Network automation overview

Network automation in its many forms is fast becoming a requirement for ever-more complex enterprise networks. Automatically processing configuration changes in a consistent manner will take the load off the network administrator, reduce downtime and uncover hidden problems in the network.

As enterprise networks gain in complexity, network automation is becoming a necessity for IT organizations to be...

agile enough to embrace new technologies.

"Automation not only eliminates the mundane work but takes the errors out of manual processes," said Glenn O'Donnell, Forrester Research senior analyst, in a recent webinar called Learn How Network Automation Can Reduce Costs and Increase Productivity

But these days, the term "network automation" can refer to any number of processes being automated. Here is a rundown of the various types of network automation.

Local area network automation

The local network is filled with various configuration settings and profiles that must often be adjusted. Manually adjusting the switches, routers and network monitoring tools is not only a time-consuming process, but there are many opportunities for mistakes and misconfigurations. Network configuration and management tools build a database of network devices and services, check for misconfigured devices, and allow administrators to fix errors without downtime. Configuration-generation tools, such as the open source Netomata Config Generator, or commercial solutions, such as Alterpoint or Solarwinds' Orion NCM, enable administrators to define where configuration changes need to happen, easing the process of adding a new server into the network model and propagating the changes to those devices.

The local networking hardware itself can also enable automation. Extreme Networks' universal port and Cisco's Smartport technologies, for example, offer administrators the ability to detect and classify devices being connected to the local network and automatically apply scripts or macros to provision quality of service, VLAN and other settings for that port. An IP desk phone, for example, can be directed at a specific VLAN and given higher-priority settings than a workstation on a port-by-port basis, without administrator intervention.

Automation for virtualized environments

For enterprises that have embraced virtualization, automation and change management have become necessities. Virtualized environments purposely foster constant change that is not necessarily bound to specific physical hardware. What's more, virtual machines can be spun up, turned down, and moved between physical servers. Automation enables this provisioning based on events or schedules. For example, if an application delivery controller senses a rise in traffic to a Web application, it can ask the virtualized environment to spin up additional virtual machines to help handle the spike. When the traffic spike has passed, those additional machines can be turned down, optimizing the utilization of the data center. Virtualization automation software aims to manage the entire policy-based provisioning process from end to end.

Data center network automation

Opportunity for automation in the data center goes beyond simply the virtualized environment. Storage networks, IP telephony infrastructure, and even enterprise energy management systems are all coalescing in the data center, and automation will be an important element to keep all of these systems operating as a cohesive enterprise network. As an example, an enterprise energy management system can direct the data center to reduce power consumption, which can respond by spinning down idle services, logged-out telephones, and even individual switch ports to respond to the request, without human intervention. Likewise, an automated data center could adjust network and server prioritization during defined backup windows, giving those processes the resources to complete the task as quickly as possible. While still some way off a self-healing, autonomous data center, the level of automation available can take much of the work out of provisioning both network and storage resources to the users that need it.

Network automation and the cloud

Public cloud services, by their very nature, are already highly automated. A customer can allocate additional resources from Amazon, for example, and the cloud service makes those resources available automatically with no Amazon employee involved in the process. Nearly all public cloud services are based on a pay-for-what-you-use pricing model, putting the onus on IT to get in, do the required work and get out. Likewise, many enterprise IT organizations are moving to a similar IT services model and private cloud for delivery of services. These organizations will also have to automate their processes to establish a similar self-service model, based not just on providing applications to users but provisioning and billing for the network, compute and storage resources that the organization's business units require. Automated server provisioning tools will enable IT to connect users to the resources, whether those resources reside in-house or elsewhere.

This was last published in September 2010

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