NetOps: Are you ready? How can you start?

NetOps enables the network to be both available and agile. Here are 5 steps to get you ready.

NetOps: Are you ready? How can you start?
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NetOps focuses on the philosophies, practices and tools in building and operating the network to deliver and respond quickly to application and user service needs. In my previous post, I described NetOps and why you should care. Ties from NetOps to agile software development and DevOps are essential, as these practices are now the source of many of the requests for network changes.

The methods of NetOps can help you to create a network that is not only available with high levels of reliability, performance and security, but is also agile in configuration, capacity and operations. In short, NetOps enables the network to be both available and agile.

In this post, I will explore two additional questions on NetOps: Are you ready? How can you start?

Are you ready for NetOps?

For almost any network operations team, there’s something valuable to be gained in introducing automation through NetOps. Too often a move to the new is presented as this or that, before or after, jump high or not at all. However, most typically, moving to new solutions in the network is more of an evolution than a revolution—an evolution where new capabilities are adopted piece by piece, as each is useful. Your approach to NetOps can embrace this philosophy.

You can take the first steps in NetOps without a cultural shift. (I know this is contrary to frequently repeated conventional wisdom—I hope by the end of my blog post you’ll be convinced that it’s more of an evolutionary change in how you get things done.) Yes, you need to change, but the great news is your team can take early, small steps without a lot of new training or technology. Evolving philosophies and changing a couple of behaviors at a time is exactly the way to make progress.

How can you start with NetOps?

Throughout my career, I have found a helpful way to think about tackling change: Think Big—Start Small—Move Fast. Think Big is about understanding where you’re headed. Start Small is identifying an initial step that you can take without a lot of added time, resources or new learning. Move Fast is about starting now and quickly building your momentum through new small steps.

When it comes to starting in NetOps, think big by ensuring your horizon extends beyond the network domain. No project isolated to the network domain will deliver significant business value. There will always be links into the application domain, with or without cloud, operations, partners and the like.

Recognize that it’s possible for the network to be both more agile and more available. Come up with a focal point that delivers value across these two—for example, network abstraction that removes vendor and device specifics from application calls; automation of troubleshooting and remediation, which links design and operations; or version-controlled config repositories of applications, systems and networks.

In your Think Big, you will want to strategize, but be careful not to over plan. Defining highly detailed plans and architectures before launching your first project will not only add delays, but since you don’t have the benefit of firsthand experience and learning, you may commit too early to choices that you later learn are less than ideal for you. Plan just enough to get started, and be prepared to course correct if necessary.

In your first project, bring in those who can help, but don’t settle for outsiders doing it all for you. The goal for you is to learn from these initial efforts. Consider working with a partner willing to teach you so that you and your team can one day apply NetOps tools and practices on your own as requirements change and internal skills and confidence grows. In choosing your partner, look for a team that creates the best solution using a mix of tools that include open-source, licensed software from multiple vendors and if necessary, custom development for unique or legacy systems. You’ll want to avoid choosing a partner that leverages a single vendor’s tool kit, as one-stop shopping may not yield the best solution for your particular environment.

5 steps for your NetOps projects

Ready to begin? Here are five steps from practicing experts to guide you in your first NetOps initiative:

  1. Pick something manageable and well understood. This is your Start Small. Choose a workflow clearly delineated by specific inputs and outputs, often within a larger process. To move quickly, the workflow will ideally exist within your own sphere of control and experience—or where you can easily collaborate and influence.
  2. Map the whole workflow. While you want to move fast, you don’t want to skip this essential step to truly understand what is going on. Document every step. Laying it out forces everyone to clearly see and agree to how things are working today. This puts rigor into the logic, ensures all “tribal knowledge” has been documented, and aids with collaboration. Remember to include interactions and interdependencies that occur outside the network. After all, across domains is where many of today’s manual handoffs and delays exist.
  3. Identify bottlenecks and optimize. In this step, you are looking at where change can have the biggest impact and where you can make change happen. Areas rich for improvement are those with multiple manual steps, particularly between teams. Think about how you currently handle reviews, approvals and testing. How could you change these to streamline the workflow? Do you have the authority or influence to champion these changes?
  4. Automate what you can. In the automation of your first workflow, it’s unlikely you can automate everything. Investigate what basic tools such as Ansible, Chef and StackStorm can do for you, and focus on those initial steps in automation. In choosing what to tackle in your automation project, keep in mind the lean philosophy of work in progress, that is, finishing is a key outcome to any project and workstream.
  5. Continuously improve. Once your automated workflow is operational, you will likely notice other ways to improve and build your momentum. This is your Move Fast. These improvements could be in scale, automating more steps, or extending to new parts of the process. That’s great. You now have a next project to repeat the steps and keep learning and building your NetOps prowess.

If you know about lean manufacturing, agile software development or DevOps, these five steps will be familiar. NetOps borrows from those existing practices and applies them to the specific challenges of creating and operating a network.

The concept of work in progress is essential to the success of your NetOps project. Work in progress is wasted effort until it results in a completed outcome. If you try and change too much, your project will bloat and you will never be able to put your new automation capabilities into practice.

Similarly, if you take on a highly complex element, especially one that triggers a step that is slow or resource intensive, that element will constrain the flow of outputs in your workflow. In choosing what you will automate in your project, it’s important that you say “no” or at least “not now” to steps that increase the work in progress of your workflow and/or slow down your overall system.

The simpler you can make your initial project, the more likely you will be to achieve the automation for a quick win. The key is to launch and commit only to what you can realistically finish in a short time. Then, as step five proposes, iterate and bring in additional functionality in subsequent initiatives. In NetOps—as in lean manufacturing, agile development, DevOps or, quite frankly, most improvement projects—when you’re done, you’re never really done. There’s always more to improve. (Homeowners know this all too well!)

As you iterate, remember to go through all the steps, otherwise you can fall into the trap of optimizing a small piece of the workflow, missing more impactful changes in rearranging, or perhaps even eliminating that step you are optimizing.

These five steps, and much of the guidance of my two blogs on NetOps, came from Benjamin Hickey, a software networking industry pioneer, and his team of practicing experts, who have many years of experience working with clients to help them implement NetOps and teach them how to use it. Find out more about these steps and get additional practical tips in using NetOps to automate your network from these experts.

Automation of the network rolls on. So, get going. Think Big—Start Small—Move Fast. Begin now.

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