The industry has high hopes for network automation. Industry research, as well as our own work, indicates that IT and networking professionals believe that many network management tasks can be automated using promising software-defined networking (SDN) and network functions virtualization (NFV) technology.
What is realistic? Network automation and network virtualization enable automation by programmatically configuring and provisioning network connections, a process known as orchestration. These time and cost-saving capabilities, combined with automated management of the network based on business policy, and end-to-end automated Quality of Service are available in today’s market.
But network automation goes beyond orchestration – for example using analytics and monitoring tools to detect and diagnose network problems and respond to network demand ahead of time, delivering auto-healing and auto-scaling functionality.
If we were to look at a menu of items that we could reasonably expect by the coming wave of virtualization tools it might look something like this:
- End-to-end service orchestration, triggered by service and product orders
- Built-in network monitoring and analytics functions
- Auto-scaling in response to network events
- Auto-healing functionality, to fix network problems
- Security awareness, to detect abnormal activity
Networking and IT professionals are looking at such functions as the true promise of virtualization technology. Our 2016 Network Virtualization in the Data Center Survey found that flexibility and agility ranking high among users, who see software-based networking provisioning as a major benefit in how they do their jobs – by automating key functions and making change to the network much easier.
Building a network that delivers all of this functionality is challenging. The industry consensus is that we are not there yet. The big question in SDN and NFV circles these days is, why is everything taking so long? A forthcoming analyst report will define many of the challenges of networking automation using SDN and NFV, which is proving more complex than server virtualization.
Dan Conde, an analyst with market research firm ESG, will be publishing a survey later in April that digs into the challenges of network automation and why enterprises want to deploy the technology.
ESG has agreed to share some of the interesting findings from their forthcoming report, “Network Automation: Enabler of IT process goals,” with SDxCentral.com. ESG surveyed 247 IT professionals representing enterprise-class (1,000 employees or more) and mid market organizations in North America to find out how enterprises are looking at network automation. All respondents were involved in evaluating and purchasing data center networking technologies and expressed and interest in network automation, according to ESG.
What does it mean about the future of the industry? Conde, who is writing the report, says that the evolution of automation will migrate from server-based to network virtualization, which presents some new challenges.
Network automation is more complex and difficult to implement than server virtualization, said Conde in both phone and email interviews. Implementing virtual machine technology on standard servers is now fairly simple and straightforward — the hardware devices are generally limited to standard servers or appliances and the tools are well-known. But networking can include a wide array of physical devices including both servers and switches.
Conde says there are several issues. One of them is that VMs are consistently dealing with the same resources – servers – whereas networks can include a combination of many hardware and software devices including physical devices and VNFs.
“If one considers automation to be way to control the range of network devices, it will be a bigger challenge,” says Conde.
But regardless of the challenges, that doesn’t mean enterprises aren’t interested in doing it. They see the benefit of network automation. Here are some of the most significant benefits seen by users, according to ESG’s survey:
- Consistent configuration (20%)
- Agility in provisioning (18%)
- Meeting SLAs (17%).
What lies in the future? Conde says that enterprise data center specialists are looking at ways to use a variety of scripting tools, commercial products, and DevOps style development to program the networking infrastructure. “They want to programmatically manage a whole bunch of devices by using network automation techniques, with programmatic methods. Another way to do it is go a step beyond for policy control [available today in some SDN and NFV solutions]”
Another question that users have is which scripting and programming tools to use. For example, some managers are relying on their own scripting technologies to control command-line interfaces, while others are looking at DevOps-style tools such as Ansible and Puppet. Yet others are looking for their commercial partners to guide them with network automation and policy tools that are built into the infrastructure.
The ESG reseach, in combination with SDxCentral’s own findings, indicates that end-users have ambitious plans for network automation. The complexity of the market and the range of potential solutions makes plotting a path forward a little more complex than server virtualization, but the roadmap is in place and the goals are clear: End users expect SDN and NFV to transform the management of their networks, offering a wide array of networking, automation, and programmability.