Why NetOps is the Next Step Forward for Networking

In recent times, a new term has entered the networking dictionary

NetOps stands for ‘network operations’ but that does not paint the full picture. NetOps, is in part, an evolution of DevOps, an IT mindset that fosters communication, collaboration, integration and automation among software developers and operational IT teams. Yet, it also underscores the importance of physical hardware, even when the drive is towards virtualisation of the system.

Today, DevOps tools are increasingly being applied to networking, creating a NetOps approach to building and maintaining a reliable infrastructure to support the virtualised world – a network that is automated, agile and available. Making this a success is critically important because the health of networks correlates to the health of businesses. Everyone relies on the network to do their job effectively.

The ever-evolving need for NetOps

To understand the need for NetOps, it is worth taking a deeper dive into the whole networking environment and the factors driving its development. Fuelled by the success achieved by the biggest cloud service providers, enterprise IT businesses are now following their lead and taking advantage of the latest automation technologies and virtualisation techniques to scale up their network infrastructures quickly and efficiently.  

Yet, however effective they are in virtualising and automating their systems they will ultimately still be reliant on the physical network infrastructure that underpins all this to remain resilient.

The DevOps concept may continue to drive the efficient management of the logical layer, but the hardware needed to run it remains as important as ever. That means, by extension, that the part played by the network engineer in ensuring those physical devices remain up and running at all times is crucial to the health of the organisation.

At its most basic level, of course, networking is about connecting Point A to Point B, and keeping that link secure and reliable irrespective of external conditions. One obstacle to this is that many architectures rely on using the production network to manage that same network, which becomes problematic when congestion or an outage occurs. It is a similar concept to having to call the phone company to report that your phone isn’t working – problematic.

To avoid this problem, businesses have in the past made use of a separate out-of-band management network to make sure that they can attain secure access to their critical devices, often leveraging a cellular modem to provide a reliable alternative path. A console server is installed at each data location, providing a physical connection to routers and switches, which can be accessed remotely from a network operations centre (NOC) or a central location.

In many cases, this kind of approach is regarded as being “for emergency use only” when in fact it should be used as an independent management plane at all times, not just when the network is down. It allows administrators to lock down multiple production network features, and to perform configuration management only through the more secure out-of-band network, with limited log-in access, effectively becoming the “Network Admin’s Network.”

To manage the increasingly complicated expectations of enterprise businesses, a NetOps approach is rapidly growing in popularity with network engineers, using many of the processes and tools that would be very familiar to the DevOps community.  

To keep things as simple as possible, many organisations are looking to their existing network architecture to support this, rather than relying on server or applications teams to allow them access to the production server.

Advanced console servers are now available with x86 central processing units (CPUs), capable of running both the out-of-band management network and common NetOps tools such as Docker containers and Python scripts. By upgrading, or expanding, their existing console server deployments, a network engineer can now extend their reach to the edge of the network, with advanced automation routines at each satellite location.

With secure Out-of-Band management access and the ability to run NetOps tools in a single appliance, network engineers can create their own independent management plane for every situation: for day 1 deployment, for everyday configuration management, and for secure access when the network goes down (through Out-of-Band (OOB) management). With this resilient physical network in place, virtualised environments continue to operate reliably.

Forging ahead into a positive NetOps-driven future

It is an approach that is becoming ever more popular. In a recent Opengear poll of IT decision-makers and network managers globally, 57% of respondents said their organisation had introduced a NetOps automation approach across their network operations.  Moreover, 89%, who had introduced NetOps, said that it had made their organisation’s network more reliable.

Today, with outages on the rise, and network engineers currently unable to travel to affected sites to make fixes, network automation is becoming even more of a necessity and the requirement for NetOps solutions is becoming ever more urgent. Being able to use standard NetOps tools such as Docker, Python and Ansible, within the network management infrastructure itself, simplifies and accelerates deployment of those automation routines.

A NetOps-enabled console server can be the key to unlocking NetOps. As we look to the future then, NetOps looks set to become ever more prevalent and the business-driven requirement for tools that deliver NetOps ever more urgent. Networking is on the cusp of change and we are on the edge of a new networking age.

About the Author

Steve Cummins is VP at Opengear. Opengear delivers secure, resilient access and automation to critical IT infrastructure, even when the network is down. Provisioning, orchestration and remote management of network devices, through innovative software and appliances, enables technical staff to manage their data centers and remote network locations reliably and efficiently.

Featured image: ©Ekaphon