NetOps: Can networks be both available and agile?

NetOps can help deliver a network that is agile in its configuration, capacity and operations

NetOps: Can networks be both available and agile?

Do you believe in a future where the leading source of value creation is through the experience of digital connections? If you don’t, you may want to compare the growth and value of AirBnB with many of the world’s largest hotel chains. And don’t think that this is a phenomenon limited to certain industries—evidence is mounting that across the landscape of public and private sectors, and across every industry segment, the future of business is digital business.

Defined in a large part through the experiences delivered in software, digital businesses can change and evolve rapidly, which is critical in an era in which the rate of change is increasing at an almost dizzying pace. When you look at the composition of the Fortune 500 today versus a decade ago, it’s evident that some companies are struggling to keep up. And others, such as Amazon, create a competitive advantage by purposefully focusing on how fast they can change. Think about that: time as a competitive advantage. That’s the world we live in today.

Be available. Be agile.

All of this impacts how we build and operate networks. After all, digital connections are fundamentally the underlying structures to a digital business. The fact that those connections have to be available (reliable, performant, secure) goes without saying. But here’s the tricky part: The defining principle of digital business is its dynamic nature, and this mandates that the network and the services it delivers must also concurrently be agile.

In networking, we have become very good at the "available" part of the equation, reaching 6-nines reliability and blazingly high speeds. (If I stop for a moment to appreciate it, how amazing is it that my kids can watch a movie on their digital devices in our moving car?) And while security is an ongoing arm wrestle between those who threaten the network and those who defend, we are leveraging some pretty interesting emerging technologies, such as machine learning, to add new tools to our box.

Where we really fall down today in networking is on agility.

It turns out that much of what we put in place to ensure availability can actually impede agility. And in a way, that’s not a surprise. In the world of IT, change has historically been viewed as a bad thing. Change disrupts; change introduces new variables and new risks. Historically, we’ve done everything we can to avoid it. We even have a name for those efforts in IT: change control. Yet enabling change is exactly what a digital business must do. And not just enable change, but enable rapid change. How’s that for an about-face?

When I talk to customers, I consistently hear that this is one of the biggest things with which they struggle. In fact, the inspiration for this very blog series, ‘Get the Network Out of My Way,’ was this need for the network to readily change—to be available, be agile, and ultimately be a platform for business innovation.

The great news is that NetOps can help you do just that.

What is NetOps?

In defining NetOps, let’s start with a review of DevOps. Amazon defines DevOps as “the combination of cultural philosophies, practices, and tools that increases an organization’s ability to deliver applications and services at high velocity: evolving and improving products at a faster pace than organizations using traditional software development and infrastructure management processes.”

NetOps specifically focuses on the philosophies, practices, and tools in building and operating the network to deliver and respond quickly to application and user service needs. It does this by linking network change with the applications and services being delivered in real time. This requires automated workflows and analytics that connect the network not only to the teams and systems for the network, but also to the engineering teams and systems for the applications, user services and other infrastructure.

NetOps may seem like a simple idea, but if you truly link automation of the network to all the interdependent steps of application and service delivery, you have the potential for radical change in how IT and networks operate and how users experience services.

Automation has the highest impact when it automates across teams, where today manual handoffs still dominate. Consider the simple example of a customer or user reporting that his application is performing poorly. To diagnose the issue, network engineers, application engineers, storage engineers, security engineers and others must investigate possible causes. Typically, these investigations are done in series and handed off manually. Once the root cause is found, many of the same engineers may need to engage again, manually, to resolve the problem.

Tackling all of these activities in series, without much consideration for all the steps in the process, can cause duplication of effort, inefficiency and extra time spent. By contrast, bringing the stakeholders in at the beginning and then designing, testing, documenting, and operating as one team to create an automated process can lead to the realization of the NetOps vision.

For example, imagine instead that the issue triggers an automated workflow that collects the diagnostic information these various engineers would typically get and presents it all in one place. This initial step could help solve the issue in and of itself. And over time, the workflow could be made more sophisticated with commonly occurring issues and fixes built in to help not just with diagnostics, but also with remediation.

Why is NetOps important for you?

The methodologies of NetOps can help you deliver a network that is agile in its configuration, capacity and operations, and available, offering high levels of reliability, performance and security.

Agility comes from doing more in software through the use of virtual network functions and programmable network devices that can quickly adjust in configuration, capacity and more. Agility is enhanced though workflow automation, programmed to act based on specific triggers and events. The tie to agile software development and DevOps is essential, as these practices are now the source of many of the requests for network changes.

Interestingly, IT organizations have repeatedly found that reliability actually increases with an increase in the number of changes. This may seem counter intuitive, but the explanation is that organizations and systems that experience high rates of change become more adept at managing change, as well as controlling and predicting its impact. Further, change is broken into smaller steps that are easier to reverse. And perhaps most important, control of the changes remains with a network expert (as opposed to all the members of a change management process)—an expert who knows best how to implement the change and is far less likely to introduce errors.

Perhaps the best way to understand the possibilities of NetOps is through a real-world example. The engineers at NetFlix were generous to share a post last year on their story of building an event-driven diagnostic and remediation tool. Their challenge was that the existing monitoring approach had a limited set of alerts that supported automated remediation; many alerts still required human intervention that could have more efficiently been handled through software.

Netflix’s newly developed tool now allows application developers to automate steps for diagnostics and remediation in a "runbook."

The tool "acts as Tier-1 support for developers where they can outsource [to the tool] their repeatable diagnostic and remediation tasks and have them run automatically in response to events.”

In this way, the automation is available broadly to many engineers, regardless of their level of knowledge of the core features of the network. In essence, NetOps is how the tool builders went about defining and setting up the tool to integrate and interact with the network.

The principles of NetOps can apply to any area of network setup and operations one wishes to automate. This could include provisioning based on user actions through a portal or reconfiguration based on a virtual machine change or traffic volumes.

Arguably, the biggest benefit of NetOps for you and your organization is its ability to enable change—rapid change. NetOps allows you to create, deploy and manage network services at the speed of digital business. In addition, we can improve network availability by becoming better at change and reducing the potential for human error with automation. That’s the Holy Grail of digital business. Who says we can’t have it all?

Want to get started? In my next blog post, I’ll share steps and tips on how to get started from practicing experts with years of experience (yes, NetOps has been around for years) in implementing NetOps for many different types of organizations. Stay tuned.

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