What is network automation?
Network automation is a methodology in which software automatically configures, provisions, manages and tests network devices. It is used by enterprises and service providers to improve efficiency, reduce human error and lower Opex.
Network automation tools support functions ranging from basic network mapping and device discovery to more complex workflows like network configuration management and the provisioning of virtual network resources.
Network automation also plays a key role in software-defined networking, network virtualization and network orchestration, enabling automated provisioning of virtual network tenants and functions, such as virtual load balancing.
Types of network automation
Automation can be employed in any type of network, including local area networks (LANs), wide area network (WANs), data center networks, cloud networks and wireless networks. In short, any network resource controlled through a command-line interface (CLI) or an application programming interface (API) can be automated.
Script-driven network automation
Script-driven network automation employs scripting and programming languages to execute tasks, ideally those with precise triggers and consistent procedures. Legacy languages, such as Perl and Tcl, remain prevalent in network automation due to their familiarity.
As networks continue to become more complex, newer open source programming languages, such as Ansible, Python and Ruby, have grown in popularity for their ease of use and flexibility. Other programming languages for network automation include Bash and Go.
Software-based network automation
Software-based network automation, often referred to as intelligent network automation, is coordinated through an administrative portal that eliminates the need to script commands manually. These platforms typically provide templates for creating and executing tasks based on plain language policies.
Benefits of network automation
Some common benefits of network automation include the following.
1. Improved efficiency and network optimization
By automating functions on network devices, humans no longer have to perform time-consuming tasks.
2. Reduced likelihood of human error
Manual tasks are prone to human error, which can cause network outages and revenue loss. The consequences of a miscalculation or incorrect entry can be significant. Setting up a task for automation means it only needs to be entered correctly once. Network engineers can easily revert automated changes in case of error and adjust as needed.
3. Lower Opex
By eliminating certain manual tasks for network management and device provisioning, businesses can operate with greater speed and agility. For example, automated provisioning may save a network engineer from having to travel to a new branch office to establish network connectivity, thus enabling employees at that site to get to work faster.
Network automation tools and languages
Several interfaces, platforms and protocols are available for enterprise network teams to implement network automation.
The CLI is the most traditional vehicle for deploying network automation. Though freely available, time-tested and highly customizable, it requires proficiency in CLI syntax and doesn't scale well.
A variety of open source tools -- including Ansible, Chef and Puppet -- offer network automation frameworks. These tools typically offer a library of common commands or workflows that can easily be repeated.
Commercial network automation tools are also available. Most network infrastructure vendors have developed software-based platforms that provide automation capabilities, typically for their own products, through a specialized API.
Future of network automation
Network automation is one of the key methodologies supporting the evolution of intent-based networking and network validation. These concepts use software to map how enterprises can harness their resources to meet the business demands their networks need to support.
Automation is increasingly enabled through a graphical user interface (GUI). Engineers use the GUI to determine how their network operations should run to meet a particular objective. The GUI can then automatically run configuration and other management changes made to network components, regardless of vendor. Automation frequently incorporates AI and machine learning tools to analyze the network, suggest troubleshooting steps and validate network intent.