With the introduction of network programmability and APIs for everything from management systems to devices themselves, the modern network landscape has evolved to being managed like software. This shift from hardware-focused networks to software-centric functions has had a profound effect on network management techniques and skillsets required to keep pace with the changing ecosystem.
A recent EMA survey notes that skills gaps associated with network automation are an issue for 96% of enterprises. Even respondents with significant network automation initiatives in place felt their solutions stretched the abilities of their network teams. Network automation can expose skills gaps where network engineers might lack experience with new tools and software development. At the same time, application development teams, who likely would be included in building an in-house network or automation software solution, will also lack networking skills. Hybrid skills with both development and networking expertise are rare and available only at a premium.
This journey to network automation can be difficult, especially given the required technical skills that are not in abundance within many organizations. Simplifying network automation and empowering a broader set of participation through capabilities to easily create and manage automation workflows presents a key opportunity for organizations to not only mature efforts around network automation, but to also execute against broader business digital transformation objectives.
Four Keys to Democratizing Network Automation
The key to democratizing network automation and bridging the skills gap is to provide NetOps teams with the ability to easily design and build network automation without having to re-tool, build custom code or learn specialized software skills. There are four key elements required to effectively democratize network automation in the enterprise.
Easy Onramp for Non-Developer
Automation is typically accomplished through writing code in a particular programming language. For a person without any programming skills (or even minimal skills), they must first learn how to code before they can even attempt their first automation task. This is very difficult in terms of time and interest. Additionally, many network engineers see the amount of work it would take to learn to write code, and become disinterested. There has to be a new set of tools and methodology to empower these people to automate their work without the long road of learning to become programmers. It’s important to invite as many people to the automation table as possible including IT, security, cloud and NetOps teams, to streamline business processes.
Capture Network Tribal Knowledge
Within the organization, there is already existing embedded tribal knowledge that is incredibly valuable. By harnessing and transferring that knowledge into an automation workflow without a lot of programming, it provides an accelerated path to network automation. The goal is to leverage traditional network automation and management practices (Scripts, CLI) for re-use across the organization.
Network engineers with years and years of experience have a valuable set of processes and procedures they’ve built up inside their heads, and this wealth of information is a valuable asset. Unfortunately, this information is rarely documented and is normally passed on by activity and word of mouth. This is the type of tribal knowledge that needs to be captured, preferably through automation workflows that can be used in a task, documented in the workflow and modified over time to improve it or change it as the infrastructure changes.
Integrate DevOps Principles
Augment network automation with CI/CD pipelines and API services. These are well known solid principles that are already used in other domains outside of networking and pay big dividends when applied to the automation of complex networks. When we look along the horizon of the network automation journey, these same CI/CD practices will be adopted by future networking teams and allow them the same advantages of reliability and velocity within the network.
Enable Cloud Architect Participation
It is important to have networking people that can understand the networking constructs of the cloud, as well as cloud teams that understand how it integrates and operates within the network. Enabling cloud architect participation in network automation will allow for the real-time feedback and control of cloud-based applications and infrastructure critical to modern networks.
Cloud networking is increasing in complexity and will soon require the skills and experience of network engineers to help solve the problems of cloud networking. Traditionally, cloud and networking teams have been separated because their technology domains have been siloed and there was very little interaction required between the teams. As technologies like SD-WAN have been adopted, the line of responsibility between cloud and network teams has blurred. Cloud and networking teams will need an automation platform that can be used by both to create workflows and automate between both domains. Business technology decisions are forcing these two groups together, and they must have a way to use their own tools, but also have a platform to collaborate automation between them.
As applications and services are becoming more complex, distributed and require connectivity and policy enforcement across a diversity of domains (such as cloud, SD-WAN, data center, wireless and network applications), the management of these network concepts requires us to re-think how we have traditionally managed networks. As network automation plays an increasingly larger role in enterprise networks, a byproduct of the complexity is a skills gap that threatens to slow or stymie enterprise initiatives.
By making the onramp to network automation easier for non-developers through capturing tribal knowledge, integrating DevOps principles and enabling cloud architect participation, enterprises better ensure a successful migration to network automation across multiple domains.