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What is Network Automation Maturity?

December 29, 2021

Thanks to the scale of today’s modern hybrid networks, the sheer volume of similar but repetitive network operations tasks are now becoming a key business inhibitor. This is due to increasing network complexity as network operations teams are now responsible for a growing list of network technologies, including traditional equipment, datacenter SDN, SD-WAN, and the public clouds. What’s more, is recent assessments of actual client operational data reveal that the service tasks required to keep it all operational fit into just a handful of categories. And on a large scale, typical organizations struggle with service tickets that number into the thousands per month. These organizations understand there must be a way to shift from tactical operations to strategic by automating similar and repetitive work. However, they still struggle with how to do this.

For the time being, the network operations teams spend most of their time solving the same problems manually, over and over. Network repair times are higher, the overhead costs to the business are higher, and the overall business risk stays high. With traditional labor-intensive manual network operations, the only response to infrastructure growth is to hire more operators, which is coincident, is what’s happening today. But due to aging IT workers, the global pandemic, and overall changing personal priorities, that skilled operational staff is becoming harder to recruit and retain.

Network operations need to be smarter, not just bigger. It is reaching a tipping point and, unless something fundamentally changes in how network operations are addressed, the business will begin to become constrained by the overhead associated with their IT infrastructures. The same digital foundation that enabled their growth in the first place is becoming their obstacle to growth due to a lack of strategic operational scale.

Network automation can change everything as it matures within and across an organization. Automation allows IT professionals to manage and scale the operation of large networks more efficiently, with fewer resources and with less risk to the business. More value is placed on network operations personnel’s knowledge, experience, and expertise, rather than the number of hours they can work. Network operations teams that have embraced network automation don’t need to spend time manually troubleshooting the same service tasks and tickets. Instead, they apply the same successful procedures to all similar tasks. Mature network automation also leverages subject matter expert problem solving by allowing their knowledge to be captured and executed at the speed of the machine, regardless of which operator is charged with any given task. These operators can then learn from each other and share their knowledge and experience with their colleagues.

This article will discuss how to understand any organization’s network automation maturity, how increasing adoption changes the operations paradigm, and how deploying network automation can accelerate your strategic operational plan.

The Network Automation Maturity Model

Network automation is a means to scale operational tasks associated with running a network and its infrastructure. And while most IT network managers would agree that the big promise of network automation has been heard for years and the value it offers would be compelling, the means to incorporate it into their daily routines has been elusive. It’s important to understand your organization’s network maturity baseline and how to get started without the day-1 requirement.

The network automation maturity model helps you understand where you are in your network automation maturity and the steps to increase your automation maturity. With this understanding, you can begin to reap the benefits of network automation and adopt benefits over time to increase your automation maturity.

These are the steps in the network automation maturity model from left to right to help you realize more benefits, become more effective and responsive to the business, and reduce your operational overhead.

Level 0: Manual Processes for everything

Level 0 is purely manual and is where most organizations are today. It is based on CLI management interfaces for executing manual operational tasks and is entirely reliant on the operator or engineer’s individual skills and personal experience. There are no protections or guidance and task execution is inconsistent from operator to operator and from day today. All provisioning, configuration, and updating of network devices is done manually, and often under pressure without checks and balances to assure desired results. Worse yet, in many cases, the NetOps teams are in a virtual state of “firefighting” problems as they arise and the chance of making catastrophic errors is high. Many of the world’s most high-profile outages in recent years can be directly traced back to human error associated with manual network operations. Level 0 network automation maturity should be considered the baseline for most organizations today as it is the current state of network operations that supports their business.

Level 1: Leveraging smarter tools Interactively

Level 1 or “Interactive” is the first intentional step in network automation maturity. Think of this level as the guided level of network automation. Engineers and operators can still interact with the infrastructure components individually, but they do so using an intelligent platform that understands the underlying infrastructure in minute detail. Every device, platform, and technology are fully identified through the management interface which provides the context for executing operational tasks. The platform prevents or discourages operators or engineers from making changes that will result in unexpected results. It also allows engineers and operators to capture their own expertise into reusable automation routines, or Runbooks. Level 1 offers guardrails for any operator or engineer to make informed decisions and complete operational tasks. These tasks are more defendable because they are based on network real-time status and operating conditions.

With Level 1 maturity, NetOps professionals leverage their own expertise to automatically record standardized procedures into a runbook while detecting, diagnosing and fixing issues. From an Automation Maturity standpoint, it’s not just a matter of intelligently fixing an error or executing operational tasks the first time. The maturity comes from being able to learn from that experience and then being able to re-use it again in the future.

