The Tipping Point for Network Automation

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by: Gregory Ness

Virtualization could easily be called the most critical enabler of cloud computing. After all, it decouples applications from hardware, freeing up companies from being tied to specialized hardware and enabling new mobility potentials for processing power. Those potentials could allow servers to be spun up and moved on demand from one data center to another, dramatically reducing the electricity requirements for IT services.

This potential has no doubt fueled interest in companies like VMware (NYSE:VMW), Microsoft (NASDAQ:MSFT) and Citrix (NASDAQ:CTXS), just as cloud computing has generated renewed interest in Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN). Cisco (NASDAQ:CSCO), Juniper (NYSE:JNPR), IBM and even Sun (JAVA) are all racing to form "cloud clubs" that will position them at an advantage over competitors trying to sell piecemeal into the coming unified fabrics of processors.

The Rise of Core Network Services

Yet, underneath the headline-grabbing buzz about virtualization and cloud computing another perhaps more mundane - yet almost equally strategic - shift is taking place in how networks are managed.

While the trade press for the most part has covered this in the form of various IPAM (IP address management) and other related product announcements (including other core network services, from DNS/DHCP, NTP to RADIUS, etc.) they do not get the new network reality that parallels the systems reality: the automation of networks, especially core network services is today a strategic imperative.

In the same way that virtualization automated the set up and movement of servers, network automation is enabling higher levels of availability and lower costs for enterprise networks, especially those used in manufacturing, supply chain, retailing and finance/banking. The recent Grainger case study insert, recently included in Network World, sheds light on what an impact the automation of core network services can deliver.

Reducing the sheer amount of manual labor required to keep a network up-to-date and available (given the explosion of endpoints and now the movement enabled by virtualization) is now a strategic consideration in the same way that CIOs are seeking virtualization to save on systems expenses.

A recent blog at Infrastructure 2.0 talks about network automation relative to cloud computing; another explains how "The Three Horsemen of the coming Network Revolution" will place increasing economic pressures on manual labor networks.

The common theme is that the core network service freeware delivered with many services has now reached a point of exhaustion in larger enterprise-class, networks as Cisco’s Gourlay recently commented (via YouTube) when he called them convenience features. You can get a similar perspective about the need for automated, integrated core network services from Cisco’s James Urquhart.

A study last year conducted by Computerworld found the IPAM (IP address management) smoking gun; with rising per unit IP address management costs incurred as networks grow. Virtualization increases the motion of these tired networks, and pushes more manual labor into areas already slowed down by manual configuration, committees, checklists and rising network infrastructure expenses. This CIO shell game is being played in perhaps half of the world’s largest enterprise networks.

CIOs are temporarily blinded to the impact of rising manual labor and inflexibility in the network as the penalties and tolls are extracted across multiple departments, from ops, to networks to help desks. Network administrators are sometimes tempted into thinking that manual labor is a form of job protection… until outages increase.

Yet the onset of virtualization and the emerging cloud business case promises to force those clinging to outdated network practices into even harder career, budget and people choices. Thus we are likely to see a new category of specialized network appliances appear just as existing categories are being commoditized. They are the first generation of Infrastructure 2.0 appliances, automating the critical core network services (from IPAM to DNS/DHCP, etc) that all networks rely upon.

This new category will tackle a host of emerging technology challenges, from DNSSEC to IF-MAP and IPv6, laying the foundation for tomorrow’s dynamic infrastructure.

Disclosure: long CSCO