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Demystifying 5 network automation terms we see everywhere.  
Updated: August 16, 2022

Demystifying 5 network automation terms we see everywhere.  

The world of network automation is far from immune to buzzwords designed to lure you in with promises of the perfect solution to your network woes.

Some are very appropriate metaphors or powerful terms that effectively crystallize the offerings or services that would seem otherwise abstract. Others are all frosting and no cupcake. Often, these dazzling terms are presented as the function of an offered tool or service, rather than what they are – a goal, or ideal, that tools can help you get closer toward.

Let’s dig into the meaning behind the marketing – what are industry voices saying, and does it line up with what they deliver? Is it a buzzword, or is it brilliant – or both? Here’s our take.

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1. Data Democratization

Data democratization refers to making network data, or information about your network, freely accessible to anyone in an organization who might need it beyond just the team working directly with the network (e.g., security teams, cloud teams, C-suite). The benefits include reduction of bottlenecks in workflows through self-service processes, enabling asynchronous work, harmony across teams, and reduced MTTR.

We use this term proudly at IP Fabric – not only because alliteration is irresistible, but because it succinctly sums up the above-mentioned benefits without overstating what the concept refers to practically.

When is it a buzzword?

  • When platforms claim this as a benefit, but do not develop their product with this as a priority, and therefore require convoluted processes to effectively share data with teams.

When is it brilliant?

2. Digital Twin

The ambition of a digital twin – that is, an exact virtual replica of your network you can use to simulate and test changes – is sound, in that having a true digital twin would be extremely useful. Real-time updating of this network representation to reflect your actual network state should mean it’s always accurate and behaving as your real-life network does. However, we know that reality is not so.

The issue here is not with the concept – if you can find a true digital twin, sign us up - but the term is often confidently applied to products and platforms that are not a digital twin at all. Generously, some may be a digital cousin, in the sense they share some DNA with your network but fundamentally, they won’t behave exactly the same under the same conditions (which is the whole point).

That’s what the term implies, right? You would expect a digital twin of your network to be a precise DNA match.  

When is it a buzzword?

It's not really a digital twin if:

  • There are variations in routing behavior due to differences in how vendors apply network standards (you’d have to segment your network by vendor or function to avoid this)
  • There are conditions and circumstances that cannot be accounted for when simulating changes (unintended consequences)

Claiming that a digital twin provides end-to-end security posture visibility creates a risk for network operators who believe that they are working with a true digital twin. They may be making decisions based on ultimately useless simulations that can lead to unintended consequences in the actual network.

When is it brilliant?

A so-called digital twin is great when used as a tool for guidance – remember that real-world conditions can always introduce variables that your digital twin can’t account for. Nothing substitutes the insights of the actual network engineer, whose job can be made a lot easier with a digital twin. Their knowledge and observations are hugely augmented by tooling, but not always replaced.

Our network model, which achieves similar goals – test changes, see how data flows through your network – but is proudly of its own DNA; its point-in-time representation of your network normalizes output from different vendors to supply a flexible, sharable understanding of your network behavior. Assurance then ensures that you know exactly what your actual network state is.

3. Intent-based networking

This refers to decisions about - and changes to - the network being led by intent, or a defined set of business objectives that represent how you desire your network to operate.

By starting with intent, usually stored in a Source of Truth repository, like the open-source Netbox, and having every network operation be in service of aligning with that intent in an automated fashion, you are ever closer to having your actual network state match your dream network state.

Intent-based networking is largely attractive to enterprises because it can help manage the complexity inherent in a modern, dynamic network.

When is it a buzzword?

  • When there’s no trustworthy assurance element continuously validating that your actual network state aligns with your intent.
  • When your source of truth is incomplete, inaccurate, or outdated.
  • Sometimes, there will be systems within an SD-WAN that encompasses a source of truth, assurance, and fulfillment, but are limited in scope - they are vendor- and domain-specific and not scalable to the rest of the network. This intent-based network with a network can actually introduce more network complexity - the exact opposite of a major goal of IBN.

When is it brilliant?

  • When all three elements of IBN – network assurance, a collection of sources of truth, and scalable fulfillment – are executed properly and cater to the whole network (are multi-vendor, multi-domain, etc).

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4. Single pane of glass

Anyone in the network automation space has likely seen this term a thousand times over – maybe the first few times, it elicited a vision of utopia – everything you could ever need to operate your network visible in one place. The ultimate consolidation of important information.

After the 999th time, however, it’s clear with so many products and platforms claiming to offer this, they can’t all be the single pane of glass that your organization needs.

If they were, you would only ever have one place to go to do anything in the network infrastructure:

  • Kick-off changes
  • Inventory
  • Documentary
  • Changes
  • Real-time monitoring
  • Proactive reporting and auditing
  • Do all this in a multi-vendor, multi-domain environment

Additionally, it would have to serve a myriad of different lenses that operators approach the network with – cloud teams, security teams, and leadership. The single pane of glass is an ideal to strive for, not a silver bullet that you can buy.

When is it a buzzword?

Platforms claiming that they are “it”, rather than showing how they can accelerate you toward this goal.

When is it brilliant?

Tools that gather data from disparate places and present it in a single, consumable form, in an accessible manner, help move the needle toward a unified network view for all teams; as mentioned, it’s a useful metaphor for a goal to work toward.

5. Single source of truth

A Single Source of Truth – that all teams can trust - is touted as a key element of network automation projects, especially so for intent-based networking.

By nature, IBN requires that you express a single, consistent intent against which you build, test, and validate your network state.

Your source of truth is the ultimate repository of your network desires that are determined by clear business goals, which your actual network state should be continuously validated against.

When is it a buzzword?

When any one tool claims to contain the entirety of your intent. Expecting enterprises with dynamically growing networks to contain their entire intent in a single system is unrealistic. That said, there are tools that consolidate the information from these systems – your sources of truth – to make them useful, consistent, and updated for network automation projects.

IP Fabric does the same for your actual network state so that you can validate it against your source of truth.

When is it brilliant?

You likely have, as mentioned above, many sources of truth containing information about elements of your network.

A single source of truth can be a helpful data cleansing element to consolidate these repositories managed by different teams and smooth out duplicates, inconsistencies, and interdependencies to ensure that your “sources of truth” are as accurate and valid as possible.

WATCH: For the Journey 2: From Design to Source of Truth with Network to Code & BlueCat

Cut through the noise

In an industry that is constantly innovating, buzzwords ebb and flow in the zeitgeist.  We’re certainly not above overusing some of our favorites to describe our offerings concisely and concretely when applicable – as discussed, buzzwords can be brilliant, if used honestly.  

However, overuse can muddy the waters with regard to how these terms are applied. Before your eyes light up at the next promise to solve all your problems, tactically assess – is it a buzzword or brilliant (or both)?


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