In the realm of enterprise computing, we have already automated the management and orchestration of software-defined compute and storage resources. Need another server or more storage capacity? Those virtual resources can be created in mere minutes — and without intervention from a human to initiate or manage the process.
Need changes to the network, such as a router reconfiguration? Well, that’s going to take a lot of time and effort from a range of humans. Even something as simple as an update to a DNS or IPAM server can take three to five days to complete. A port turn-up can take just as long — not because any physical action takes that much time, but because the workflow of all the human reviews and approvals takes time.
Continuing to do networking in this fashion is quickly becoming unsustainable, especially as organizations maintain their existing infrastructure while also adopting and integrating new cloud-based technology. We have reached the point where the network is the bottleneck.
Enterprises and network service providers want to increase automation and reduce the time to complete typical actions, and networking vendors are working toward what’s being called “the modern network” — that is, one that is designed to enable automation through new methods of managing the network. Ultimately most companies will get to a fully programmable, software-defined network, but it will take time.
Achieving the modern network
Getting to the modern network is a journey, not an overnight adoption. Companies have too large of an investment in existing equipment and management tools to abandon it all for something new. Thus, any tools and techniques that espouse the modern software-defined network (SDN) must also account for the old physical network. The legacy network management tools — the ones that are based on a command line interface (CLI) — weren’t built for the modern network and can’t support it. Something new is needed.
This is a tall task, given all the permutations and combinations of the modern network ecosystem. Itential is putting its stake in the ground as a platform for tying the pieces together — the modern network and the legacy one as well. Itential federates functionality and data from existing tools to enable modern network automation. The complexity of this environment, and where Itential fits, is best shown with an illustration.
Most enterprises and service providers will look at a chart like that and think, “We have this, and we need that, and how do we tie it together to achieve our network automation?” They’ll pick some way to talk to the network differently through some orchestrators. They’ll pick various technologies and need to integrate them in order to consume them. What’s more, things are moving very fast, so what they choose for now is likely to change. They need to abstract that change and the complexity away from the people that perform these jobs on the network.
This is where Itential comes in with its Intelligent Network Automation solution. Itential software is built around network automation. It talks to systems that talk to the network. To deliver on such a broad scope, Itential’s solution is built upon four important principles. First, the solution is multi-domain in that it can work with any network — traditional physical, programmable, virtual, and cloud.
Second, it supports intent-based network APIs, which simplifies the network automation ecosystem by providing a single, aggregated network API to northbound systems such as Salesforce and ServiceNow. What’s more, it integrates with open-source systems such as the Open Network Automation Platform (ONAP). Itential’s solution works with multiple orchestrators, which send commands to various systems, and with SD-WAN controllers. Itential integrates with many different tools and systems in order to send programmed commands not just north, but also east, west, and south.
The third principle Itential adheres to is “low-code,” which means the solution uses a drag-and-drop interface so that it’s easy to visualize, build and execute network intelligent workflows. Network engineers can do their jobs without having an application development background. This provides less risk of error and higher productivity.
And the fourth principle is that network intelligence is built into the platform so that those routine functions that network engineers perform day in, day out are completely automated. This includes any type of change, from routine maintenance to device and service provisioning. Teams can automate and execute complex use cases and operational workflows.
Organizations are tying to solve problems around activating a new customer or upgrading a branch office. The challenge is that the process to complete this work order touches many groups across the organization. It starts in a ServiceNow or Remedy ticket: “I want to add a new application to the datacenter.” There are all sorts of things that have to be done to fulfill that request — punch a hole in firewalls, turn up ports, and so on. Itential’s solution coordinates that effort and threads commands into these systems to allow working through that function in an automated way. Software can do activities so that humans don’t have to get involved. Machines are talking to machines, and humans are involved only when a hiccup occurs, or when it makes sense to pause the automation and have a person make a decision.
I mentioned this is a journey. Organizations should plan for “now, next, and later.” There are things that can be done now on their network to automate very basic activities. For example, SD-WAN automates managing security policies through a central orchestrator. This is a good first step. A next step could be to add the ability to collect all sorts of analytics about the network and use them to provide insights to network engineers to help resolve issues that arise. Then later, the organization could use those insights to develop templates to automatically resolving the common issues on the network. Itential could be used to feed commands to other systems to resolve the issues.
Benefits of network automation
There are numerous benefits to the overall notion of network automation. Taking humans out of the equation for routine activities can reduce errors and increase productivity. Making changes to the network can be done in much less time. Itential lists example results of successful network automation:
Another benefit is that network engineers don’t need programming skills to utilize the drag-and-drop interface. Moreover, this approach abstracts away the need to know what vendor’s equipment is being used, so a network engineer doesn’t have to care if it’s Cisco’s or Juniper’s router on the backend of the automation, which greatly simplifies the knowledge and expertise people have to have.
Intent-based networking is definitely the way our industry is heading. It might take a little while to get there, but get there we will.