Let’s face it, as network engineers, we get excited about connectivity. We care about the cool technologies we get to play with to connect users to apps, “things” to data stores. However, fundamentally “The Business” doesn’t care about switches and routers, circuits and routing protocols. The network underpins all of The Business’s IT and without it, that IT stops. System availability is king and the foundation to all systems is our network.

So what are our priorities from a business perspective? Maximise uptime through resilience to failure, fast response, and proactive operations.

What does The Business need from its IT?

We all know that automating the network operations – standardising and templating configuration; capturing and proactively checking state before things go wrong; running scripted tests before and after changes etc etc … This all improves the quality of our service. And that is the key to selling the idea of network automation to The Business. Make consumption of the network frictionless, maximise uptime and minimise disruption when issues do occur. Simple!

Consider your automation projects with these things top of mind. Answer some simple questions as you embark on your project. It will help you get the time and resource you need from The Business to make it happen.

  1. How am I improving the fault tolerance of the network? What preventative measures am I introducing?
  2. How am I making it easier to troubleshoot the network? What am I doing to minimise MTTR?
  3. How am I making the network service easier to consume? How does The Business interact with the network and its support?
  4. How am I enhancing the security of company and customer systems and data? Am I improving policy implementation and audit?
  5. How am I enabling the business to meet its regulatory and compliance obligations? What targeted reporting capabilities can I introduce?

1. Fault Tolerance

I’ve written many times in the past about designing networks for system availability (example here). Most of the time, we think that this consists of ensuring we have redundancy, high-availability for fast failover, and performance to spare. But often it’s the proactive manageability of systems that makes the real difference here in areas like:

  • Lifecycle Management – tracking and keeping the system up to date with proactive upgrades. This helps to ensure security fixes and bugs are addressed;
  • Monitoring – having a good method of detecting the status of devices, links and services. Helps to determine service status at any given time in any given location;
  • Supportability – strong support processes which kick in when monitoring indicates that an issue has occurred.  

As examples, consider that The Business will see tangible benefit if we demonstrate that network automation tasks can help to:

  • ensure we know what upgrades are available to us, and that they can be carried out with minimal impact to the network;
  • keep the monitoring platforms up to date with accurate information about type, role and location of devices in the network;
  • replace manual complex failover or DR invocation processes.

2. Mean Time to Resolution

How best to reduce the time taken to solve an issue when it occurs? Give the engineering team responsible the best information about the current state of the network. By “best” we might mean:

  • Make it thorough: topology, configuration, state, application flows, security policy, design documentation
  • Make it current: up-to-the-minute data, representing the state of the network now – even better if you don’t need to go searching for it
  • Make it historical: maintain earlier baseline information, and comparisons with current state to see how things have changed over time

Collating and centralising network data saves significant time in the troubleshooting process. With a complete picture, the solution to the problem will be more evident and thus be spotted more quickly. This inevitably leads to reduced MTTR. A project to deliver that saves the engineering team from manually trawling the network for data when a fault occurs.

3. Service Consumption

In the 21st Century, utilising IT in itself is no longer considered to provide a competitive advantage for businesses. It has become a commodity and one which the modern business can’t do without. As such, the real value of IT is now to make it frictionless and easy for The Business to consume. The network is unavoidably complex. But it needs to be ubiquitous and adaptable in order to meet the demands of a modern business.

As a result, IT operations should be well integrated, providing a continuous, joined-up experience for its users. Specifically, the focus should be on a such things as:

  • Understanding interdependencies of the elements of the IT infrastructure up and down the stack. For example, the critical application requires workloads on servers A, B and C to be load balanced and presented to users accessing the network over the WAN from sites X, Y and Z and so on. Once this is known, it is then possible to measure real service availability; make targeted changes to that application delivery if required; and respond in a more timely fashion should there be an issue with delivery of the application in question. This all means that the user does not need to care about the IT infrastructure. They can then focus on the availability of the specific services they need.
  • Providing opportunities for self-service. Rather than have to engage IT teams to make what may appear to be simple changes, we can build processes to allow users to provision, change and tear down their specific resources themselves. To deploy a new app for example, we might need a new VLAN in the DC; create new VMs; carry out routing configuration; update firewall rules to allow the new infrastructure access to the Internet; define a new group of users to allow authentication etc etc. This one is an obvious and classic use case for automation.

4. Security

The press talks of how personal data is being compromised, held to ransom, or sold off to the highest bidder. Stories also tell of the massive fines that companies are now facing for allowing these kinds of breaches to happen. Add to that the intellectual property that is being stolen from organisations by bad actors. Factor in the denial-of-service attacks which can halt IT operations which we have already seen are critical to the normal functioning of The Business.

Anything that can be done to improve visibility of information flow into and out of the business; anything that can help lock down access to applications and data; anything that helps improve audit and assessment of security posture. All of these will be seen to be a benefit to The Business by the higher-ups.

5. Compliance

Closely allied to Security but subtly different: each business operates within its own regulatory framework. If the business takes card payments, it might need to be concerned with PCI-DSS; if it operates in the healthcare space it might need to worry about HIPAA; in the US there is SOX regulation and GDPR regulates the use of personal data globally to differing extents.

Each of these compliance frameworks bring with them their own audit requirements, which – if they are not met – can bring substantial penalties, both financial and operational. Traditionally, that may have meant that for one week a year, an organisation would have to pause its IT operations. It would then have to deal with generating the necessary audit reports and documentation to satisfy annual audits.

Automating that compliance reporting in any form, would likely save huge amounts of time and energy – a real boon for The Business.

Conclusion

It’s indicative of the world we find ourselves in where the network is considered a utility like power or water. Network engineers now need to understand more about the business environment they are working in. They need to be able to sell the benefits of the technologies they want or need to deploy.

Each specific business will find other areas of IT operations that you can address with network automation. But if you have answers to these five specific questions, you will find it a lot easier to get the support you need for your automaion projects from The Business. Incorporating IP Fabric into your network automation ecosystem will give you a head start in all of these areas. Many of the capabilities we have mentioned so far are built in!

In this day and age where IT is becoming more of a commodity, the success of IT projects is about the impact on The Business. In that way, automation – and indeed the broader network operations – is no different to any other technology project.

When you want to get support from The Business to get your network automation projects going, don’t focus on the shiny new tech, but on the real business benefits of deploying it!