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As organizations continue to adapt to new cultures of home and hybrid working, networks are being rapidly evolved. Alan Stewart-Brown looks at the resilience threats and opportunities that this is bringing.

With growing numbers of employees choosing to balance their time between home and the office, businesses are increasingly evolving their networks in order to manage this new hybrid working world seamlessly and securely. As a result, many organizations have decided to undertake a re-evaluation of their network infrastructure to facilitate collaboration and productivity and enhance security while at home and in the office. However, the highway to integrated networks has been riddled with roadblocks. As more firms leverage IoT and smart devices, the risk of disruptive downtime increases and that, in turn, has a correspondingly negative impact on agility and flexibility. The Uptime Institute's 2022 Outage Analysis Report finds that most organizations, (80 percent), have experienced an outage in the past three years, with about one in five of those surveyed saying they had a serious or severe outage during the same timeframe. So how can organizations best navigate their way past these obstacles and deliver a business environment that supports agility and is safe and secure?

The move towards NetOps automation

At the heart of keeping downtime at a minimum is an independent management plane, which essentially allows engineering teams to roll-back or undo any inadvertently uptime-threatening actions. This is part of a wider Smart Out of Band management configuration, which unlike In-Band solutions, enables network engineers to securely connect to remote equipment during an outage. Engineers can then also lock down the most critical functions on the production network to prevent other users accessing systems.

Smart Out of Band interfaces can also be paired with Failover to Cellular, which provides continued Internet connectivity for remote LANs and equipment over high-speed 4G LTE networks even when the primary link is unavailable. More broadly, though, any organization fully focused on minimising downtime and driving agility will be assessing the benefits of using NetOps, a proactive approach to networking that uses automation and provisioning to modernise networks. NetOps stands for network operations but that does not paint the full picture. NetOps, is in part, an evolution of DevOps, an IT mindset that fosters communication, collaboration, integration, and automation among software developers and operational IT teams. NetOps shares that mindset with DevOps and it shares similar tools – applications designed to automate manual tasks, help teams manage complex environments at scale, and keep engineers in control of the environments in which they operate.

Today, DevOps tools are increasingly being applied to networking, creating a NetOps approach to building and maintaining a reliable infrastructure to support the virtualised world – a network that is automated, agile and available. 

Yet, the world of NetOps goes beyond simply enshrining the use of tools to additionally underscore the importance of two key principles: orchestration and automation. Orchestration leverages zero touch provisioning, configuration and assurance, to support true end-to-end service management. It is the process of automatically programming the behaviour of a network and ensure that the network smoothly coordinates with all hardware and software elements to support all applications – and contribute to business continuity and agility at the same time.

In terms of automation, NetOps provides the ability to mechanise predictable and repeatable tasks. This makes network configuration changes, data collection from nodes and other mundane tasks easy to do, from anywhere.

It is important to highlight here that NetOps does not equate to network automation but its delivery does lay the groundwork for the integration of more automation through the business. Across the hybrid workforce, it’s more important than ever for enterprises to be able to automate certain processes, such as the testing of network processes for latency purposes or securely provisioning new sites. NetOps makes this possible, with a growing awareness of its benefits among businesses and IT departments.

The NetOps approach provides advantages such as upskilling and business efficiency, with opportunities for employees to build programming skills in Python and understanding of Docker containers, plus other commonly used toolsets such as Chef, Puppet and Ansible. Together with the independent management plane, NetOps automation ultimately helps reduce the threat of downtime and ensures business continuity. But it goes beyond that also to help ensure that operational efficiency is prioritised. The latest iterations of NetOps take those DevOps principles of rapid development and deployment and apply them to the world of networking. In the past, network engineers focused on availability and capacity while developers concentrated on the rapid deployment of new applications. Today though, teams of engineers, who have imbibed NetOps principles, are just as likely as DevOps developers to highlight the importance of speedy deployments, quick upgrades and rapid maintenance of applications that span across multiple environments.

Keeping the network running 

Outages ultimately result in organizations losing money and can significantly impact industry reputation but networks also need to be easy to configure and to operate continuously at high performance levels.

NetOps, working in collaboration with Smart Out of Band management can deliver all of that functionality and more. A Smart Out of Band management network already provides presence and proximity to an organization’s critical devices, and so is ideally positioned to bring NetOps automation to its network. The ability to run standard NetOps tools on a console server provides a new way to automate operations at centralised and remote locations. Organizations can ship equipment to a remote site –and it will self-configure there, support remote monitoring and management, and enable issues to be resolved and rectified as and when they occur.

The hybrid working era has required businesses to be more agile and offer a network that’s secure, connected, and scalable for employees to benefit, regardless of where they are based. To ensure downtime is minimized, enterprises need to be proactive in securing their network resilience with trending technologies such as the independent management plane, Smart Out of Band technologies, and NetOps to ensure optimum business continuity and keep the network up and running.

The good news is that the capabilities are already in place to enable organizations to move to NetOps today. It does not have to be a big bang implementation either. It can be evolutionary and layered over an existing solution, such as Out of Band, adding functionality and flexibility while allowing the business to take a big step into the networking future.

The author

Alan Stewart-Brown is VP EMEA at Opengear.

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