For decades, network engineers have understood the power of automation. And yet, adopting automation has not kept pace with the growth and complexity of corporate environments. This brings the question, “Why haven’t we seen full adoption of network automation yet?”
AutoCon0 was the first edition of a conference dedicated to answering that question. Organized by the Network Automation Forum (NAF), the event took place on November 13 and 14, 2023, in Denver, Colorado. Over 400 attendees and speakers from enterprises, service providers, vendors, and academia were brought together and shared their experiences, challenges, and best practices in network automation. Selector Software supported the event as a Sustaining Sponsor and had a booth and speaking sessions.
There are two key takeaways from AutoCon0. First, network automation is a desired outcome for many, yet progress toward the goal is moving slower than expected. Second, there is a need for a community forum such as NAF to provide the space for open discussion on how to overcome the challenges with network automation. Both of those reasons are why Selector was present at AutoCon0. We aren’t just a vendor partner making great software to help with network automation; we are also community members and want to participate in the discussions.
What is the NAF anyway?
The Network Automation Forum (NAF) is a community of network operations engineers, automation and AI SMEs, supporting partner vendors, and others interested in advancing network operations through automation, orchestration, and observability.
The motivation behind NAF is to uncover the barriers to network automation. The concept of network automation has existed for decades, but adoption has yet to progress. Creating the NAF allows for a dedicated platform for discussion, collaboration, and knowledge sharing to help unlock the potential of automation.
Removing barriers to network automation is core to our mission here at Selector, and it is why we felt it necessary to invest in the NAF and help bring AutoCon0 to reality. To advance on your goal of network automation, an organization will need to embrace AIOps processes. Network automation requires constant network monitoring, suggesting when it’s time to run an automated task, if the task succeeded (or not), and then signaling the platform as to the next step.
Selector wants to help the community find and provide the necessary solutions, and we currently have customers using our platform to serve as the “brains” for closed-loop automation. Attending the NAF allows for a dedicated platform for members and vendor partners to gather and discuss the various barriers to automation in networking and topics such as closed-loop automation.
AutoCon0 was a successful event, allowing network automation enthusiasts to connect, share, and learn from one another. Commiserating with other network engineers helps individuals to know their struggles are common.
Here are the key takeaways from the two days’ worth of sessions, events, and conversations.
Organizations Lag Behind
Despite network automation’s proven benefits and opportunities, many organizations still struggle to adopt network automation fully and effectively. There are several reasons, including the fact that many network admins lack trust in the idea of 100% (or closed-loop) automation due to a lack of faith in using artificial intelligence (AI) technologies and making decisions without the opportunity for a human to review them first.
Another contributing factor is that many automation efforts are ad-hoc, siloed efforts that are not shared widely. It is easier for an organization to support more automation if they know how much automation is currently running their systems.
People, Processes, and Technology
For network automation to succeed at an organizational level, collaboration across business units is required, which is a severe challenge to accomplish in companies of considerable size. While there is a desire for more automation, navigating the cultural, technical, and budgetary issues at play is challenging.
For example, technical issues arise when discussing adopting a specific language, tool, or platform to assist with automation. This leads to cultural issues as one team of engineers may want to continue using CLI and eschew learning a programming language such as Python or software processes such as DevOps. Budget issues also surround the time and money necessary to train existing staff on a new platform or process to implement automation, introducing additional risk should the automation go awry.
This falls into a classic “paralysis by analysis,” where despite the agreement automation is necessary, so much time is spent analyzing the possible solutions the group ends up not taking any action due to fear of failure, uncertainty, perfectionism, or lack of accountability.
Automation is a Journey
Network infrastructure has seen exponential growth in complexity through the years. It is daunting to try to automate all of it at once. The best way to get started with automation is to make small incremental changes first instead of adopting wholesale changes affecting every part of your network.
However, automation should be seen as something applied to a system, not a series of ad-hoc scripts written and used by a subset of your teams. Often, this requires that the scripts and solutions implemented can be used by others inside and outside your company. This means that when you think about automation, you should consider the use case, not the specific task.
Watch for More AutoCons to Come in 2024
As more and more talent is shifted towards “CloudOps,” there are fewer experienced network engineers to do the necessary work. This talent gap is why automation is both essential and challenging to obtain. It is also why companies like Selector exist, as we actively work to help solve the issues and challenges facing network engineers today, especially with network automation, alert fatigue, and root cause analysis.
One final thought about the event and the need for common terminology. As is often the case with technology, there is a healthy debate surrounding the definitions of technical terms, for example, trying to compare automation versus orchestration. As with any community, a common language is critical for effective communication. Once the common language is understood, we can focus on the business outcomes we hope the technologies will provide.
NAF has two more AutoCons scheduled for next year, AutoCon1 in Europe and AutoCon2 in the USA, although dates and venues are not yet confirmed. You can find more information on the NAF homepage, including a link to join the community Slack channel.