For IT Leaders: Four Strategies for a Successful Start in Network Automation

BY Jadecy Kidane

As the pace of business increases, CEOs are looking to IT to leverage technology differently and scale operations. As Gartner’s eBook “Jump-Start Network Automation to Scale Digital Initiatives”, explains, “scaling digital initiatives requires increased networking agility. Network automation is a great way to start improving network agility.”

BlueCat customers also face this challenge on a daily basis. With initiatives like cloud, SD-WAN, and virtualization, businesses are aiming to move at machine speed. What this means for a Microsoft or BIND shop is an ungodly amount of manual configurations to deploy those initiatives, followed by more configurations for support and maintenance. IT leaders are realizing that they simply cannot hire enough people to do all the manual work. They need to turn to network automation to transform their operations.

Gartner’s eBook offers IT leaders tangible advice to tackle automation. To accelerate the evolution from human speed to machine speed, they present easy to implement recommendations to begin your network automation journey.

BlueCat’s Chief Strategy Officer Andrew Wertkin has worked with IT leaders of all sizes and market verticals on their network automation strategies. To complement Gartner’s strategic recommendations, Wertkin has four tactical strategies that maximize efforts to jump-start automation and ensure the impact is lasting.

Strategy #1: Define Success and Failure

Coming up with a meaningful measuring stick for network automation isn’t as simple as you may think. It shouldn’t be just what percentage of things are automated. Wertkin defines network automation success as automation that achieves a business intent

Successful network automation has two components: complete the task rapidly, and incorporate the intent behind that task to accomplish business goals. On the business level, automation captures the unique intelligence only network personnel would have.

“The person translating business requirements into system configurations is adding their domain expertise in the process,” Wertkin explains. An administrator likely built the network themselves, has written custom patches, understands the entire DNS infrastructure. They know the inner workings of the network and their domain expertise is unmatched.

“If your method of automation is simply to expose the API to those who require it, you skip embedding intelligence into the automated process. Therefore, you’re more likely to have automation create failures,” Wertkin clarifies. 

As an example, the chart below shows the difference between merely automating a process and the relevant questions that would capture the business requirements behind network automation. 

TASK BUSINESS INTENT (REQUIREMENTS)
Set up a web server to share information Is a new server needed? Where will this server be located?
How much space is needed? How much memory is needed?
How will data be backed up?
Who will have access? What type of access will they have>
What security measures need to be taken?
What regulatory compliance needs to be enforced?

Strategy #2: Where to Start Automating

Core networking services like DNS are the ideal place to start your network automation journey. In a recent study compiled in our eBook ‘Network Rising’, we found 30% of a network administrator’s time is spent on DNS-related tickets. In comparison, 38% is spent on all other network-related tasks and only 26% of their time is spent on strategic initiatives.

DNS is the enabler for network communications, and Wertkin estimates it is the basis for approximately 90% of network changes. That means a DNS-related service ticket will be submitted for most changes made to the network.

Without DNS automation, it’s difficult to fully automate across the enterprise because many processes will require submitting a service ticket for provisioning of DNS resources. Until the service ticket is manually resolved, the workflow is not complete. 

Take the process of deploying a new virtual machine for example. All BlueCat customers have their version of an automated workflow for that process in the language of their choice. A common thread among their workflows is a DNS step to connect to the network and complete the deployment.

If a virtual machine is deployed and the automated workflow fails to incorporate the DNS steps, then someone still needs to submit a ticket asking for a DHCP reservation and to obtain a name. Both are required for a VM to connect to the network. Without so without these steps the workflow is not fully automated.

If network automation is not a priority, then the network team’s time is likely not utilized well and time is not scalable. Be strategic when planning your network automation journey. Considerations for maximizing resources like time will result in greater value and impact.

On a tactical level, Wertkin suggests automating the simplest of tasks, things that require less thought. A task where someone, who is not a domain expert, that use to type in a command, no longer needs to.

Strategy #3: Secure and Maintainable Automation

“Often times when people are preparing for automation, they don’t think about best practices,” Wertkin identifies, “Anyone can learn an automation language, but they are writing scripts and software that other people will need to maintain or use. And the scripts or software will have a life beyond their employment at their company.”

Wertkin pinpoints security as the most forgotten factor for automation. He recommends treating network automation like a software lifecycle. Most companies have standards for developing, deploying, maintaining, and securing software. Applying the same principles to automation protects the network from unforeseen downtime and security vulnerabilities.

An example is someone writes a script to include login credentials. Now anyone who has access to the automation script has access to the username and password. In the push to automate, do not compromise IT best practices for speed and results.

Strategy #4: A Champion on the Front Lines

As an IT leader, championing network automation is only strategy for a successful rollout. On the network team, there’s likely one person who is the most challenged from the lack of automation. They go by ‘Mr. DNS’ or ‘the DNS Queen’ and they built the DNS infrastructure over all the years they’ve been with your organization.

Why is Mr. DNS your frontline champion? Because they have the most to gain and the most to lose in the move to network automation. As Wertkin put it, “the more automation you implement, the more the underlying DNS changes.” Mr. DNS’s workload can significantly transform because automating DNS alleviates them of endless manual configurations. On the other hand, automation creates a growing backlog of DNS-related tickets and crippling any anticipated success.

Mr. DNS also has intimate knowledge of the network and its complexities. It is their expertise that Wertkin refers to the intelligence that’s needed for success. Enabling this person is the catalyst quick wins and lasting impactful for network automation.

The Automation Promised Land

Beyond automating small tasks, there’s the opportunity to simplify complex workflows and integrating with systems across the IT landscape. The goal is not to automate to keep up with the business, but automating to get ahead of strategic business requirements. That is the promise of intelligent automation.

Many BlueCat customers started as a 100% manual shop. Over time, they automated 90% of their network operations. For example, one organization had 20 network personnel making approximately 50 changes per hour and automated to make 6000 API calls per hour. The results of network automation are transformative and provides the means to tackle strategic initiatives.

This is an ambitious journey for any organization that requires a strategy from the beginning. Just blindly scripting automations is not a long-term approach. Neither is planning a robust network automation strategy. Implement Gartner’s recommendations with Wertkin’s strategies for quick automation wins with lasting impact.

 

Jadecy Kidane

Jadecy Kidane is the Marketing Content Manager at BlueCat.

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