|By Michael Bushong||
|July 28, 2014 06:00 AM EDT||
The benefits of automation are well understood: more agile service provisioning, faster time to insight when there are issues, and a reduction in human error as manual interaction is reduced. Much of the premise behind long-term SDN architectural advantages is steeped in the hope that SDN will help enable and ultimately promote automation. But while centralizing control has significant operational advantages, by itself, it doesn’t actually address the most important requirement for automation.
If automation is going to be more than just reducing keystrokes, there will have to be a rise of workflow state.
Successfully managing a network is an exercise in constant iteration through network state. Whenever something needs to be done, the architect or operator examines her current frame of reference to figure out the starting point. That frame of reference usually starts with some implicit understanding of how the network is designed. From there, she takes some action. Maybe she pings an endpoint, checks the state of a BGP neighbor, or examines some interface statistics. Whatever the first step, the point is that she knows when she starts that there is work after the first step.
The information gleaned from the first step yields additional understanding. Her frame of reference changes as she now knows more than before. With her new position in referential space, she takes the next step. And the next, and the next after that. Each step yields a different piece of information, and the process of iterating through a constantly changing referential space ultimately yields some outcome or resolution.
Byproducts of iterative workflows
There are two major byproducts of this iterative approach to workflow. The first is that the starting point is rarely based on an absolute understanding of fact. Rather it is an interpretation that the individual operator or architect creates based on a number of somewhat soft conditions – knowledge, experience, intuition, whatever. This means that for each task, the workflow is somewhat unique, depending on the operator and the environment.
The impact here is important. If workflows are unique based on the operator and the conditions (i.e., the referential space or frame of reference), then the outcomes driven by those workflows are difficult to repeat. Part of why networking is so hard is that so much of it borders on arcane dark art. Science demands repeatability, but the very nature of workflow management in networking makes that challenging.
The second byproduct of networking’s iterative nature is that workflows frequently depend on a set of chained tasks, each of which has a dependency on the preceding task. To make things worse, that dependency is actually rarely known at the start of a a workflow. It’s not that tasks cannot be predictably chained – first, you look at the physical layer, and then you move up stack perhaps. But each subsequent task is executed based on not just the previous task but also the output of the previous task. This creates a complex set of if/then statements in most workflows.
Part of the challenge in automation is providing the logic to navigate the conditional nature of networking workflows.
“Network engineers need to think like programmers”
With the rise of movements like DevOps, “network engineers thinking like programmers” has become a popular phrase. This is a very important change in how we handle network architecture and operations. But there are subtleties here that get lost in the cliche.
First, when people toss the phrase around, they often mean that network engineers need to pick up a scripting language (Python, Ruby, even Perl). Thinking like a software developer has very little to do with programming languages. Languages are a way of expressing intent, but it’s entirely possible to know Python and think nothing like a developer.
Second, when people refer to programming in the context of DevOps, they generally mean that network operators need to think about configuration less as a collection of commands and more like code. Once you make that shift, then you can think about things like source code management, automated testing, and rapid deployment.
But networking needs to do more than just treat configuration as code. DevOps has more to do with deploying and validating changes. It doesn’t fundamentally change how workflows are executed, and it barely touches more operational tasks like troubleshooting network conditions.
Before anyone picks a religious battle over DevOps here, my point is not that DevOps is bad. It’s just that DevOps by itself is not sufficient. And there are things that ought to be done that are separate from DevOps.
Tiny feedback loops
So if thinking like a programmer isn’t about learning a programming language and it’s more than treating configuration as code, what is it?
Software development is really about creating something out of lots of tiny feedback loops. When you write functions, you don’t just execute some task. You generally execute that task and then return a value. The value provides some immediate feedback about the outcome. In some cases, the function returns the value of a computation; in other cases, it simply returns an indication that the function succeeded or failed.
These values are obviously then used by other functions, which allows us to string together small building blocks into complex chains. The important part? These chains can then be repeatably executed in a deterministic way.
Networking workflows shouldn’t be that different. Each individual activity yields some value (sometimes a specific value as when looking at some counter, other times a success or failure as with a ping). The problem is that while networking commands frequently return information, it is up to the operator themselves to parse this information, analyze what it means, and then take the next action.
What we need if we really want to make automation happen in ways that extend beyond just scripting keystrokes is a means of creating deterministic networking workflows. For this to happen, we need people who construct workflows to think more like developers. Each activity within a workflow needs to be a tiny feedback loop with explicit workflow state that is programmatically passed between workflow elements.
