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March 21, 2017

What Color is Your Network? Best Practices for Automation and Orchestration

By Special Guest
Olivier Huynh Van, CTO and Co-founder, Glue Networks

Digital transformation waits for no organization. According to recent research, organizations have one or two years at best to make significant inroads in this area before they suffer financially and competitively. Creating widespread change usually involves overcoming thorny challenges, and among them is “technical debt.” This phrase, borrowed from programming, conjures up the idea of technology that makes change harder. It shows up in three main ways.

An organization’s network infrastructure is the most expensive form of technical debt.

Hardware such as routers, switches and other appliances require a significant capital expenditure spend and are intended to be deployed for a minimum of five to seven years, in most cases.

A second form of technical debt lies in the IT management systems built around the network infrastructure. Oftentimes, this involves custom scripts, order management systems, change management tools, monitoring platforms and other various databases and instrumentation to keep the network running.

Though it may seem counter intuitive at first, the applications running on the network can also carry a debt load. There are often applications running that cannot be shut down or run on legacy systems, causing pain for IT operations that are tasked with keeping everything running seamlessly.

Universal Upgrades Are Not an Option

Based on current business needs, network solutions are more likely to be integrated with brownfield, legacy environments. However, today’s fast-moving network infrastructure calls for flexible, scalable hardware and software. Blending new and existing equipment is a much larger task than ever before. As technology evolves, best-of-breed solutions are being developed at a much quicker pace, sometimes faster than IT teams can evaluate, purchase and integrate.

As a practical example, let’s suppose you purchase a state-of-the-art laptop, the best one you could afford. Before you get it out of the box and set up, it seems there is already an upgraded model with new features you couldn’t previously afford, on sale for less than you originally paid. The same is true for organizations that have established networks. And depending on the purchase approval cycle, new equipment that has been evaluated and ordered is, in essence, outdated before it even gets installed on the network.

Now consider the legacy hardware and software that is still relevant within the network. Most organizations today can’t afford to rip and replace existing equipment. Rather, they must look at new solutions through the lens of “What will work in my existing environment with the least amount of downtime and set-up AND will still be relevant when it arrives?”

Upgrading universally across the entire network spectrum is next to impossible in any industry that depends on technology. Hence, organizations big and small are experiencing technical debt.

Steps to Digitization

Efficiency is the goal as organizations attempt to integrate new and old equipment. Rather than dumb down the new equipment, the intent is to simplify the older and more cumbersome equipment.

Before buying yet more equipment, here are three best practices to simplify the process:

  1. Plan for efficiency. Determine what will best serve your organization long-term, whether it is moving toward software-defined networking, a hybrid solution or simply upgrading equipment. Require programmatic interfaces from existing network suppliers to ensure your existing equipment and new purchases can be seamlessly integrated. 
  2. Appraise the situation. Thoroughly assess your organization to see what “debt” it must continue to live with, like specific network infrastructure and in-house applications. Then determine what hardware or software can be taken offline or replaced with the least amount of impact.
  3. Decide on the what, and the who. It’s often the case that the prioritization of the IT organization is driven by the business needs, which will determine where the IT budget needs to be allocated for new and improved service offerings. Applications today usually provide options that support virtualization-based platforms in either public or private clouds. Network management tools are moving to consolidated models that provide more robust, flexible platforms in order to support multiple network vendors while moving away from proprietary and home-grown solutions.

For instance, consider the abstraction layer, the software that translates high-level requests into the low-level commands required to perform an operation. The most common abstraction layer is the programming interface (API) between an application and the operating system. High-level calls are made to the operating system, which executes the necessary instructions to perform the task. While there are multiple layers of abstraction, today’s applications are often programmed in the same way.

For example, selecting menu options and dragging icons around the screen can write a program. These movements may be translated into a high-level language that is then translated into a low-level language and further translated into machine language. The farther away from the machine language of the computer that an operation is programmed, the more instructions are needed to execute a particular task.

If this set of circumstances is added to the interaction of the operating system—which itself may be executing 10 times as many instructions as necessary—we have a better understanding as to why, even on a fast computer, a user may be able to type faster than the program can accept the input. Considering modern personal computers execute upwards of two billion instructions per second, compared to the first PCs that executed one million, the extra machine cycles are absorbed layer to layer, each one telling the next one what to do.

When an organization is dealing with a brownfield network, IT teams must think about distinctive methods, procedures and operations directly correlated to the number of unique vendors in their network, plus unique functions. Load balancers, switches and routers are dimensional. In other words, even if you have a Cisco (News - Alert) router, its switches have disparate ways of operating because they are not the same product. Wouldn’t it be great to go to a one-to-many model rather than a one-for-one model?

Because efficiency is so key, find an abstraction layer that removes the management of all the solutions to a point of commonality. Once that is identified, network operations can then be continuously refreshed, even if there is older equipment embedded in the network below it. With the proper abstraction, your organization can handle heterogeneous networks because it has abstracted the management of the solution.

Digital Transformation: Coming to a Network Near You

While operating with brownfield equipment, there are three important considerations a company must make to move toward digitization:

  • Define: Based on the changing needs of your organization, define an IT strategy and allocate IT budget around revenue-driving opportunities.
  • Unify (News - Alert): The goal is to unite the data center, WAN and LAN teams so that they are all working toward a common goal of improved application delivery and agility. If possible, take it a step further by consolidating networking platforms, management and service delivery platforms.
  • Adopt: Choose platforms that are programmable and work across multi-vendor networks and adopt DevOps principles across the organization for continuous integration and deployment. Since brownfield network devices do not have an API available, automation can talk directly to each device using its own CLI/semantics. Through this consolidation and by migrating away from closed platforms, you will better enable automation and orchestration across the IT infrastructure.

Networks continue to expand their surface and increase in complexity. To manage them, network administrators need abstraction, automation and control. Next-generation solutions that automate network orchestration lessen technical debt by making change easier. Greater efficiency is possible as older and newer network elements communicate and work together.

Olivier Huynh Van is the visionary inventor of Gluware technology and leads R&D for Glue Networks. Previously, Olivier was the former CTO of Yelofin Networks, and has 20 years experience designing and managing mission critical global networks for ADM Investor Services, Groupe ODDO & Cie, Natixis, Oxoid and Deutsche Bank. Olivier holds a Master’s Degree in Electronics, Robotics and Information Technology from ESIEA in Paris, France.

 If you’re interested in hearing more about digital transformation, be sure to check out TMC (News - Alert) and Crossfire Media’s newest conference and expo, Communications 20/20, happening July 18-20 at Caesars Palace in Las Vegas. The event will focus on the next wave of technology and innovations that will transcend the importance of person to person contact, disrupting the future of the entire communications industry. Find out more HERE.

Edited by Stefania Viscusi

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