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Major League Baseball is one of the most popular sporting organizations in the U.S. With over two dozen stadiums with an average capacity of 40,000 each, network connectivity is crucial for MLB.
MLB has a complex multivendor network that spans across its offices, data centers and stadiums. Each stadium functions as a campus LAN and includes various devices -- such as VoIP phones, tablets and high-speed cameras -- that require sufficient network connectivity. MLB needed a platform that could support reliable networks, provide network engineers with visibility into the network and enable network pros to address issues in real time, said Jeremy Schulman, senior director of solution engineering and infrastructure at MLB, during a session at the ONUG Spring 2023 conference in Dallas. Network automation provided support for those needs.
"We have to address all aspects of every type of domain technology in networking," Schulman said. "Automation is extraordinarily important to our rhythm of business."
Schulman said his team needed to consider the requirements and complexities of the network before MLB could implement automation. After this analysis, MLB decided to implement a network automation platform from Gluware.
Automation supports MLB's network environment
Schulman said his team typically faces two challenges with its network:
- How to deploy projects during the offseason.
- How to create visibility into network operations during the regular season.
During the offseason, MLB works on projects, such as deploying high-quality networks for the Minor League Baseball season. In regular and postseason, when MLB's networks are active, the team needs visibility into the network so staff can fix problems before they escalate.
MLB wanted to improve its complex network with automation capabilities. One use case for network automation, Schulman said, is tools that can detect complex alternate traffic routes. The network has a redundant design, but if a failure occurs during an event, the network fails over to other connections that automation tools recognize and use to reroute traffic.
"We try to ensure that, if there are any hiccups in the operations, it's nothing the fans would ever see," he said. Schulman said the network operations team works in real time to address potential issues.
Network automation streamlines patch management
Schulman said MLB's network operations team works to ensure the network operates the proper code among vendors and that the software is in compliance and up to date. Schulman said these tasks -- including adding new features and fixing any bugs in the network -- although important, are mundane and time-consuming. He said he preferred his team to work on more vital tasks.
"This takes time away from meaningful work," Schulman said. "If I can buy a product that's point and click and I can upgrade my network with confidence, that's a product we're attracted to."
Schulman said he sees the three following network automation strategies:
- Buy. Consider the tradeoff of purchasing a network automation product to fix problems versus building in-house technology.
- Borrow. Try open source technology that might be free but requires teams to develop skills.
- Build. Enable network professionals to develop automation skills by building automation tools for certain in-house operations.
MLB decided to buy products from Gluware that can automate tedious tasks and enable network professionals to work on other assignments. Gluware's network automation products are point and click and support multivendor environments, like MLB's, out of the box, Schulman said.
"With very little training, we have the environment set up and fully operational so our operations team can use it," Schulman said. "They can schedule and coordinate the upgrades ballpark by ballpark or function by function."
He added that these tools have UX that enables network professionals to observe the network automation platform and gain trust with it. The tools also include network APIs, which can add additional automation and help with monitoring.
Getting started with network automation
Before organizations begin a network automation project, Schulman said they should evaluate the business benefits it can bring. Organizations should determine which processes could create business value when automated because, ultimately, innovating a network with new technologies is more for the sake of users of the network than for the professionals who operate it.
"Most of the technology we build, we're not building it to make the network engineers' jobs better," Schulman said. "They get a better work balance by the fact that we've got tools that are self-service, so the stakeholders of the network can do these things on a self-service basis."
Schulman said network professionals can use metrics and audit and monitor the network to determine the best automation use cases. He added that, because network automation requires a specialized set of skills, professionals should take time to develop their automation skills, even if that takes up valuable time.
"It doesn't sound like an automation best practice, but it's a business best practice when committing to an automation program," Schulman said.