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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.

Python.  The Python programming language comes first in this list because it is widely available, popular, well-documented, and considered by many to be easy to use. In addition, some other tools that might be used for network configuration are written in Python. Therefore, Python is a flexible, multi-use tool that network engineers have been using to help them with network configuration either directly or indirectly.

The big idea behind using a programming language to create network device configurations is that a program both ensures a predictable result and can iterate through repetitive tasks. For example, let's say an organization needs to build configurations for 100 switches, that are all configured identically except for details like the hostname and perhaps VLAN membership. A program could be written in Python to generate the required configuration over and over again, substituting in the unique elements of a specific switch per iteration. Rather than an engineer building each switch by hand, copying and pasting sections of configuration and making sure the unique bits get swapped out as needed, a program does all of that work.

Python is far from the only programming language that can do this sort of work. For simple tasks as described above, all sorts of options are available. But Python has the benefit of a powerful set of libraries to access network devices and otherwise make it relatively easy to not only create configurations, but also apply those configurations.

Notably, network vendors are writing APIs for their equipment with support for Python. Cisco onePK supports Python, for example, Arista's EOS-API can be accessed with Python, and Juniper has released a "PyEZ" library to enable access to Junos devices via Python.

Jinja2.  One example of Python's extensibility is Jinja2. Jinja2 is a Python library acting as a template engine. Templates are used for repeated bits of code, where perhaps just a few variables change from device to device. In network engineering, templates are useful for configuring big chunks of code that are identical on all devices of a certain class, such as a router, or for paragraphs of code in a device describing interfaces, VLANs, VRFs, and so on.

Jinja2 adds template functionality to Python, making it possible for a network engineer to iterate through all the interfaces on a device, adding unique descriptions and VLAN assignments for each one without having to manually configure each interface separately. As most data centers have a standard set of commands used on all of their interfaces, Jinja2 templates both save time and reduce potential errors when generating configuration with Python.

Puppet.  For those not wanting to learn a programming language, there are several configuration tools popular in the server world that could be considered for network device configuration. Puppet, Chef, Ansible and Salt are most frequently named. In the network community, Puppet and Ansible have the strongest followings.


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