalable, especially when the number of devices within the typical network continues to multiply. Hiring more people, even when theoretically possible, isn’t the answer. Managing networks already is two to three times more expensive than the cost of the network itself. And, adding more people doesn’t do anything to decrease the potential for mistakes in a process already vulnerable to human error.

Enter automation

That’s where automation comes in. In reference to networks, automation includes the configuration, management, testing, deployment and operation of physical and virtual devices. Everything from provisioning to policy implementation to issue resolution can be partially or fully aided by automation. Controlling and managing repetitive processes through automation, in particular, can eliminate device-by-device drudgery and the slip-ups that today tax network engineering resources.

And let’s face it – tasks like configuration changes suck up valuable time and focus. It’s not that they’re not important. But for network engineering teams, with their deep base of knowledge, there are more challenging issues they can take on by taking some of the manual load off their plate.

By automating, too, teams can better track network changes, manage versioning across devices, and deploy new configurations, at scale, with minimal effort. Teams often face the question “what’s changed” in order to troubleshoot issues and roll back to a safe state. Automation makes it far easier to answer that.

A resilient network

An automated network is also a more resilient network. With greater insight into network performance, network engineering teams can better respond to changing conditions. They can also limit network downtime from manual service interruptions and from issues created, in the first place, by human input errors. With automation, you can also set up workflows to resolve common network issues as they happen, with no human involvement.

This improved responsiveness can lead to better security. By detecting changes in the network faster through automation, and releasing timely patches and upgrades, organizations can thwart potential cyber-attacks. By automating security policies, companies can deploy and redirect defenses to detect and stand sentry against unusual network activity. And automation can cut across different environments, networks, and devices in a sort of protective blanket.

Automation can help with implementing policy and governance guardrails, too. These can serve as an early sense-check for configuration changes and head off mistakes before they go into production.

What’s the holdup?

Given all these benefits and opportunities, it is worth asking why organizations have waited to adopt automation throughout their networks. With the potential efficiencies, cost savings, and operational upgrades automation can deliver, it would seem like an easy win.

Part of the issue is that automation begins with simple scripting, but requires a level of code integration beyond that to harden these new capabilities for everyday use. Those aren’t capabilities that have traditionally been in the network engineer’s skill set. To really reap all the gains that automation offers, practitioners have to go beyond scripting to use version control, and eventually to the use of CI/CD pipelines to drive the automation at scale.

The good news is that network engineers seem ready to step up and there are learning resources available to help them do it. At this year’s Cisco Live Europe, we saw basic programming sessions overflowing with network engineers eager to learn how to apply code to their work. They know the value automation can bring to network maintenance and the career opportunities it can create. The Cisco Developer program has everything you need to get started now.

When the enterprise is ready, automating the network can be as incremental or rapid a process as the organization is prepared for. It starts with design, including consideration for policies and performance goals. A logical next step is automating provisioning and connections. Finally, as the approach matures, automating life cycle management pulls it all together.

Network automation is an under-used strategy that can yield big gains: in time saved, in networks better secured, and in advancing the skill sets of those who make sure networks are reliable, safe, and available. And those are business benefits any enterprise should be able to appreciate.

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Ray Stephenson

Sr Director

Developer Relations