Dispelling the myth that NetOps and automation replaces human expertise

The road to network resilience is a thorny one, with networks becoming ever-more complex and harder to manage

One way organisations can enhance resilience is by adopting NetOps: an approach, which embeds a growing amount of automation, virtualisation and orchestration, to make networking operations and functions faster and more accessible.

Research commissioned by Opengear discovered 87% of businesses had increased investment in NetOps in the past two years, with a further 51% planning to implement this functionality in the next year. But as more businesses adopt a NetOps approach, particularly via automated processes, the traditional role of the network engineer has come under scrutiny.

With the increasing popularity of NetOps and the ability for automation to reduce human error, is there still a place for the engineer in the maintenance of a business network? The answer is an unequivocal ‘yes’. Rather than removing the need for the network engineer, the advance of NetOps and network automation enhances the value network engineers can bring to a business.

No more heroes?

Network engineers have historically been viewed as the saviours when something goes wrong. The culture around saving the day meant one professional was relied on to step in when a fault occurred. They were often seen as having a level of understanding about the network that others were unable to attain. Much of the work involved  hard manual effort and following repetitive applications or routines. If a particular event had happened on the network, most companies would expect an engineer to log in, run through five or six routines to work out what was happening and then remediate the problem.

The advent of NetOps is changing that culture in a positive way. What NetOps does is automate that entire procedure so that when that event happens, the system automatically runs through those five or six steps.  If that does not resolve the problem, the issue is escalated to the network engineer to handle the next level of troubleshooting.  All this removes the dependency on a single hero to do the diagnostic and remediation work but also enables more engineers to be heroes by freeing them to apply their skills more proactively in managing the network at a higher operational level.

Need for reskilling

Through the capabilities it delivers, NetOps is helping overcome skills shortages for businesses. There are simply not enough engineers available to comprehensively staff every network location. Businesses can use NetOps tools to concentrate their network team’s resource at a network operations centre effectively rather than having to find resources to staff each and every site.

So, the advent of NetOps will bring new opportunities to network engineers but will also require a level of reskilling. For years the badge of honour was being a certified engineer and CCIE (Cisco Certified Internetwork Expert) or a CCNA (Cisco Certified Network Associate) or JNCIE (Juniper).

That is still valuable but for NetOps, there is an additional skillset engineers will need to train for. They will need to program in Python, for example, and understand how docker containers work. They will need to deploy commonly-used toolsets like Chef, Puppet and Ansible. Network engineers need to understand how all this works – and those businesses that understand all this are training them up in the required skillsets.

The success of this process will require commitment from engineers. Some will be wary of NetOps and automation, in part due to a lack of understanding of or familiarity with the approach.  Overcoming this will, in part, come down to engineers being prepared to dip their toes in the water of the new approach. Simply using a Raspberry Pi at home, for example, will help them to gain experience in that environment.

For young network engineers entering the business, collaboration with more experienced employees will be crucial, and the onus will be on business leaders to ensure that new starters learn from every aspect of the organisation. The business may also need to invest more in training and support for their engineers. In the Opengear survey, just 32% of respondents said their network management/engineering team had undertaken industry training courses in order to transition to NetOps. More than half (53%) of the survey sample said they had personally learnt about it (NetOps) in their spare time.

Providing more flexibility, increasing speed and improving programmability, NetOps is a proactive approach to networking that uses automation and provisioning to modernise networks and increase their resilience. Yet, if enterprises are to make a success of it, they need to transition to a NetOps culture. Ultimately, that entails more than just integration of new solutions; it needs a mindset shift among the professionals that work within it.  Enterprises and their engineers taking these considerations into account and focusing on achieving them will ensure effective integration of NetOps and enable a smoother journey on the road to resilience.

About the Author

Alan Stewart-Brown is VP of EMEA at Opengear, with responsibility for overseeing all Sales, Channel Development, Marketing events and SE activities across the EMEA region. Alans’ primary focus is the development and execution of sales strategies, talent development and channel initiatives that will ensure the accelerated growth of the Opengear business across the region. Alan brings 25 years of sales leadership experience gained across the technology sector, including Wireless LAN, Enterprise Software, BI Analytics and e-Commerce. Before joining Opengear Alan held Senior Pan-European Sales Management positions at Xirrus, Fiserv, AIM Technology, eColor and Phoenix Technologies. Alan holds a Bachelor of Science degree from Imperial College, London.

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