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Managing network change with the power of automation

Managing network change with the power of automation

Brian Kaplan

Network changes and network change management can be complex and a bit daunting to pull the trigger on when you’re planning large—or even small—updates.  With our recently released version (10.21) of Hewlett Packard Enterprise Network Automation, we’ve introduced a better way to orchestrate those changes in an automated fashion. Now you can easily align with your existing processes, and this automation provides more safety and ease in the operation.

 Operating on your network or in an operating room

I often equate network change activities with medical situations, such as surgery.  The goals of both are typically to improve some situation.  Some surgeries are more complex than others—just like different kinds of changes to network infrastructure.  Both network change and surgeries require careful planning to ensure you are doing the right thing, at the right time, to the right patient or to the right network node.  Doctors will assess if a patient is ready for the surgery.  They will take vital measurements and run tests of the patient as a baseline of their health or to determine if anything is unexpected before making that first cut. 

 

surgery 2.PNGBoth activities also require that you define success—the goal of the procedure.  After surgery, the doctors will again take measurements and run tests to determine if the surgery created the desired outcome in the patient.  The surgery may have been executed correctly, but the true test of success is if the situation that you set out to improve was in fact improved.

When I speak with many network operations and engineers, I find confirmation that changes are typically well-planned events, just like surgeries.  The days of the lawless American Wild West in managing the network are long gone for most of us. (Though they may be returning with the advent of Software Defined Networking - an interesting topic for a later time.)  The change approval processes that most people follow includes the typical: who, what, where, when, how, and why.  When changes are approved however, there are still some outstanding questions to ask before proceeding with the change. These question include:

  • "Is this the right time to make this change?"
  • "Am I sure I'm changing the right thing?"
  • "How will I be able to tell if my change achieved the desired outcome?"

As you can see, these are the same kinds of questions surgeons ask about their "change" activities.

Surgery.PNG

Accomplishing change activities today

So what do folks do about this today?  Well, some will figure out the answers manually.  For example, if I'm changing the routing table on a router that's supposed to be related to some critical business service, I first check if the router is in fact related to that service by looking up inventory data.  Next I check if the routing protocol currently has any errors by running some show commands on the device.  I might also capture a view of the routing table so I have it to compare later as a baseline, again with some device commands and capturing the output.  Lastly, I may want to verify the OS version of the device as that may impact how or even if I make the change. 

I may then store all of this with the change record, assuming I remember to do that.  Others may find ways to validate these conditions for change via automation.  They may use HPE Network Automation software (NA) to run diagnostics to capture device command output. Others may manually examine device attributes such as OS version or device groupings that NA may already know. Either way, the engineer or operator is trying to determine if the change activity should proceed.  Nobody wants to blindly start making changes without understanding the associated level of risk or the outcome. 

 Accomplishing more with less

Because time is money, more and more doctors are being forced to see more patients in less time. This leads to less attention being spent with the patient, and increased opportunities for mistakes or oversights.  The same is true in managing networks. Network operations and engineering teams are being asked to support bigger and bigger networks, especially as demands on the network and the technologies depending on the network grow.  So the same opportunities for mistakes and oversights exist with network change activities. 

Doctors continue to struggle to become faster without a decline in the quality of the care they provide to patients.  They’ll likely turn to some future technology advancements as they have in the past. Currently doctors try to outsource their work to others with a different set of skills, such as nurses, practitioners, etc.—though there are tradeoffs in execution of the doctors’ instructions as a result. This delegated workforce is still doing things manually—albeit by following doctors’ orders.  Network teams on the other hand, have some solutions that exist today to help with doing more in less time, with less cost, and without sacrificing quality.

Surgery 3.PNG

 Adding automation into the equation to manage network change

This is where more comprehensive automation comes into play for managing network change. Some folks may do everything manually today, including the validation before the change, the actual change, and the validation after the change.  Others may automate the change but may do the before and after validations manually, or semi-automatically.  Wouldn't it make sense to do all of it automatically?  The answer I heard from people I spoke with was a resounding "Yes!"

Automation benefits are just as clear for these conditional validations as they are for the change itself.  Automation generally leads to higher efficiency and higher accuracy—regardless of the context.  You'll save time and reduce the chance of error.  What's also interesting is that you will also be able to leverage your broader SME community to know how changes should be made. Even more importantly, you will learn how to validate the change should occur in the first place, and ultimately how to assess the outcome of the change.  All of this leads to a more efficient use of your team and risk reduction.  While doctors would love to be able to automate their operations and procedures to decrease costs and time, without sacrificing quality, network teams can do this now for their network change activities.

 Introducing the Change Plan- a single orchestrated exercise to make network changes easier

With the introduction of HPE Network Automation 10.21, we've introduced a new automation concept called the Change Plan.  Change Plans are an innovative approach to performing network change activities, combining several existing automation features of NA into one single orchestrated exercise.  Change Plans are similar to the doctors’ instructions that can be given and delegated out to others. The advantage is that they can be executed in an automated manner instead of needing to be manually followed. 

In their most simplistic use, Change Plans are identical to the existing NA feature of Command Scripts—they automate the deployment of configuration commands on network infrastructure to affect change.  However, we have evolved the Command Script feature into a Change Plan by adding the capability to define a set of conditions that must be met before those configuration commands may be used.  These conditions can be NA diagnostics, device group membership, or any other device attributes, such as OS version, configuration contents, model information, SNMP location, etc. 

Anything Network Automation knows about a device may be used as a condition to be assessed in determining whether the automation to deploy configuration changes can in fact proceed.  As an engineer or operator, you have the power to determine which conditions must be met, and how.   You can define what pieces of information to look at, how to interpret the data, and how to conclude if the change should proceed or not.  This helps to validate if the change should occur in the first place, a great next step in the evolution of automating change.

Before you conduct your next surgical procedure, I mean your next network configuration change, consider Change Plans to ensure the safety of your patients, the network fabric itself.  To learn more about Change Plans, and Network Automation please visit www.hpe.com/software/nasoftware, or check out these other resources:

 

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  • infrastructure management
About the Author

Brian Kaplan

Comments
Micro Focus Expert

Very Nicely written Brian .