Meaningful Network Automation Requires Distributed Sources of Truth

November 9, 2022 | Chris Wade
Meaningful Network Automation Requires Distributed Sources of Truth

Enterprise networks are vast, intricate systems with multiple methods for storing configuration and state information. The configurations of those networks are also constantly changing as new applications, services or other updates are added. When you consider the complexity and dynamic nature of an enterprise network, it may be alarming to learn how much data – including most network configurations – is still updated manually, often in the middle of the night. To make that process even less efficient, the people doing the updating are required to manually log those updates on spreadsheets or into a custom-built database.

Relying on manual processes to maintain and manage the state of an enterprise network not only leaves the door open for errors but can also lead to the network spreadsheets or databases being out of sync with the actual current state of the network. Is the network correct? Or is the spreadsheet correct? Should we make the network look like the spreadsheet? Or should we update the spreadsheet to reflect the network? What is the actual source of truth?

The good news is that the reality of modern networking has changed the paradigm. As programmable networks are deployed more broadly, manual CLI interfaces are no longer necessary. Reading and writing network configuration and reading network state can be accomplished quickly and easily with machines and automation.


The Source of Truth

More enterprises are embracing network automation because they recognize the efficiencies it can deliver when managing complex networks and the benefits those efficiencies can add to the bottom line. But if you’re going to automate your infrastructure, your automation solution will need to gather authoritative information about it from somewhere. This source of truth holds the knowledge needed to enable automation to make changes to the network.

Many enterprise networking teams feel they need to rely on a single source of truth to know the true state of the network. They believe that building a single system/server/database that can synchronize with the configuration and state information of all devices across the whole network is a viable solution. But such a solution doesn’t currently exist. Given the multifarious nature of today’s networks, relying on a single source is both impractical and potentially expensive.

Rather than asking “What is the single source of truth?” perhaps the better question is “What will provide better data: Creating a single source of truth that tries to synchronize to the entire network? Or accessing distributed sources of truth needed to accomplish the automation in real-time?”

Instead of relying on a single source of truth, enterprises should focus on accessing multiple sources of truth to conduct proper and meaningful automation.


Cast a Wider Net

If you’re running a service provider network, for instance, your business is your network. If you’ve spent millions, or even a billion dollars on your network assets, it’s worth your time to have a system in place that accurately manages and maintains those assets. A single source of truth won’t provide that.

Also, as the network scales in size and complexity, the time it takes to synchronize a source of truth to the network also grows, limiting how often you can synchronize and leading to a greater time delta between synchronization states.

Finally, the process of trying to create a single source also doesn’t address the real issue, which is that enterprises are still relying on manual processes that will almost always result in the source of truth databases and the actual network status being out of sync at some point. And that can have serious negative effects on a business as well.

The case for accessing multiple sources of truth is a relatively simple one: it allows for greater flexibility and enables enterprises to more easily leverage data to benefit their business.

With the advent of programmable networks–machines talking to machines–the most current automation solutions can access multiple distributed sources of truth – different APIs and databases that are responsible for being the source of truth for different parts of the network – and federate and sync data from these systems in real-time, providing a truer window into the status of the network and more accurate, actionable data that delivers business value back to the enterprise.


Automation Hesitation

So why are some enterprises still hesitant to commit to a full network automation project? There are various reasons for this, but clearly, there’s concern that not having a single source of truth for network data – or data that may not be 100% accurate – will compromise the automation process. It’s a classic “fear, uncertainty and doubt” thought process: “What if the data is only 70% accurate? If we try to automate with bad data, we’re going to break the network 30% of the time.”

Some network teams may believe they can’t automate anything until they can combine their five or six sources of truth into one huge database. At the same time, leadership may be pushing those network teams to move forward with automation to get more value from the network. By choosing to wait until they finally have a “pristine” database, they could lose months or even years of time, to the benefit of no one.

The solution is to take an incremental approach. Look at all the various network assets – programmable, cloud, legacy, etc. – and start the automation process in the areas where good data exists and where a source of truth doesn’t need to be built. In parallel, you can be cleaning up the other data and add automation when that data is ready.

Being able to utilize multiple sources of truth is better than worrying about having a “perfect” source of truth and holding back on an automation initiative. In the long run, it will be beneficial to both the network team and the business.

Just as important as committing to an automation solution that can integrate with multiple sources of truth to make decisions, is deploying the right automation solution. The most effective automation solution will embrace:

  • API-first – The only way to integrate multiple sources of truth into a unified one is through an API-first approach, allowing systems to talk to each other.
  • Data federation and transformation – Having unified sources of truth is only impactful when teams can fully integrate the data together while ensuring it speaks the same language.
  • Unified view – An abstracted and federated view of the data, processes and logic from integrated systems enables a single pane of glass across an entire network, as well as management tools for simplifying automation across the organization.

Multiple Sources Equal More Actionable Data

With today’s modern, programmable networks – and the absolute necessity for enterprises to have access to accurate, real-time network data – relying on a single source of truth is based on a flawed assumption that we can always have a synchronized database, and therefore is not a viable strategy.

By adopting network automation, organizations can adopt a distributed source of truth solution by enabling the multiple systems of record, and their collective data, to act as the source of truth, mitigating data quality issues and manual errors.

As an enterprise implements its automation strategy, having multiple sources of truth within the network will result in more accurate, timely and actionable data for automation to succeed, which will increase efficiency and drive the business forward.


How Itential Supports a Federated Source of Truth for Network Automation

From the start, we built Itential for an API-first world in order to better enable teams to rapidly integrate to their ENTIRE ecosystem at no extra cost to our customers, thereby eliminating the so called “Integrations Tax” that typically comes with trying to achieve a federated source of truth. Through our robust Pre-Built Adapter library users can quickly integrate the Itential Automation Platform with their systems of choice, without a single line of code. This rapid integration process works well alongside our capabilities to automate data transformations, further preventing teams from swivel-chairing between systems and applications for data gathering and formatting. Our approach delivers a method for network teams to access, view, and analyze all their key network systems (across any domain) in one unified federated view, and provides simplified capabilities to build automation that can increase efficiency to reduce time to market.

At Itential we are strong believers that a federated source of truth is the pathway for scalability, accuracy, and efficiency in an increasingly complex network environment. To learn more about how Itential helps teams achieve a federated source of truth, check out this recent demo with NetBox on how to evolve your source of truth into automation or learn more about our platform here.

Article Originally published on DevOps.com.

Itential & NetBox: Evolving from a Source of Truth to Automation & Orchestration
Chris Wade

Co-founder & CTO ‐ Itential

Chris co-founded Itential in 2014 to simplify and accelerate the adoption of network automation and to transform network operations practices. Using a model-based approach, Chris leads the innovation and development of the company’s flagship software portfolio of dynamic network automation applications.

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