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Automation, orchestration software fuel network modernization

In some ways, network modernization means cutting manual configuration errors and relying on automation and orchestration to achieve unified network management.

Technological advancements, such as cloud computing, automation, machine learning and AI -- combined with business culture changes, including remote workforces and the use of IoT -- have modernized how businesses operate. The network, however, has largely remained a static and untouched part of a company's overall infrastructure footprint. This has led many IT leaders to investigate how the next generation of networks should operate in a digitally transformed enterprise.

In this article, we explain how software-defined networking technologies are transforming the landscape of traditional network design, deployment and ongoing operations using modern orchestration tools and methodologies.

Why traditional networks are far from modern

Network designs -- whether they're part of the corporate LAN, wireless LAN (WLAN), software-defined WAN, cloud, network edge or on-premises data center -- have traditionally been painstakingly architected and configured by human engineers. This requires a high level of skill to understand the network OS CLI along with complex routing and switching protocols. The amount of time, effort and money spent to architect a typical enterprise network can take weeks or even months to construct manually.

Additionally, the potential for misconfigurations due to human error or a lack of standards-based configuration techniques often leads to networks that do not provide uniform network service and security policy from end to end. Since human error is by far the primary cause of network and network security outages, this is a risk that many business leaders are looking to avoid.

Network visibility is another problem with how legacy networks are managed. In many cases, point-based network visibility and security tools are deployed that individually extract data out of network hardware and software for health, performance and data security analysis. The problem is most of these tools work independently from one another, despite requiring the same type of data and telemetry. As a result, the data is duplicated across many systems with no benefit and a risk to data theft.

What is network modernization?

Network modernization is a shift in thinking about how network connectivity is created and modified to facilitate business functions. Instead of relying on advanced network administrator skills to design, deploy and manage networks for an organization, a network orchestration platform can be inserted between administrators and the networking hardware support they control.

Creating this new software-based layer of abstraction adds a single unified point where network intent can be input. Advanced automation can be used within the orchestrator to take that intent and apply it to networking hardware on the administrator's behalf.

In this case, admins no longer need to learn complex CLI commands when working with modern network services. Instead, the orchestrator is responsible for understanding high-level network needs and then performs those configuration tasks using best-practice standards without risk of configuration error. The result is a network that functions as anticipated without engineering staff having to manually input commands into switching and routing equipment on a hop-by-hop basis.

Creating a single source of network truth

Network orchestration software also creates a single source of network truth for the entire organization. The orchestrator collects health, performance and security data that is extracted once and placed into a data lake where it delivers a real-time and historical view of a network from end to end.

If further analysis is required using point-based systems, like data security analysis tools, the data can be pushed to those systems using an open API. The data can then be discarded after analysis is complete as it can always be resent from this single source. Modern network management systems eliminate the issue of data duplication, while simultaneously providing the necessary visibility required when troubleshooting various network-related incidents.

Enforcing zero-trust principles

Because modern networks are constructed in such a way where the orchestrator is the single management dashboard for network moves, adds and changes, zero trust becomes far easier to achieve as there's only one path to gain system access. In this state, administrators must only be concerned about providing appropriate read/write user access to the orchestrator, which is the sole location where changes can be made.

This is similar to how enterprise WLANs are created and managed, but this time, unified management is achieved across the entire network and spans across multiple LANs, across remote sites and even within the data center or clouds. This creates a security barrier around the entire network infrastructure that adheres to zero-trust principles and better protects the network against unauthorized access.

Next Steps

How to build a zero-trust network in 4 steps

This was last published in July 2023

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