With the drive to cost containment following budget pressures after the pandemic, Network Automation has drawn the attention of IT departments. In addition, customers are demanding more and better services from their service providers, and Network Automation is one way to meet those budget pressures in a cost-effective way.
What is Network Automation?
Traditionally networks have been made up of two or more often, three layers of networking in a tree structure:
- The core. This is where the big iron sits:
- The servers holding the common applications software and data, email and other common services;
- The corporate Internet connection; and
- Protection services such as anti-malware and anti-spyware measures against network attacks.
- An access layer where the end-user sits; and
- An intermediate distribution layer where different network elements are consolidated and connected to the core layer. For example, in a campus environment, the distribution layer could consolidate the individual access layer networks servicing several individual buildings.
In the past, the equipment making up the physical network, including routers and switches would need manual individual configuration before installation and later maintenance, a time-consuming and laborious process prone to error.
In the case of a network fault leading to poor service and possibly to downtime, the reasons had to be investigated and remedied manually, again a time-consuming and laborious task. With Network Automation, a network could become self-healing and self-configuring, substantially reducing downtime.
Finally, monitoring network performance and overall operational efficiency was a manual process. Not so with network automation.
Fortunately, network automation software is available from several suppliers. Simply put, a Software Defined Access network splits the automated network into two levels or planes – the physical level of equipment, and the software level which sits over the physical level and defines what the network looks like and how it operates. In essence, the network configures itself as the equipment is added to it.
Network Automation for a Service Provider
Service providers will have more than one customer using their network infrastructure. Maintaining network integrity for each user is critical. As a result, networks can be complex and difficult to maintain. Therefore, network automation is crucial to improving the operational costs, efficiency and scalability of their operations.
The automation of routine tasks and processes means reductions in human error, decreases in the time required to complete tasks, and improvements in the overall quality of service delivery.
The Benefits of Network Automation
Some of the key benefits of network automation for service providers include:
Improved Service Provisioning. A key function for Service Providers is provisioning new customers and implementing upgrades for existing customers Network Automation reduces the time to bring new services into operation.
Better network efficiencies. The self-healing and self-configuration capabilities of Software-Defined and Intent-Based networks provide a network automation capability. Consequently, the installation, reconfiguration and repair of the physical network layer is automated, meaning faster installation, reconfiguration and repair times.
Real-time resource allocation, routing, and general traffic management can be optimised, leading to more efficient networks and faster responses to incidents.
Service Level Improvements. Taking the above benefits together, normal network operations and incident responses are quicker, more effective, and in many cases proactive. Overall, customers can see improvements in service levels, and the service provider can see reductions in network management costs.
In addition to the service level improvements noted above, the quality of responses to calls for service improve. Disruptions to users caused by network downtime are reduced, leading to improvements in customer satisfaction, and potentially over-delivery on service-level commitments.
Cost Savings. Operational; costs are improved by no longer requiring labour-intensive configuration, repair and monitoring tasks. Staff can be redeployed to more productive tasks, or staff levels reduced. Resource utilisation improves.
Further on staff matters, network automation can help with scalability and the staffing requirements needed to support the existing infrastructure.
How To Go About it
On the face of it, network automation is a no-brainer. However, implementing it can be a challenge, especially in a legacy network environment. There are issues around equipment, maintaining service levels during the transition and staffing. Also, there will be financial implications for the new technology needed, and the warm body costs if experts are needed to design, develop and implement the solution. A significant investment is likely.
As with most other networking and IT projects it’s not just technology, it’s people. Moving to an Automated Network is a mind shift for the networking staff. It is a new way of working.
Several preparatory projects will be needed:
A network audit. It may be that not all equipment, particularly older legacy equipment is supported by automation software. If so, it will need to be replaced. The audit should also include cabling to ensure all cabling is at least CAT5e.
A staff skills audit. Managing the new automated network means new skills. The output will be a training plan for each member of staff.
A communications plan. With the best will In the world, there will be hiccups during the transition to the new automated network. Customers will need to be aware that the project is proceeding how it will benefit them,, how it could affect them during the transition, and the planning in place to ensure the minimum of disruption to their operations during the transition.
To summarise, network automation will bring great benefits to managed service providers, but it will mean careful pre-planning and execution to achieve maximum benefit.