Every enterprise IT organization and network provider has some kind of automation ambition—and has for years—yet the vast majority of network and security operations continue to be largely manual in spite of decades of progress in automation technology such as APIs and tools, software-defined everything and DevOps engineering transformations that flank NetOps teams. By itself, this is an interesting dynamic. But when you consider that virtually every major technology advancement in the IT space has been focused on transforming operations, it’s absolutely alarming how little adoption has actually taken place. With so many dependencies on more efficient operations, automation has moved from nice-to-have to a critical foundational building block.
With that in mind, Juniper Networks embarked on summarizing the current state of network automation to help the industry prepare for what will certainly be a more automated future.
About the report
Juniper’s 2019 State of Network Automation Report (SoNAR) is the inaugural installment of annual research sponsored by Juniper Networks. We hope to provide some guidance to the industry, through objective measurement and reporting, to help networking teams successfully automate operations.
The research was based on a survey of 400 North American independent IT decision makers whose roles include network architecture and design, engineering and operations, management systems and security. The primary research objectives were to:
- Provide insight into network automation adoption today, including business and technology drivers
- Identify perceived benefits and challenges of automation deployment
- Understand the impact of automation on both organizational and individual performance
- Determine the state of network operations and automation with networking systems and their operations
Everyone is automating, few are automated
We looked at how long automation practices have been established in respondent companies. It is encouraging that fewer than 4% self-identified as not automating at all. However, of the remaining 96%, only 8% indicated that they were more than four years into their automation journey. This means that the vast majority of companies are still in the early years.
Not surprisingly, this means that the network engineers who power this industry are similarly early in their journeys. As enterprises adopt more mature automation practices, the role of the network engineer is likely to change as is their point of control.
Where the last two decades were defined by vendor-specific syntax and certifications, the next two will be defined by a more abstract representation of policy and control and a systems-level understanding of how that intent is translated into underlying behavior. This will shift the industry from devices to workflows, from CLI to software.
While some believe that this will lead to a transformation of networking professionals to software developers, it seems more likely that we’ll see a transition from vendor engineer to network engineer. The transition appears to be underway: originally popularized by Google with its Site Reliability Engineer role, the networking equivalent, Network Reliability Engineer, is starting to see pickup across industries. It’s also an instructional pivot to automate for reliability and incidentally achieve speed, efficiency and other benefits.
A widening gap between the best and the rest
In the 2019 SoNAR report, we find that automation correlates with high performance across organizations, teams and individuals. While this is not a surprise, it’s worth pointing out that the business benefits accrue most aggressively to the best of the best.
We asked respondents to what degree their various networks are automated. This is what we found:
- Of those with 40% or more automated on average, 78% exceed their business goals (time to market for new products, relative market share for primary products, increasing number of customers).
- Of those with 50% or more automated on average, 96% exceed their goals for network product or service quality.
It’s not just that skilled practitioners are driving value; it’s that they are driving value at a higher clip than counterparts who are less experienced with automation. This means that the competitive wedge between those who excel and those who merely participate is wide and widening.
Understanding the drivers
Historically, the business case for automation has been around cost: reducing operating expense and headcount. SoNAR findings challenge this belief and show that it’s simply outdated thinking in today’s business world of products, services and customer experiences dependent on or defined by technology.
The top business driver today? 60% of respondents said agility was the number one driver and a full one-third reported that it was the most improved because of automation. In last place? IT service delivery efficiency. In other words, the days when cost were driving the automation agenda appear to be behind us. Automation is about servicing the business.
On the technology side, somewhat surprisingly, the lead driver for automation was security with 67% of respondents. As a driver, security towered over the next important driver by an impressive 12%, something that will be explored further in future blogs. The lowest-rated technology driver? Scaling efficiency relative to staff headcount. Again, the focus is on driving outcomes, not removing people.
The move towards automation requires incremental investment in the short term, meaning costs will go up before they come back down. The value is not in containing costs, but in accelerating growth in a scalable way.
