This vendor-written tech primer\u00a0has been\u00a0edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but\u00a0readers should note it will likely favor the submitter\u2019s approach.\n\n\nWhile the term Zero Touch Provisioning (ZTP) might be increasingly more common to networking, the concept of automation has existed for years in IT.\u00a0 At its core, ZTP is an automation solution that\u2019s designed to reduce errors and save time when IT needs to bring new infrastructure online.\n\n\nThis is particularly useful for data center servers, where scale and configuration similarities across systems make automation a necessity.\u00a0 In the server world, for example, Linux has revolutionized on boarding and provisioning. Rather than using command-line interfaces (CLI) to configure systems one at a time, administrators can use automation tools to roll out the operating system software, patches and packages on new servers with a single command, or the click of a mouse.\n\n\nAdvanced scripting capabilities also allow administrators to tailor the boot configuration of these systems with profiles for specific applications.\u00a0 So for example, if you need ten servers for a new Hadoop cluster, you can load that with one profile, or if you need six new servers for a new web application, you can roll that out using a different profile.\u00a0\n\n\nEssentially, automation drastically reduces the amount of time between when you take a server out of the box to when it\u2019s functioning in a production environment \u2013 all while minimizing the risks of manual configuration errors and missed keystrokes, or the additional challenge of knowing which driver or library is the correct one.\n\n\nBut what about the network? Why should it be any different?\u00a0\n\n\nMuch like servers, network devices have traditionally been managed via the CLI.\u00a0 What\u2019s more, network administrators need to do this manually on each device.\n\n\nConsider the typical provisioning process of a network switch: switches have been traditionally coupled with pre-loaded proprietary network operating systems.\u00a0 Technicians then use CLI or the manufacturers own tools to provision the device, a process that can be broken down into three basic steps:\u00a0\n\n\n* When the new switch arrives, it already has an OS to help bootstrap the device.\u00a0 It is removed from the box and goes to a staging area. Here the administrator checks the operating system version and makes any updates - for patches, bug fixes, or any new feature updates as necessary.\u00a0\n\n\n* An initial configuration is made to establish basic network connectivity.\u00a0 This includes parameters such as administrator and user authentication information, the management IP address and default gateway, basic network services (DHCP, NTP, etc) and enabling the right L2 and L3 network protocols are all examples of the bootstrap process.\n\n\n* Once the initial OS and configuration has been verified, the device can be installed into the environment (racked and cabled), where further customized configuration can be made (either locally via the console or through a remote access protocol) that is specific to the application and location within the network.\n\n\nThe details may vary slightly for each environment, but the basics remain the same.\u00a0 Now extrapolate the model to ten network switches.\u00a0 Or twenty.\u00a0 Or one hundred.\u00a0 This can be very time consuming. And when you consider that for each switch there\u2019s an opportunity for a configuration error that can bring down the network or create exposure and a security risk, the conclusion is obvious: there has to be a better way.\n\n\nHow does ZTP help with this process for the network?\u00a0 Remove all the manual configuration and steps listed above, and what you have left is ZTP.\n\n\n\nIn this model, the administrator receives the hardware and the first thing they do is to physically install the device \u2013 rack and cable the switch.\u00a0\u00a0 Once these physical connections are made, the technician no longer has to touch the box \u2013 hence the name, zero touch.\u00a0\n\n\nWith ZTP, once the switch is powered on, it uses standard network protocols to fetch everything it needs for provisioning.\u00a0 It can send a DHCP query to get the proper IP address for connectivity and management, then use BootP\/TFTP to get the right operating system image, and then another TFTP request to get the right configuration file based on the application profile.\n\n\nIn this model, once the network administrator sets up the IP address scheme via the DHCP server, and the OS and configuration files on the TFTP server, they can effectively roll out tens, hundreds, and thousands of switches in this way \u2013 all fully customizable and without the time consuming and error prone manual configuration process.\n\n\nSounds like a no brainer right?\u00a0 Now juxtapose this with some mega trends that are happening in the data center today.\n\n\nThe first of these is the fact that bringing applications to market faster is the key to gaining competitive advantage.\u00a0 So the faster IT teams are able to bring infrastructure online to support these applications, the better.\u00a0 With ZTP and server virtualization prevalent in the server world, it\u2019s become critical to automate the network processes as well.\u00a0 No network administrator wants to be the long pole in the tent.\n\n\nThe second is bare-metal switching.\u00a0 If applications are driving the top line, then it\u2019s the hardware that will help the bottom line.\u00a0 Commoditization of network hardware is the next logical evolution, with the rapid adoption of merchant silicon.\u00a0 More and more customers are seeing less differentiation in the hardware, and more differentiation in the speed, features, and operational simplicity that the software can provide. Today, three manufacturers (Big Switch, Cumulus, and Pica8) are offering Linux-based OSs for bare-metal switches - effectively bringing the efficiency and familiarity of Linux to the network world.\n\n\nIn light of these trends, it\u2019s even more important to implement ZTP and network automation practices.\u00a0 As more applications come online, IT teams are being taxed to keep the infrastructure up to date \u2013 including provisioning, scaling, troubleshooting, and maintenance.\u00a0 This is not sustainable in any manual based process.\u00a0\n\n\nAnd as hardware and software continues to be decoupled, it\u2019s critical to find a way to automate the new operational model.\u00a0 If you can purchase hundreds of switches from an OEM or ODM and rack these devices \u2013 would you rather install the OS and configure each of these individually, or do this through an efficient methodology using well known, reliable network protocols.\n\n\nMuch like the server world before it, the network world is seeing some significant technology shifts.\u00a0 Automation, software defined devices, and bare metal switches are all contributing to a fast-paced and dynamic environment in the data center.\u00a0 With ZTP, the network is leveraging best practices from the server world to drive greater speed and operational efficiency.\n\n\nIn short, it\u2019s become an essential way to automate the network.\u00a0\n\n\nChai is the Head of Product Marketing for Pica8 Inc., the leader in open systems for software-defined networking.\u00a0 He is currently responsible for the GTM strategy and execution for the Pica8 portfolio of open switching systems and software. Calvin holds a BS degree in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley.