|By Olivier Huynh Van||
|January 2, 2017 12:00 PM EST||
Creating a Customized Automated Orchestration Strategy
Large enterprises today are juggling an enormous variety of network equipment. Business users are asking for specific network throughput guarantees when it comes to their critical applications, legal departments require compliance with mandated regulatory frameworks, and operations are asked to do more with shrinking budgets. All these requirements do not easily align with existing network architectures; hence, network operators are continuously faced with a slew of granular parameter change requests, trying to meet ongoing network requirement changes without having the proper tools in place.
In light of rapid changes to hardware and software, the standard way of managing configurations through hop-by-hop or router-to-router management is no longer feasible. Network complexity today requires control of the entire environment from end to end, and the ability to apply policy changes with the utmost precision across a whole network. Let's consider the path to making these changes:
- Is the device hard-wired or connecting wirelessly to the network?
- Is the device on a corporate LAN or coming from a remote site?
- Do they need access to public or private cloud (or both)?
- What is the location of the end user's device, be it a laptop or a PC?
- Will changes to the device involve other operations teams (think telco and VoIP)?
The change requests then must be fulfilled in line with the user's request and satisfy the network performance requirement of the application while having minimal effect on the other services running on the network.
The next problem is that, though it isn't unusual for teams to fall behind as the changes roll in, when operations is given a complex request, only to realize there is no current network documentation, the results can be disastrous. Often senior network architects, designers and engineers must collaborate to minimize potential side effects, which slows the process even more.
Trying to Make Changes on the Fly
Disruptions in corporate networks can be catastrophic to the business. Hence, all changes must undergo stringent verification and approval processes. Add in changes that must be made across domains - for example, security, disaster recovery, video and VoIP - and a disparate knowledge base between the different departments involved often leads to conflicting or incomplete change requests.
Complicating factors include, as an example, the lack of highly skilled "full-stack engineers," professionals who can program software and make configuration changes with networking on the fly, regardless of the application or the equipment. Operations personnel tend to be generalists, and without a detailed skillset, they must rely upon subject-matter experts who are well versed in various subsets of technology. Alternatively, they must wait on configuration changes to be released by the hardware or software vendor, or engage a contractor from a third party, a slow and painful process at best.
The majority of network projects incrementally evolve and enhance an existing network in the common "brownfield" approach. This is in contrast to the less-common "greenfield" scenario, where the engineers can pick the newest router or product with the most up-to-date feature set. The average replacement cycle is usually dictated by the manufacturer's support cycle, typically five to 10 years. Such a long cycle can create a significant mismatch of feature sets supported, since new firmware is issued every six to 12 months on average, and existing devices are only updated when necessary. Today, engineers can't think of each router or device as being the same but instead must consider what version of the firmware was installed, what hardware plug-in extensions have come and gone, and then mix and match configurations that work from end to end.
App performance today leaves no room for error, failure or downtime. This brings to mind the idea of rebuilding a jet engine while it's in flight. In fact, it's not just a single jet - it's more like fixing multiple jet engines from multiple manufacturers while in flight. Even when enterprises try to standardize deployed hardware, the situation can become untenable. With nearly 30 device types per vendor on the market, all featuring a variety of firmware, and two or three vendors in deployment, the numbers are stacking up. Given that each piece of equipment comes with a unique command line or user interface to successfully configure a device, it becomes a nightmare for even the savviest network engineer.
Today's multi-faceted cybersecurity landscape has made the security policy of a "vanilla" access list on a router a thing of the past. Simple firewalling and access control lists are no longer sufficient; they must be extended with more sophisticated intrusion detection and prevention systems. And using public internet transport for low-cost bandwidth requires additional layers of secured virtual networks.
Another significant challenge is capacity planning. Many companies are now leveraging Software as a Service (SaaS) and Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS) such as AWS and Azure. Network bandwidth usage and flow patterns have significantly changed, and are evolving rapidly with the introduction of additional services such as rollouts of Salesforce or Office 365, creating unique demands on networks that were originally designed for "internal use only" usage and security concepts. The reality is that adding new equipment to today's complex networks can't be done overnight.
Streamlining the Transition to Automation
As a way to help overcome these obstacles, some organizations are embracing a self-service IT portal to provide help desk functionality and auto-ticketing. However, these services are typically reserved for simpler, specific tasks, such as accessing a network drive or adding access to a printer, services that don't require a change to network functions.
This is a good idea that doesn't quite fit the bill. IT helpdesk ticketing systems were designed to assign incoming change requests to the proper engineer, but even still, requests that are handled manually can take three to five days to implement if there is no new equipment. When equipment like a new circuit or router is involved, turnaround time can take 30 to 60 days or more and may require senior architects and networking engineers to implement.
Rome was not built in a day, and neither is a sound orchestration and automation plan.
However, here are a few tips on easing the transition:
- Change your mind, change your organization. This transition does not need to be complicated; you just need the right tools and proper planning. Start by automating specific pain points, such as a QoS policy first. A small success will help in the progression of applying an automation strategy when you move to the next most painful solution.
- Match your policy to your strategy. The higher-ups usually set the strategy, and it relates to network features like scalability, reliability, security etc. Beginning to roll out standard policies in your enterprise, starting from simple enforcement of standards for DNS and NTP to routing and tunneling, will go a long way. These policies define the rules for each so that centralized control and policy management can be enforced. This is the start of taking control of your network.
- Develop your model. No matter what device you are working on, you can implement abstraction and modeling of standard features and node and site configuration because these are vendor-agnostic. Consider what you want the network to do, then build it into the rule set to develop your model. Having models for network features, node types, site type and more will help tremendously when implementing the models in an automation/orchestration platform.
- Understand your current configuration state. The challenging part here is getting started early. Conducting a discovery exercise on an existing network can be complex. Understanding exactly what the current configuration state is, based on an internal configuration management database or existing documentation vs. what is really there in terms of validating devices and firmware, can add to this complexity. Once the network is known, it is possible to deploy changes against your modeled functionality and migrate it to the desired state. After this is complete, it is essential to immediately protect the network against unauthorized changes, automatically monitoring the configuration state to ensure no other changes are applied.
- Enable and maintain agility. User requirements and applications using the network are ever evolving. New sites are being deployed. Devices are being upgraded. To enable and maintain agility to service these requests, centralized model-driven automation and orchestration are necessary. This type of control of the network will ensure new devices are provisioned correctly. Policies and best practices must be maintained throughout the network. To enable this, engineering and operations must not be slowed down by automation and orchestration tools and must enable DevOps to quickly develop, test and deploy new features into the production network.
No two networks are alike; whether brownfield or greenfield, each one has its own complexities and challenges. Each team will explore their options and find what best serves their particular circumstances. Using the best practices above will help teams create a customized solution that aligns with the approved network model and serves all stakeholders.
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