Automation: moving towards self-driving networks
For most organisations, survival has been the main drive for digital transformation, rather than simply an appetite for disruption. While we have seen tremendous strides made over the past year, organisations that are not actively automating their business processes, reducing costs, and improving the customer experience are at risk of becoming obsolete.
Achieving real-time business operations depends on being able to connect people, things and applications securely and reliably, anytime and anywhere. Being online is now mandatory – come rain or shine, pandemic or Black Friday, companies need to be able to create, gather, store, and process data. When things change, they need their infrastructure to adapt — fast.
The fourth industrial revolution is already here, and progressive companies are addressing weaknesses in their business models and rethinking risk. There will be losers, but many more organisations will come out stronger by implementing the changes needed to cope with the restrictions forced upon them. The reimagination and automation of business processes is key.
Bringing networks up to speed ahead of a 5G—enabled world
Network management is never going to sound as exciting as using 5G to enable automated guided vehicles or the myriad of other exciting digital transformation projects companies are working on. Being able to execute changes to network configurations quickly is crucial to delivering these projects. Businesses need that agility to survive and prosper.
We expect a lot from our networks – they need to enable thousands of applications, transfer enormous amounts of data across vast distances in milliseconds, prioritise the most time-sensitive data, and reroute automatically if there is a problem. It’s why the current state of network management is a complicated business.
There is a greater need for those managing an organisation’s IT infrastructure to understand and manage this complexity. With aspirations of operating in real-time, IT teams will need help to simplify network management or risk spending too much time, budget, and resources on the control and configuration of their networks.
The future is the self-driving network, with the potential of network automation promising to transform network management in the future.
Why does this matter? According to Cisco, “95% of network changes are performed manually, resulting in operational costs two to three times higher than the cost of the network.” When everybody is hunting for ways to eke out a bit more performance and trying to focus on innovation, that’s a lot of time and money that could be being put to better use.
Automating global business networks to achieve growth, digital transformation
Global food and beverage supplier, Tate & Lyle, identified network constraints were hampering their ability to expand. Legacy network infrastructure was a clear bottleneck on the demands of a growing, global business.
The company was looking to expand globally in 28 countries and needed to upgrade to transport-agnostic infrastructure that would enable a seamless rollout of new endpoints to remote plants in these locations. The company also lacked visibility over application performance.
The solution was to transform its outdated mixed technology network to a Managed SD WAN solution with intelligent routing control. Given the challenging rollout at physically remote locations under harsh conditions (including a plant site in a Brazilian jungle), the company looked to Verizon to manage the rollout and subsequent managed network services.
The company has successfully supported business growth targets by seamlessly adding endpoints at 28 countries on three continents. Furthermore, the team can now deploy and configure network management and policies through a centralised dashboard.
Another global brand, Bayer, has recognised the need to actively drive the automation of their business processes following a shift towards digital transformation approaches.
Historically, Bayer’s in-house team looked after its global IT infrastructure, which was a multi-vendor environment. With the goal of moving to a cloud-first, digital business model, the company wanted to simplify and streamline network management to a single service provider. The company achieved this through deploying next-generation network technologies, including software-defined networking, to improve network resilience, flexibility and scalability. Using Verizon’s network managed services, Bayer now has managed services at over 700 sites in 91 countries. This includes a managed global Private IP network, a managed software-defined Wide Area Network, and Professional Services support and governance.
In taking this approach, Bayer was able to free up resources to focus on supporting the company’s core crop science, pharmaceutical, and consumer health business activities. They also developed a secure, stable but flexible network platform to improve connectivity and collaboration around the globe, supporting their ongoing digital business transformation.
What makes network automation possible?
Virtualisation might be a term associated with data centres, but it has been one of the big trends in networking over the last decade.
Software-defined networking (SDN) separates the physical layer, the cables in the ground and mobile base stations, from the logical network. Functions like load balancers, firewalls, and wide-area network (WAN) accelerators can now be deployed as software.
By accessing virtualised network infrastructure and SDN technologies, organisations can add, remove and configure services like firewalls and load-balancers from anywhere. This means no longer waiting for deliveries or finding space to store physical network infrastructure. No need to allow for site access delays or plan for hours of downtime so things can be unplugged.
It means building a network by dragging and dropping the components required at the place and time they are needed.
The introduction of software-defined wide area networks (SD WANs) is helping companies to increase their automation maturity. These enable a greater degree of self-service—so companies can make changes themselves without having to go through service desks and ticketing systems.
This enables faster activation of new services, reduced management overheads and faster resolution of issues.
SD WANs can also improve monitoring which can help to explain the dependencies between applications and users that the network needs to support. Knowing how the network is being used can not only help IT teams spot problems more quickly, it can also improve planning for the future too.
One of the main areas of development of SD WAN controllers is adding APIs that enable integration with the service management platforms that IT already uses. Instead of having to learn and log into a proprietary SD WAN portal, DevOps will be able to manage network features through the same “single pane of glass” they use for other IT services.
What this means for business
The goal of network automation is to integrate network management with core business systems and use artificial intelligence and machine learning (AI/ML) to make it proactive and invisible. This will enable companies to focus on things like transaction processing times, instead of latency and packet-loss statistics.
Most organisations are currently at the “Aware” stage in our maturity model for automated networks. This promises network engineer robots that operate tirelessly 24/7, never have an “off” day and won’t make mistakes. They will devour the enormous amounts of data networks generate—not the data they carry, but the metadata about the traffic flows—to build and constantly improve cognitive models. This will enable organisations to adapt their network configuration quickly and without manual intervention.
When companies reach the Aware stage, their networks will:
- Proactively monitor application performance and carry out optimisation tasks, automatically, making better use of resources and improving the user experience;
- Dynamically identify and configure new devices and services as they are added, cutting the time to bring new users, applications and even sites online;
- Monitoring capacity and performance of each component in the data path and compare them with a global knowledge base, enabling proactive reconfiguration;
- Automatically reroute traffic and repurpose devices, resolving issues before anyone realises they exist, or the end-user experience is affected.
What comes next?
The goal is being able to consume connectivity “as a service”. Network as a Service (NaaS) isn’t a technology, it’s a model for the future of networking.
Automation is key to achieving NaaS, but it’s just one component. Successful NaaS also depends upon a fundamental shift in the approach to security. The leading candidate for this new security architecture is secure access service edge (SASE, pronounced “sassy”). It will also require fundamental changes to contracts, commercial models and business processes.
The next five years will bring a dramatic transformation in how networks are bought and managed. That will enable companies to do things they cannot yet imagine.
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