Large enterprises rely on the management and administration of their networks to continue their daily operations. In recent years, networking trends have pointed towards using automated processes to regulate and administer enterprise networks. Automated networks free up administrators to tackle more complex and specialized problems requiring the human touch. In addition, the automation process offers the advantage of eliminating the possibility of common mistakes caused by user miscalculations.
Network automation isn’t just growing in terms of ability; it’s also becoming much more popular. GM Insights illustrates how the network automation market is expected to grow by 26% CAGR between 2020 and 2026. This trend continues the general move towards automation in previous decades, where its use as a replacement for human involvement has become mainstream. This dramatic rise in usage will likely set the standard for network management in the years to come, making it more important for administrators to wrap their heads around it.
This article discusses network automation and illustrates use cases, the challenges, and solutions of automated network management.
What is network automation?
Simply put, network automation is the use of software to automatically perform tasks and protocols formerly performed manually by network engineers. This means the granular work of configuring and reconfiguring switches and routers is done automatically through preset automated scripting initially set up by the administrator. This shifts the network administrator’s role to focus on creating these processes and adjusting them, when necessary.
The applications for these processes change by industry. For example, a network administrator working in healthcare typically needs to monitor, adjust, and repair broken systems on their own to ensure that the network is running smoothly. In particular, they need this network to be exceptionally secure—if it is not, the medical information on the network could potentially be at risk. Similarly, they have to ensure that their network is updated to comply with HIPAA privacy laws. This process can be incredibly time-consuming, taking up time better spent on different specialized tasks.
Automated network management applications
Although the push to automate networks is far more popular today than five or 10 years ago, some are still waiting for more information before committing to the switch. Network automation offers several advantages over manual network operation, including:
- Easier management
- Faster workflow
- Frees administrator time
The effects of networks not being appropriately managed are too significant to ignore. When a network is left unattended or not managed enough, it experiences difficulties with everything from application performance and lag to (at maximum) major security breaches. The dangers of network failure are even more prominent for businesses, resulting in potential data leaks and cyberattacks. Damages to the business’s reputation are also crucial factors to consider, which creates PR nightmares and financial losses that may take years to recover from.
While automation benefits apply across the board, there are also specific use cases where network automation offers unique advantages. Below we discuss automated networks and how they benefit configuration management, changes, and compliance.
Network configuration refers to how the network is set up and organized. It contains information on all hardware devices attached to the network and controls all processes involved with repair and maintenance. In this sense, a network’s configuration management database may be one of the essential elements to automate.
The benefits of an automated configuration management network include:
- Replacing network functions in the event of a failure
- Saving configurations in different formats
- Controlling and monitoring network repairs
- Overseeing network upgrades
- Storing information on default network systems
Automated networks perform these actions automatically (or automatically notify the administrator, if preferred), taking the labor demand out of them. It similarly offers network engineers the option of saving different configuration options for when they might want to enable them.
It’s important to remember that the systems we use to regulate our networks today are not necessarily the same systems we will use in the future. As the tools and programs used to regulate a network evolve and grow over time, network administrators also benefit from a system that automatically updates and adapts to them. Automated updates benefit every industry from tech to automotive, as businesses are generally more successful when they can quickly adapt and integrate new technologies as they become available.
Although the internet used to be the wild west in terms of legislative regulations, legal restrictions quickly catch up with technology. The last two decades have seen major legislation regulating user privacy (HIPAA) record-keeping (Sarbanes-Oxley Act) and transparency (Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act), but industry projections expect new laws to be enacted, which networks will have to reflect.
Manual networks pose a much more significant challenge to administrators trying to compensate for these regulations. By switching to an automated system, administrators can ensure that their network meets the criteria as defined by the law and focus their energy on more advanced issues.
The challenges and solutions of network automation
Despite everything that automated networks provide for administrators and users alike, many are hesitant to embrace them, citing a variety of potential problems with their use. A few major concerns include:
- Perceived loss of security
- Complex tools which require management themselves
- Need for customization
- Legacy systems & devices
Some of these issues are more about the perception of automated networks rather than the networks themselves. However, others represent real concerns. A banking company, for example, may have excessive security needs to protect customer funds. The consideration of legacy systems—outdated non-integrative software still in use—affects all industries.
These concerns are understandable, but often don’t reflect reality. The complex tools involved in an automated network, no matter how difficult, do not hold a candle to the energy required to manage a manual network. Nearly all automated networks offer the customization options sought by significant industries, and legacy devices are, in reality, not quite as unreachable as most of us think. More information on the steps to network automation will illuminate how automation can adapt to practically any setting.
Network Automation; the next steps
The trend of automation is becoming more critical to understand than ever. As network management trends move further away from traditional human-centered models, the hardware used to manage them will quickly become outdated. It will become vital for competitive enterprises to automate their networks to stay relevant with that in mind.