Current trends such as the cloud, digitalisation or the Internet of Things (IoT) place ever-higher demands on company networks. To make administration easier, many IT departments are relying on network automation. This introductory article is the first part of a blog series on automated networks.
Few areas of IT are so critical to a business as a secure, powerful and, above all, functioning network. But the demands on network technology are growing: business processes are increasingly performed digitally, resource-intensive applications and services or cloud solutions put even more load on the network and increase complexity – generally with stagnating or even falling IT budgets. The IT team is also under more pressure when it comes to managing and controlling networks.
Most networks consist of hardware components such as routers, switches, Wi-Fi controllers, server-load balancers and security appliances such as firewalls. If a device’s configuration changes, then the IT team has to implement this manually. Even the notorious “administration by legwork” has not yet been consigned to history. When something goes wrong, administrators have to walk across different rooms, unlock racks, manually reconnect cables, restart network hardware or input IP addresses by hand – what a hassle!
Network automation can provide a remedy here.
Network automation saves the IT department a lot of work by automating recurring tasks. So it is also possible to implement changes simultaneously on multiple devices. Tasks such as each individual login, the implementation of the change and storing the configuration are then performed automatically. Because regular configuration backups are also generated and the changes documented over time, administrators can track the changes and return to a previous configuration if required. The simplest form of automation is achieved using scripting tools – Software Defined Networking (SDN) is the premium class of automation.
For years now, network administrators have been using script languages to communicate with devices in order to automate recurring tasks. For example, using Tcl (Tool Command Language, open source) software from notable manufacturers such as Cisco or Juniper enables automated scripts to be generated which are programmed directly in the router or switch configuration. The next step is the use of open APIs to increase programmability.
First of all, in a policy model, the IT department describes the applications’ requirements for the network with regard to security, quality and data flow. Then an application controller has information about which application is operated by which network interface, and dynamically assigns configurations derived from the policy model to the network components involved – such as the application delivery controller, the load balancer or the firewalls. If a virtual machine is moved, for example, the controller will automatically initiate reconfiguration of the network.
SDN – top class network automation
This is not far off from Software Defined Networking (SDN). Ultimately the virtualisation is extended – beyond servers and storage – to the network as well. To put it simply, with SDN, the network is split into separate levels for controlling the network configuration (control plane) and for transporting data in the network (data plane). This means it is possible for the analysis and control planes to be completely virtual. Physical network access is not required. The control plane generally communicates with the individual hardware components via an Application Programming Interface (API). This opens up extensive potential for automation: for example, for configuration changes or update rollouts.
Software-based networking automates provisioning of required network resources for dynamic workloads and thousands of devices, based on parameters such as application type, security requirements or QoS (Quality of Service) requirements. The latter enables specific traffic types to be identified – e.g. speech and video – and prioritisation of network resources. In addition, it is possible to create and distribute security guidelines for all devices connecting to the network.
Advantages at a glance
Here is an overview of the most important advantages of network automation:
- Relief from manual activities thanks to automated configuration and provision of network resources
- A higher degree of network security and availability because the likelihood of error is reduced
- Central management of the network across a uniform system of rules
- A change is simple to distribute to many devices
- The configurations of network devices are archived
But all that glitters is not gold. Network automation also presents companies with a range of challenges. The next articles in our blog series will take a closer look at these. Other topics are SDN as well as specific application examples and challenges of automated networks.