Level 2: Facilitating the collaboration amongst peers

Level 2, the “Collaborative” maturity stage, is where engineers and operators leverage their own knowledge and that of their peers to solve reoccurring problems. Level 2 maturity requires a platform that allows everyone to contribute to that knowledge, using some form of no-code approach. Programming has always been a huge obstacle to automation, so by using a platform that eliminates programming altogether, the knowledge of problem-solving increases rapidly. And by making this knowledge accessible to anyone within the company, an organization’s collective problem-solving capability in both scope and scale increases, without a commensurate increase in headcount or other finite resources. The scaling is a critical requirement of attaining level 2 network automation maturity.

Level 2 automation maturity allows network operation teams to increase their collective knowledge and share resources more effectively. It allows operational teams to act as a unified resource, rather than a loose collection of discrete experts. Problems are only solved once, and then subsequent occurrences are handled with the push of a button. In essence, this level of maturity makes the subject matter expertise available even when the subject matter expert is not.

Level 3: Automatic response to external events

Level 3 network automation maturity occurs when organizations use network automation in response to external events such as tickets created by an ITSM before operators and engineers get involved. When these external events occur, a response is triggered which can reduce or eliminate any number of diagnostic or remedial steps that would otherwise consume valuable that would otherwise need to be performed by the assigned operators or engineers.

In practice, a trigger automatically kicks off problem diagnosis, the creation of dynamic real-time maps of the issue, and the performance and device and path health checks. All this information is made available to operational staff by the time they begin working on the service ticket or other incident.

Level 3 network automation maturity shifts the operational paradigm from human-centric to automation-centric and dramatically reduces the meantime to repair in the process.

Level 4: Preventing problems before they occur

Level 4, the “Preventative” level of network automation maturity delivers enforcement of in-production conditions, running detection and performance tests continuously in the background. Engineers create diagnostic tasks based on network goals for bandwidth, ACLs, security, etc. Preventive network automation assures that as you introduce new applications, all requirements of the existing applications are preserved.

At this level, the automation system detects network conditions that vary from the requirements set forth by the enterprise application architects. This may include performance characteristics like bandwidth and quality of service, or in other cases access control, traffic optimization, and security policies. With level 4 network automation maturity, the network automation system is constantly verifying the defined rules. In some cases, these incidents can be resolved automatically, in other cases the early detection of out-of-spec operating conditions can reduce or eliminate service outages altogether. This level is ideal for maintaining regulatory, security, and access compliance by offering standardized reporting processes that meet internal and external audit requirements.

Level 4 network automation maturity helps organizations to prevent issues before they affect production business services. Preventive automation acts as a single source of truth to maintain network operating conditions required for each application across the global enterprise. It automatically assures those conditions exist continuously. Level 4 network automation maturity is a strategic approach to reducing the volume of service tasks.

Adapt to Changing Business Requirements Faster and More Effectively

With MTTR as the baseline in your network automation journey, you can easily measure concrete savings as you progress in your network maturity. For instance, the four hours that you spend manually executing a service ticket with CLI may be reduced to two hours through automation, saving 50%. And with organizations reporting 5,000 service tickets per month, this yields a monthly aggregate savings of about 10,000 hours (or approximately 60 operators). At prevailing network engineer hourly rates, that’s a savings of almost $1 million per month!

The knowledge contained within the system grows over time as more subject matter experts contribute their experience, becoming a tireless and virtually unlimited partner to the support team. As the NetOps team gains knowledge, or new networking technologies are introduced to the network, changing troubleshooting methods are captured automatically, allowing the number of automation to grow to support network changes.

Capturing your engineer’s knowledge makes your NetOps team stronger and more impactful to the business. NetBrain network automation facilitates sharing knowledge and improving the ability of every engineer to address a wider range of network issues without the need for each engineer to have extensive training on every device and possible scenario. And as the workforce changes over time, NetBrain’s network automation platform retains the entirety of their collective knowledge and makes it easy to empower new employees.

Automation Maturity Powers Strategic Growth

As network automation matures, operational efficiency climbs. Organizations that deploy NetBrain find their staff is more satisfied with their roles, and their value becomes problem-solving rather than simply repeating a mundane task over and over again. This allows them time to hone their advanced skills and learn new technologies that are personally rewarding from a career development point of view. These new skills include deploying and supporting public cloud networks, establishing highly flexible software-defined networking, data center interconnect and performance management, or exploring and adopting new digital transformation technologies.

With service tasks and tickets numbering into the hundreds or thousands per month, It’s clear that as enterprises advance their network automation maturity, operations become easier and more defendable. Advanced network automation maturity reduces costs and increases employee satisfaction while ensuring that a highly-functional and easily supportable network infrastructure is always available for every application installed across the enterprise, improving the entire bottom line of the company.

 

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