Network Automation Journey — Part 1

May 26, 2020

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By Omid Moheb, Kovarus Sr. Solution Architect

“The Times They Are a-Changin’” to quote a great artist — and the network world is not untouched by it. Far away are the times where you connected A to B, configured spanning tree, IP address, speed and duplex and all you needed to do to troubleshoot is a shut/no-shut along with a few pings and traceroutes. There’re plenty of blogs out there that analyze and list all the critical events and technology advancements that had an impact on the network, and being a network guy for the past 20+ years, I’ve gone through those personally, trying to embrace the changes and understand how they help us building better performing networks and achieve a 100% uptime. But those are not the only Key Performance Indicators (KPIs) anymore — security and the need to have network service coverage practically in every spot on (and soon off) the planet are posing greater challenges than we’ve ever seen. On top of that, you have shorter lifecycles (heard of End of Sale/Support/Life/etc. much lately?) in the ever-changing market and the shift from a licensing perspective — moving from perpetual licenses to subscription based. And then there’s, of course, the new Enterprise Agreements every company is pushing.

If you’re like me, you rather have the networks up and running without causing major ruckus and you know what it takes to keep them well oiled (please don’t ever put oil into your network gear!). I’m not in it for the recognition, but to maintain a good work/life balance, I focus on keeping up with the changes and constantly improve the networks I’m responsible for; instead of putting out fires and chasing my own tail trying to keep up. Which brings me to what this blog is all about: Network Automation. I’d like to think that network engineers’ time are very valuable, and I want to spend their time as little as possible on routine and repetitive menial tasks. Most people think you can just bring up a host, slap some automation software on it, and you’re good to go, and that is what I see mostly out there in all the other blogs I’ve been reading.

Guess what … it’s not true! The first step towards automation is a lot of effort cleaning up, standardizing and documenting your environment. At the very least, you also need a simple but working layer to monitor and manage your networks. Sure, automation can get you there faster, but it’s not the silver bullet, here’re some pre-requisites you should be focusing on before you take on Software Defined Anything, Network Virtualization, or Infrastructure as Code:

  • Single Source of Truth: documentation should be kept dynamic (tools that update your network state as it’s changing daily) as well as static (process documentation, IP/VLAN/VRF/etc. schemas, cabling standards, etc.) where needed.
  • Open Standards: The best strategy to be able to cope with change is to keep your options open, have interfaces into and out of your networks and tools that monitor and manage them.
  • Maintenance & Operations: I’m sure you’ve observed this too: just too often do I see cool stuff being implemented, configured, created, but nobody was thinking about how to operate and maintain it, and who will own it once it’s in place. Less is more in this case — if you don’t have the cycles or don’t understand or for whatever other reason won’t be able to support the new solution, it’s usually a better choice to stay away from it until you have figured out the maintenance and operations aspect of it.
  • Discipline and Follow-Through: This is an odd one, but the best documentation and processes are useless when there’s nobody that enforces and follows them. If you (or someone else) decided to update the network software twice a year, then you really need to perform it twice a year — on all the devices, no exception. And don’t give up after a failed maintenance event, perform a Root Cause Analysis (RCA) and plan/schedule the next one, until the job’s done.

I’m sure I’m preaching to the choir with all this, so enough with the foreplay, let’s jump right into why you’re here: You want to learn more about network automation and how to get started.

I’m going to walk you through it in the simplest manner I know — worst case, you can just copy and paste everything and get to where you need to be. Ideally though, if you don’t understand what’s going on with each step, I encourage you to do some research, which will help you broaden your knowledge and save you a ton of time, and is very valuable in the long run!

As for the choices in terms of OS, tools, etc., I tried to stay as much as I could on the free and open-source side, so you won’t have to deal with financial and commercial issues following my steps.

In the second part of this Network Automation Journey, we’re going to focus on creating the basic (virtual) infrastructure that is required to get you going. Stay tuned.

Looking to learn more about modernizing and automating IT? We created the Kovarus Proven Solutions Center (KPSC) to let you see what’s possible and learn how we can help you succeed. To learn more about the KPSC go to the KPSC page.

Also, follow Kovarus on LinkedIn for technology updates from our experts along with updates on Kovarus news and events.