Focused efforts and progress yield better results than experience
We asked respondents to make a subjective self-assessment about their company’s automation practices:
- Evaluators (16%) reported no experience operating above GUIs or CLIs (only 4%) or are just beginning (12%) to automate with tools and scripting.
- Practicing Automators (31%) reported automating in a test, development or lab environment but not yet in production networks.
- Production Automators (36%) reported automating production network environments but not in all places. For example, they may have automated some data center networks, but not all. They may also be automating in some areas, such as the WAN or data center, but not in places like campus and branch networks.
- Pervasive Automators (17%) reported automating in production across all places in their networks.
Within these groups, Pervasive Automators have been automating longer (3 times as many of them have been automating for more than 4 years). However, the survey found that Production Automators (only automating in some places in network) outperformed Pervasive Automators in a number of key categories, like better business goal performance. The best indicator of performance was the degree to which networks were automated, more so than if respondents said they were automating pervasively or how long they had been at it. This might, at first, seem counterintuitive but many of Juniper’s customers with strong, automated NetOps, like Blackberry, focused their efforts on evolving people, processes and technology in a smaller cross-section of the infrastructure, but doing so more deeply. From there, success can be replicated. Cursory automation, like scripting out some workflows is better than nothing, but focused efforts yields, on average, better results than more pervasive—and more shallow—automation.
The shape of automation and NetOps
While 96% of respondents have already started their automation journey, large enterprises outnumber small-to-medium enterprises by a 2:1 margin among mature automators. This underscores the fact that companies with more resources and for whom operations likely must scale higher are either more willing or more capable of executing against their automation ambitions.
Among various places in network, data center networks are the most automated, with 43% of respondents indicating automation progress. Data center networks are also where the immature automators spend the most time, whereas campus and branch is where mature automators spend the most time.
How do network engineers spend most of their time on the job? Monitoring. 71% of respondents say this is a daily responsibility. Meanwhile, only 32% said they spend time provisioning, with the result that provisioning and configuration at the bottom of their list.
When one considers the state of the network automation dialogue that often revolves around configuration management tooling like Ansible, Puppet and Chef, this is an interesting result. While it could mean that provisioning is largely already solved, it seems more likely that enterprises, for fear of making changes to notoriously unreliable infrastructure, instead spend more time enforcing change control measures than they do making changes. It begs the question whether the industry focus on configuration management is well placed.
Automation and the individual
In our survey, among automation beginners and evaluators, more than 50% of respondents highlight key impediments:
- Lack of time to learn on the job (59%)
- Lack of knowledge necessary to access training (prerequisite knowledge) (52%)
- Fear of making a mistake in production (50%)
- Lack of training resources (56%)
Any broad efforts to move the industry forward must start with removing these obstacles. Declaring that network engineers need to suddenly become software developers ignores the basic blocking issues—time and resources. Because it is impractical to swap an existing workforce for a more advanced one, companies that want to break through will need to develop programs to help bring their engineers along.
Interestingly, the survey results suggest that automating will lead to greater employee satisfaction. Personal workflow and satisfaction is higher among automators. Insofar as employee satisfaction leads to superior business outcomes, this suggests that automation might very well be a practice that has rewards that extend beyond just the automated infrastructure and business that infrastructure supports.
From better networks to better networking
Overall, the networking industry is at an inflection point, one where automation will play a key role. While many competitors focus on, and benefit from, maintaining the status quo, at Juniper we see the need of supporting the industry through this transformative phase. In addition to ensuring our products and services address the needs of our customers looking to make automation an integral part of their network operations, we also see the importance of supporting network engineers in this evolution. Through resources like NRE Labs, an open source, in-browser platform and community to support automation education, we hope to help network engineers develop the necessary skills to drive adoption within their organizations and ultimately unlock the business opportunities and value that automation offers.
For more insights on automation trends, download the 2019 State of Network Automation Report (SoNAR).
Sumeet Singh - 7 February 2020
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