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Software-based networking brings new automation perks, challenges

More data center teams have moved to software-defined networks. And while the technology brings new benefits around automation, it also brings a host of implementation challenges.

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The world of networking is moving rapidly to software-based systems that offer automated provisioning, improved management and security, and better support for DevOps-style application development. The automation benefits of software-based networking are critical to support the adoption of new IT and network architectures, including hybrid cloud and the internet of things.

Traditionally, networks were built with hardware-based platforms optimized for specific functions. These boxes include routers, Ethernet switches, Wi-Fi controllers, server load balancers and network security appliances, such as firewalls and intrusion-detection systems. Network hardware typically runs complex, distributed control software -- all with unique provisioning and management systems. Provisioning and management requirements vary by the type of networking and the network location. Provisioning and modifying hardware-based networks is a time-consuming manual process and one that requires trained network professionals.

The emergence of software-based networking frees IT professionals to migrate toward networks that offer automation, customization, interoperability and platform independence. Developers can design applications that are abstracted from network resources. These networks lead the way toward significant improvements in automation.

Defining Network Automation

Network automation establishes standard processes so that network deployment, configuration and management tasks can be shifted from people to software. Software-based networking automates the provisioning of required network services, such as bandwidth, routing and security.

IT professionals can benefit from the push-button simplicity of software that reduces or eliminates mundane updating in quality of service (QoS), auditing of Ethernet switches and maintaining access-control lists. Network uptime and security is improved by eliminating human errors that accompany any complex manual task.

challenges in SDN

Business Impact and Benefits

Network automation gives IT organizations deploying complex applications the ability to control the rapid provisioning of network resources. It provides the ability to centrally manage the network and reduce operational costs by shifting the challenges of configuration from people to technology. Software-based networks can select appropriate network services based on parameters, such as application type, quality of service and security requirements.

Automation via software can direct the network to provide services aligned with its associated applications and support rapid deployment of a large number of new applications and microservices.

Provisioning. Traditional methods of network provisioning, such as manually configuring each device, can't scale to meet the complexity of distributed applications. Network automation makes it possible to rapidly provision appropriate network resources across dynamically shifting workloads and thousands of devices. Many hyperscale cloud providers -- including Google, Apple, Facebook and Microsoft -- deploy software network technologies to help automate the provisioning of their networks.

Configuration and change management. Network professionals spend significant time and resources adapting the physical and virtual network to changes in applications, compute and storage resources, and device location. Software-based networking tools can automate change management by associating specific network and security policies with applications and devices that can "follow" them as they migrate physically and virtually.

Software-based networking automates the provisioning of required network services, such as bandwidth, routing and security.

Application-aware QoS. This is the ability to identify specific traffic types, like voice and video, and prioritize network resources to deliver the appropriate QoS. Organizations can also design policies to automatically change network bandwidth for high-value applications. Organizations have started to deploy software-defined networking that measures application performance, detects changes in traffic flow and selects the path data takes through a network based on parameters, such as application type, QoS and security rules.

Centralized networking management. IT professionals often struggle to rapidly identify challenges associated with network slowdowns or link failures. Finding the needle in the haystack in large, complex networks takes time. Network software can provide centralized management with the ability to detect both physical and virtual network problems and, in some cases, automatically resolve them.

Network security. Network automation can offer appropriate security policies for the range of devices that connect to the network. Software networking products provide network segmentation to support multi-tenancy and network isolation of critical applications. Network automation can feed critical analytics data to supported third-party network security software.

Network automation enables DevOps. The network is responsible for rapidly provisioning the appropriate resources for DevOps applications. Rapidly changing requirements that a microservices architecture presents can challenge the capabilities of traditional networks. The network plays a critical role in securing and managing rapidly migrating DevOps-style applications. The disaggregation of the application means that there are too many moving parts for manual networking, so network automation is critical. The ability to pretest network resources with DevOps is important to avoid potential slowdowns of application deployment times.

Implementation challenges

For all the potential of network automation, it is a challenge for IT professionals to build highly automated networks. With the exception of greenfield builds, deploying and managing network resources across physical and virtual networks -- and across data centers, campus and branch locations -- remains a largely manual and labor-intensive undertaking. Hyperscale cloud providers with automated network data centers have the advantage of large engineering staffs to design custom software networks to fit their unique requirements.

For enterprise IT professionals, the challenge is to identify suppliers and their products that can help begin to automate manual processes. The reality is there is no clear architecture or blueprint on how to migrate to a more automated network. A number of standards bodies, including the Open Networking User Group, the OpenDaylight Project and OpenStack, are working to develop practical software networking architectures. Buyers remain unsure which standards, vendors and products are the most likely to gain market traction. There are a large number of suppliers and products that provide improved automation via software networking products. These include the following:

  • established IT suppliers such as Cisco, Juniper Networks, Hewlett Packard Enterprise and VMware;
  • startups such as Anuta Networks, Apstra, Cumulus Networks, Glue Networks, Big Switch Networks, Plexxi, Pluribus Networks and Midokura; and
  • SD-WAN specialists such as VeloCloud, Versa Networks, Viptela, CloudGenix, Cradlepoint, Riverbed Technology and Silver Peak.

There are many other specialized suppliers who provide software-based tools to improve network management, security and analytics.

What's next?

The requirements of hybrid cloud, container deployment, and new internet of things devices will continue to strain network resources. The first generation of software networking products will provide some tactical gains in specific parts of network operations, such as the data center and SD-WAN. Strategically, many IT managers would like to move toward more of a network-as-a-service model where bandwidth and other network resources can be automatically and dynamically allocated to specific applications.

The lessons learned by the hyperscale cloud providers are beginning to trickle down to enterprise networks. Open source, improved standards and better software will bring significant improvement in network automation over the next few years. Longer-term advances in machine learning and artificial intelligence will no doubt lead to improved network automation.

The benefits of network automation have been clearly demonstrated by the hyperscale cloud providers. Software networking provides the abstraction from the hardware layer that provides the flexibility, automation and multivendor support required for today's networks. Leading IT organizations require rapid provisioning, scalable resources and automated operations to flexibly deliver IT services. Network automation is critical to meet the scale and complexity of distributed applications.

The market is moving toward software-based networking -- as opposed to networking as a number of boxes. The challenge for IT professionals is to pick the right standards and partners to help the journey to a more agile style of networking. Lack of standards and no clear supply-side market leader means IT professionals should start to implement network automation with clear advantages.

Next Steps

Explore the change management automation market

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This was last published in April 2017

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