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The Network Automation Imperative

When your virtualization or cloud project sputters in efficiency, network automation can get that project some new life.

For years, IT departments have spent their days -- and nights -- driving successful deployments of applications and tools designed to help automate finance, sales, marketing and engineering functions in the enterprise. Despite these successes, however, IT's daily infrastructure management tasks remains one of the last frontiers for automation.

The analogy isn't much different than the accountant who's too busy to manage his own checkbook or the construction GM who has completed multiple home remodels throughout the year, but similar projects in his own house are left for months unfinished, in disarray or with haphazard workarounds.

The time has come to pick up the pieces, stop sweeping the disarray under the carpet and spend a little well-deserved time and attention on improving IT processes with network automation. Not only because most IT departments are already overworked, and could use some relief with more efficient processes and intelligent tools, but also because significant expansion of IT team resources in the foreseeable future doesn't seem likely.

In fact, in a recent study by Enterprise Management Associates, 85 percent of respondents indicated only flat-to-slight team growth, and only a small group of 6 percent expect more than 25 percent growth over the next 12-24 months. As if the lack of resources isn't enough, the IT team is now at a crossroads where the efficiencies they are attempting to realize with virtualization and private cloud initiatives will hit a wall unless more automation is built into the network infrastructure processes.

Network Complexity Drives Automation
The highly dynamic nature of virtualization and private cloud initiatives is increasing network infrastructure complexity and requirements for real-time changes. If you are one of the lucky few in the 6 percent category expecting a significant increase in staff, you can try to apply more human resources to addressing dynamism in the network, but that won't scale in the end.

The bottom line: As organizations begin to tackle the challenge of rolling out highly dynamic virtualization and private cloud initiatives, most of their blueprints are missing essential infrastructure automation elements which can result in catastrophic outages and ultimate failure of their virtualization initiatives. Without the necessary network automation, the cracks in the foundation can manifest instability of the network due to more frequent re-configurations, business continuity and DR risks, and an IT staff that is too overwhelmed with manual tasks.

In this uncertain environment, business continuity, cost savings, and efficiencies designed to be gained from private cloud and virtualization initiatives can be compromised without the necessary automation and control mechanisms built into the infrastructure.

Think Your Network is Already Automated? Assess for Yourself
Many organizations claim to have already implemented some form of network automation tools. So, how do you know if you need more? One measure: Errors resulting in downtime or requiring investigation and remediation. EMA analysts recommend that any organization experiencing more than one or two manual configuration errors per month immediately investigate additional network automation as a means to reduce operational risk.

Another way to measure your network automation maturity is a simple network automation assessment tool. The assessment tool breaks network automation capabilities into four areas: operational health and stability, efficiency and user error avoidance, security, and compliance and inventory. Points are awarded for each type of automation in use. For example, a different amount of points can be achieved for various tasks ranging from use of scripts to automate network change and configuration (3 points) to using automated best practice configuration setting templates (10 points).

If your organization achieves 150 or more points, you are setting a “gold standard” for network automation and likely prepared to handle the increasing dynamism forced on network infrastructure and IT teams by virtualization and private cloud initiatives. Anything less, puts an organization at risk of network failures, compliance and security issues.

Where to Start
There are several key areas where it's essential to start building more automation in IT processes so that virtualization and private cloud initiatives can be extensively deployed and IT operational efficiency maximized:

  • Institutionalize process Embracing your organization's best practices and gold standards for configurations will help deliver a consistent stable and predictable network keeping policies intact. As the network becomes more dynamic, the ability to automatically predict responses and sync with real-time updates is very valuable.
  • Identify “machine speed” needs Determine the top areas where you need machine speed configuration and change in response to VM provisioning and movement, or VM life cycle, such as VLAN, VPN, switch port, access control lists (security filters) and firewall settings. While a VM server can spin up in a matter of minutes, making all of these changes manually will take hours -- and it could change again before you're done.
  • Start at the IP address Pick two network configuration tasks that are manual today (i.e. IP address assignment or VLAN configuration) that must change because of a vMotion event, like HA for example.
  • Indentify compliance requirements Determine tasks that have to be automated for compliance purposes, such as access control list configurations. For example, a healthcare organization moving to the cloud should first and foremost consider how its cloud strategy is going to maintain HIPPA compliance.

In summary, the virtualized world we face today has allowed server and device rollouts like never before. Maintaining the pace and keeping data accurate is an ever-increasing challenge. The days of using hacked-together scripts written by multiple predecessors to make, track and document changes and devices are, for most organizations, no longer viable. Compliance and uptime requirements, along with the need for great efficiencies due to resource limitations force us to sweat the details.

Luckily, there are great new network infrastructure automation options to meet your needs and keep your network functioning optimally to avoid outages. Your team just has to assess your automation maturity and determine where to apply more automation.

About the Author

Steve Garrison is vice president of marketing for Infoblox.

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