We actually instinctively do this at times. XML, NETCONF, and the like have been used to encapsulate networking inputs and outputs for awhile with the intent of making things parseable and thus more automatable.
But we stopped short. We made the outputs more automation-friendly without ever really creating workflows. So while we can programmatically act on values, it only works if someone has automated a particular workflow. As an industry, we haven’t gotten to actually addressing the workflow problem.
Maybe it’s the highly conditional nature of networking combined with the uniqueness of individual networks. Or maybe it’s that outside of a few automation savants, our industry doesn’t generally think about workflows the way a software developer would.
The bottom line
Networking workflows rely way too heavily on an iterative pass through referential space. The reason change is so scary and troubleshooting so hard is that very little in networking is actually deterministic. But if we really want to improve the overall user experience en route to making workflows both repeatable and reliable, we do need to start thinking a bit more like developers. It all starts with a more explicit understanding of the workflows we rely on, and the expression of feedback via some form of workflow state.
And for everyone betting on abstractions, just know that abstracting a poorly-defined workflow results in an equally poor abstraction. We need to be starting elsewhere.
[Today’s fun fact: Only male fireflies can fly. Take that, females!]
An IoT product’s log files speak volumes about what’s happening with your products in the field, pinpointing current and potential issues, and enabling you to predict failures and save millions of dollars in inventory. But until recently, no one knew how to listen. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Dan Gettens, Chief Research Officer at OnProcess, discussed recent research by Massachusetts Institute of Technology and OnProcess Technology, where MIT created a new, breakthrough analytics model for ...
Dec. 9, 2016 07:45 PM EST Reads: 668
IoT is rapidly changing the way enterprises are using data to improve business decision-making. In order to derive business value, organizations must unlock insights from the data gathered and then act on these. In their session at @ThingsExpo, Eric Hoffman, Vice President at EastBanc Technologies, and Peter Shashkin, Head of Development Department at EastBanc Technologies, discussed how one organization leveraged IoT, cloud technology and data analysis to improve customer experiences and effici...
Dec. 9, 2016 06:45 PM EST Reads: 5,131
Everyone knows that truly innovative companies learn as they go along, pushing boundaries in response to market changes and demands. What's more of a mystery is how to balance innovation on a fresh platform built from scratch with the legacy tech stack, product suite and customers that continue to serve as the business' foundation. In his General Session at 19th Cloud Expo, Michael Chambliss, Head of Engineering at ReadyTalk, discussed why and how ReadyTalk diverted from healthy revenue and mor...
Dec. 9, 2016 06:15 PM EST Reads: 1,760
The 20th International Cloud Expo has announced that its Call for Papers is open. Cloud Expo, to be held June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, brings together Cloud Computing, Big Data, Internet of Things, DevOps, Containers, Microservices and WebRTC to one location. With cloud computing driving a higher percentage of enterprise IT budgets every year, it becomes increasingly important to plant your flag in this fast-expanding business opportunity. Submit your speaking proposal ...
Dec. 9, 2016 05:30 PM EST Reads: 2,363
In this strange new world where more and more power is drawn from business technology, companies are effectively straddling two paths on the road to innovation and transformation into digital enterprises. The first path is the heritage trail – with “legacy” technology forming the background. Here, extant technologies are transformed by core IT teams to provide more API-driven approaches. Legacy systems can restrict companies that are transitioning into digital enterprises. To truly become a lead...
Dec. 9, 2016 05:30 PM EST Reads: 458
The Internet of Things (IoT) promises to simplify and streamline our lives by automating routine tasks that distract us from our goals. This promise is based on the ubiquitous deployment of smart, connected devices that link everything from industrial control systems to automobiles to refrigerators. Unfortunately, comparatively few of the devices currently deployed have been developed with an eye toward security, and as the DDoS attacks of late October 2016 have demonstrated, this oversight can ...
Dec. 9, 2016 05:15 PM EST Reads: 1,460
You have great SaaS business app ideas. You want to turn your idea quickly into a functional and engaging proof of concept. You need to be able to modify it to meet customers' needs, and you need to deliver a complete and secure SaaS application. How could you achieve all the above and yet avoid unforeseen IT requirements that add unnecessary cost and complexity? You also want your app to be responsive in any device at any time. In his session at 19th Cloud Expo, Mark Allen, General Manager of...
