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Enable automation with a network digital twin

Digital twin technology is a hot topic in IoT systems, but IT teams can also invest in digital twins to improve network visibility, plan for changes and enable automation.

The first step to doing anything in a network, whether it be administering changes or implementing new technologies, is understanding the environment.

As enterprises transition from traditional standards-based, manual systems to automated, application-aware networks, comprehensive visibility can help them meet their network and application requirements.

During a recent webinar, panelists Bob Costello, strategic advisor at World Wide Technology, and Andre Kindness, principal analyst at Forrester Research, evaluated how gaining visibility through tools like network digital twins can enable teams to streamline automation. By simulating a replica of the network environment, digital twin models uncover the end-to-end visibility needed for network automation and configuration.

Networks are not homogeneous, Costello said. Every network consists of resources provided by different vendors, each with its own methods of delivering services. To put this into perspective, Kindness added that almost 78% of organizations operate under a dual-vendor environment.

Having disparate network vendor strategies at play can complicate management and reduce visibility. Network digital twins can help by providing a single source of truth for an entire network, said Chiara Regale, webinar host and vice president of product management at Forward Networks, a network management vendor.

Organizations eye network automation

Regale said that, in her experience, most networks are operated or deployed manually. However, this trend appears to be changing, as enterprises look to overhaul their standard systems by implementing more network automation strategies.

According to Kindness, almost 83% of enterprises are looking to shift from static networks to autonomous systems. Networks are becoming more application-aware and driven by software. With this approach, the network itself can make decisions about how to carry out tasks, like traffic routing, he said.

How digital twins support network modernization

Most networks operate in a multivendor environment, making network architectures "impossible to manage with any one vendor solution or tool," Costello said. Further, it's difficult for network teams to manage complex environments with cloud-based or software-defined networks.

Digital twin models provide the visibility needed to observe an environment. Digital twins are virtual models that replicate the original environment. Network teams can run tests in a digital twin, which then produces data showing how an application deployed in the source environment would operate. This data is the single source of truth of visibility.

I find [digital twins] to be one of the missing links on the journey of automation.
Andre KindnessPrincipal analyst, Forrester Research

The single source of truth isn't just about visualizing processes, like packet traversing, Costello said. Digital twins can show inventory, software version management and potential vulnerabilities.

When it comes to incidents like the 2020 SolarWinds cyber attack, Costello said it's not just a question of whether a company is vulnerable. "Do the configurations of my network make me vulnerable to the exploit?" Costello said. "That is very difficult to answer without a tool that can ingest everything and digital twin that network."

Costello added that digital twin technology is "groundbreaking" because it's feasible compared to traditional lab network testing. It's more difficult and costly to recreate a network, run tests and keep it updated in a lab than in a digital twin, he said.

It's risky to test directly within a network because implementing changes could cause the system to crash. With a digital twin, users can extract information from a source and test configuration or security changes without compromising the original network. Network teams can conclude how to automate their networks to prepare and reflect future changes using the information amassed from these tests.

"I find [digital twins] to be one of the missing links on the journey of automation," Kindness said.

Visibility is necessary for network configuration

Enterprises can justify investing in a network digital twin for a few reasons. Digital twins are valuable because they provide detailed network visibility. Costello said CIOs who are interested in deploying new strategies, like zero-trust security models, should recognize that networks need as much visibility and investment as applications.

A 2020 Gartner report stated that companies would save money by investing in a digital twin. According to the report, the "situational awareness" derived from using a digital twin can enable an organization to detect and prevent a potential system failure before it occurs. Teams can then automate the network to reflect its changing environment, reducing costs and labor, in turn.

Another reason to invest in a digital twin is the growing complexity of networks as they shift toward hybrid or cloud environments. Tools that visually show the complexities of a system, like digital twins, are conducive to managing a network appropriately.

"Security and networking are so intertwined that having full visibility across the stack with a digital twin -- powered by a scalable mathematical model -- is the key to proactively secure a network," Regale said.

This was last published in December 2021

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