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Why networking is the last frontier of IT automation

Most organisations still manage networks manually, despite the cost and time needed in doing so, primarily because the impact of breaking something is much higher

Just as server automation has helped systems administrators reduce configuration problems, improve compliance and free up their time for more strategic projects, network automation has the potential to improve the productivity of network administrators.

Yet, managing networks has not changed for decades. According Gartner, a technology research firm, 75% of organisations still manage networks manually despite the cost and time needed in doing so. And this is still happening despite the rise of DevOps and availability of open source tools that now make it easier for organisations to automate network management tasks.

“The teams managing networks are highly specialised and incredibly skilled in what they do, but those networks are also becoming so complex and intertwined that it’s hard to look at any change and understand how that change is going to affect a network,” said Justin Nemmers, general manager for Ansible at Red Hat.

“If you mess up a SQL server, you can just press a button and have another one up, but it’s much harder to do that with networks – if you misconfigure a core network switch, you’d have no network,” he said.

Such risks to the business, said Nemmers, along with the fact the network teams typically operate in silos and the lack of resources to support an expanding network footprint, has meant the network is often considered the last frontier of IT automation.

“The network team has to transform or risk being wholly disrupted,” said Nemmers, adding that like storage teams that have had to respond to demands from server virtualisation teams to provide storage pools to be carved out for applications, network teams will have to figure out how to become more agile.

Automating networks, however, does not necessarily require organisations to embrace DevOps, especially among those that still operate on legacy systems, said Nemmers. “A traditional IT operations team would still need to spin up servers and remove them from load balancers – that’s not DevOps but there’s still a huge opportunity for automation.”

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Another driver of network automation is security, an that transcends networks, storage and applications. Nemmers said with teams using various tools to gather data about different parts of the IT infrastructure, having a single tool to understand how configuration changes affect an organisation’s security posture is key.

“Security is only as good as the people who are following your process, and if you have any piece of your security process that is manual, you don’t have a security standard because people make errors,” said Nemmers. “Those errors could create another hole or infiltration point.”

Growing cloud adoption has also been driving demand for network automation tools. In the Asia-Pacific region, more organisations are adopting cloud-based services in Taiwan, China and India, resulting in the growth of the market in the region, according to Market Research Future, an India-based market research company.

Organisations that have started automating their networks typically see productivity improvements and greater focus on innovative activities among networking teams. As an example, Nemmers said a five-person network team using Ansible had cut down the time it took to audit the configurations of 16,000 networking devices from 18 months to 20 minutes.

“They’re effectively validating the running configuration on every single device and making real-time backups of every configuration. And what do they do now? They look for additional ways to streamline things, and improve the performance and security of their networks. They’re not just pressing buttons; they’re doing valuable things for the business.”

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