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Why network managers must embrace automation, not fear it

Fri 17 Feb 2017
FYI, this story is more than a year old

When discussing the value of a software-defined wide area network (SD-WAN), issues raised include cost and user experience. SD-WANs are certainly cheaper and deliver a better and more predictable user experience, with better application performance leading to higher productivity.

But according to Zeus Kerravala, principal analyst with ZK Research, writing for Silver Peak, a third element is less apparent. It is the automation that SD-WANs bring to networking.

Network management is manually intensive and time-consuming. Things are done a box or location at a time and network changes can ages to implement. A recent study by ZK Research found that the average time to make a network change was over four months.

Historically this hasn’t mattered much, as the business and the network were somewhat decoupled. But in today’s digital era where speed is everything, four months can be an eternity.  Also, because the network is so important, most changes — even simple ones — are made by senior network engineers. These expensive resources are spending much of their time making repetitive changes to network devices via antiquated CLI interfaces, instead of working on strategic initiatives to move their organisations forward.

So what is holding back network automation?  Automation changes the paradigm and makes the network dramatically more agile, yet network engineers have not fully embraced automation for two primary reasons.

Many have feared automation. They didn’t trust turning the network over to a machine to make changes. An engineer might be a good CLI jockey, and through the use of scripts, custom code and a lot of cut and paste, he/she might make changes at lightning speed. There may have been some errors along the way causing unnecessary downtime, but they could fix these through more cutting and pasting, which might cause more problems. It seemed cumbersome but it was better than turning operations over to a machine!

The other reason — and few engineers will admit this — is a job security concern regarding automation. If a tool comes along and automates core tasks, what role will the engineer play moving forward?  Most people, even others in IT, have no clue as to how a network operates and work done at the command line level seems like some super network Jedi magic that only the most highly skilled and technically trained and certified will understand.

Network landscape is shifting

But the world is changing, and sticking with this mentality will eventually impact the organisation. No matter how talented a network engineer is, there’s simply no way that the individual or team can work as quickly or efficiently as an automated system.

We hear lots about digital transformation and how companies need to move with greater speed and agility. But how is a business supposed to move fast if network changes take months to implement?  Make no mistake, network managers need to embrace automation. Old school thinking is that there is a level of risk associated with automation, but the reverse is true: by not automating network operations the risk increases of the business losing its competitive edge.

SD-WAN can automate tasks

SD-WANs are grounded in automation, and orchestrating network and application changes can be made in tight alignment with changing business requirements. SD-WAN rollouts can be achieved quickly and efficiently, automating configurations in alignment with business policy and intent. Dynamic tunnels, security controls and application optimisation can be applied when the business needs it instead of when the CCIE has time to make the change.

Network professionals should also consider that as the world changes, the skillset of every IT individual needs to change. Sticking with legacy processes that require manual configuration means the engineer is not learning the skills required to compete in the digital era.

Network changes can be made much faster and far more efficiently through the use of automation vs. trying to manage the network a device at a time. This is particularly important for the WAN as the network endpoints are located worldwide and errors can result in lengthy outages. SD-WANs change the networking paradigm and make automation a reality.

Clearly this is good for enhancing business agility, as changes can be made quickly and the network can become an enabling resource for the digital enterprise. But is automation the death knell for today’s network manager? The answer is both yes and no. Networking is difficult, and knowledgeable people will always be in high demand. However, successful network managers’ skill sets will be radically different. Change is difficult, but it is critical to maintaining relevancy.

Sticking with a legacy network means sticking with a legacy skill set. The automation capabilities of an SD-WAN enables engineers to stop doing mundane, repetitive operational tasks through antiquated CLI interfaces and to shift their focus towards building new skills to meet the demands of the future head on. For 2017, network managers are strongly urged to embrace an SD-WAN, automate processes and focus towards gaining new strategic skills:

  • Orchestration. The ability to orchestrate network changes with business or application policies is critical to automation. There are many orchestration tools available to businesses today. Some, like Puppet and Chef have become de facto standards, while some vendors, such as Silver Peak offer their own orchestration platform, along with free training and certification. It’s impossible to be proficient in all of them but it’s important to master a few of them.
  • Programming. We cannot expect a network manager to be able to create mobile applications and assume the role of a software developer. However, most software-defined products have southbound and northbound APIs that interface directly with business applications. Network engineers should seek to learn new languages such as Ruby and Python to remain strategic in today’s rapidly evolving, software-first industry.
  • Big data and analytics. This certainly isn’t for everyone, as a mastery of data sciences requires a strong maths foundation. However, most CIOs polled say there is a significant shortage of talented people capable of gathering information, analysing it, and understanding how to make it actionable. Many believe big data and analytics to be foundational for successful digital transformation, and any engineers who are looking to move into a hot space should jump in with both feet.
  • Business communications. Success in the digital era requires a tight partnership between the business units and IT. Unfortunately, there is no Rosetta Stone that can be used to translate IT vernacular into a language the business can understand, and vice versa. There’s a definite need for individuals who have the ability to translate business requirements into something that IT can understand and implement. Also, financial engineering is becoming more important as IT purchasing shifts from a CAPEX towards a subscription model. Being able to accurately compare perpetual licences to subscriptions is a key component of making the best financial decisions.
  • Security skills. The shift to digital has changed security requirements. Security is moving away from the protecting the perimeter and is shifting towards being able to protect the internal network with tools like segmentation. This too is in high demand. One advantage network managers have is that digital security is dependent on network data and analytics. Security presents an exceptional evolutionary path for high level network engineers.

Change is hard and it can be daunting. Many network professionals have spent years or even decades mastering their current skill set, earning strategic certifications along the way, so having to learn new skills can be unsettling. Yet technology marches on and resisting change will result in becoming irrelevant. Honing the simplicity and automation capabilities of an SD-WAN will free valuable time to evolve skillsets in line with changing business requirements.

By Graham Schultz, Sales Director Australia and New Zealand, Silver Peak

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