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Incremental SDN: Automating network device configuration

Ethan Banks | Sept. 10, 2014
Automation is a logical next step in the SDN migration journey.


The definition of Software Defined Networking (SDN) continues to broaden, today including functions such as configuration automation and orchestration. While these tasks aren't strictly SDN, the fact is software is used to define some aspect of the network infrastructure in both cases, so vendors have stretched the definition of SDN to bring configuration automation and orchestration platforms into the mix. In fairness, the line gets blurry, as some modern orchestration systems use programmatic interfaces to provision the network instead of traditional configuration tools such as SSH or SNMP.

In many organizations, automating the configuration of network devices is where "SDN" is initially gaining traction. The impetus for this is straightforward: configuring network devices is woefully complicated. As vendors build more features into their routers, switches, firewalls and application delivery controllers, the command line syntax required to configure those devices becomes increasingly loaded with options and syntactic choices. Web-based GUIs are often a CLI alternative, but are slow to navigate. Web GUIs also have a way of obfuscating functions by hiding them in unlikely pages, making access to them a series of annoying clicks.

The point of commonality in traditional network device configuration is humans -- whether they use a CLI or a GUI -- and, for all our considerable merits, we aren't as competent as computers at syntax, perfectly inputting long strings of data, or remembering each step of a complex task. In my experience, humans are the No. 1 cause of network outages in the form of network engineers making an honest mistake.

Asking a human to a make a change to a production network is akin to asking a human to change the air filter on a car. While the car's engine is running. And the car is traveling down the highway at 70 miles per hour.

Can it be done? Yes. Should it be done? Hmm. Seems a little risky. And yet, organizations take exactly these risks every day, often mitigating that risk with scheduled maintenance windows. However, even those windows don't change the fact that a modern network is expected to be up 100% of the time.

For years now, server administrators have been automating repeatable and complex tasks with several different tools. Network devices are not servers, but of late, several tools from the server world are being used by the network community. These tools are addressing the issue of complexity and human error in device configuration. These tools could also be considered an incremental step on the SDN journey. While configuration automation isn't pure SDN, it certainly moves an organization closer. Let's take a look at a few tools to introduce this emerging trend.


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