Dec. 9, 2016 05:15 PM EST Reads: 1,883
Bert Loomis was a visionary. This general session will highlight how Bert Loomis and people like him inspire us to build great things with small inventions. In their general session at 19th Cloud Expo, Harold Hannon, Architect at IBM Bluemix, and Michael O'Neill, Strategic Business Development at Nvidia, discussed the accelerating pace of AI development and how IBM Cloud and NVIDIA are partnering to bring AI capabilities to "every day," on-demand. They also reviewed two "free infrastructure" pr...
Dec. 9, 2016 04:45 PM EST Reads: 1,292
As data explodes in quantity, importance and from new sources, the need for managing and protecting data residing across physical, virtual, and cloud environments grow with it. Managing data includes protecting it, indexing and classifying it for true, long-term management, compliance and E-Discovery. Commvault can ensure this with a single pane of glass solution – whether in a private cloud, a Service Provider delivered public cloud or a hybrid cloud environment – across the heterogeneous enter...
Dec. 9, 2016 04:45 PM EST Reads: 1,861
"Dice has been around for the last 20 years. We have been helping tech professionals find new jobs and career opportunities," explained Manish Dixit, VP of Product and Engineering at Dice, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 19th Cloud Expo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 9, 2016 03:30 PM EST Reads: 1,233
Extracting business value from Internet of Things (IoT) data doesn’t happen overnight. There are several requirements that must be satisfied, including IoT device enablement, data analysis, real-time detection of complex events and automated orchestration of actions. Unfortunately, too many companies fall short in achieving their business goals by implementing incomplete solutions or not focusing on tangible use cases. In his general session at @ThingsExpo, Dave McCarthy, Director of Products...
Dec. 9, 2016 03:15 PM EST Reads: 982
"ReadyTalk is an audio and web video conferencing provider. We've really come to embrace WebRTC as the platform for our future of technology," explained Dan Cunningham, CTO of ReadyTalk, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at WebRTC Summit at 19th Cloud Expo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 9, 2016 03:15 PM EST Reads: 868
The many IoT deployments around the world are busy integrating smart devices and sensors into their enterprise IT infrastructures. Yet all of this technology – and there are an amazing number of choices – is of no use without the software to gather, communicate, and analyze the new data flows. Without software, there is no IT. In this power panel at @ThingsExpo, moderated by Conference Chair Roger Strukhoff, Dave McCarthy, Director of Products at Bsquare Corporation; Alan Williamson, Principal...
Dec. 9, 2016 02:45 PM EST Reads: 638
Businesses and business units of all sizes can benefit from cloud computing, but many don't want the cost, performance and security concerns of public cloud nor the complexity of building their own private clouds. Today, some cloud vendors are using artificial intelligence (AI) to simplify cloud deployment and management. In his session at 20th Cloud Expo, Ajay Gulati, Co-founder and CEO of ZeroStack, will discuss how AI can simplify cloud operations. He will cover the following topics: why clou...
Dec. 9, 2016 02:45 PM EST Reads: 1,043
Video experiences should be unique and exciting! But that doesn’t mean you need to patch all the pieces yourself. Users demand rich and engaging experiences and new ways to connect with you. But creating robust video applications at scale can be complicated, time-consuming and expensive. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Zohar Babin, Vice President of Platform, Ecosystem and Community at Kaltura, discussed how VPaaS enables you to move fast, creating scalable video experiences that reach your aud...
Dec. 9, 2016 02:42 PM EST Reads: 253
"At ROHA we develop an app called Catcha. It was developed after we spent a year meeting with, talking to, interacting with senior citizens watching them use their smartphones and talking to them about how they use their smartphones so we could get to know their smartphone behavior," explained Dave Woods, Chief Innovation Officer at ROHA, in this SYS-CON.tv interview at 19th Cloud Expo, held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA.
Dec. 9, 2016 02:15 PM EST Reads: 822
WebRTC is the future of browser-to-browser communications, and continues to make inroads into the traditional, difficult, plug-in web communications world. The 6th WebRTC Summit continues our tradition of delivering the latest and greatest presentations within the world of WebRTC. Topics include voice calling, video chat, P2P file sharing, and use cases that have already leveraged the power and convenience of WebRTC.
Dec. 9, 2016 02:15 PM EST Reads: 1,785
20th Cloud Expo, taking place June 6-8, 2017, at the Javits Center in New York City, NY, will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. Cloud computing is now being embraced by a majority of enterprises of all sizes. Yesterday's debate about public vs. private has transformed into the reality of hybrid cloud: a recent survey shows that 74% of enterprises have a hybrid cloud strategy.
Dec. 9, 2016 11:45 AM EST Reads: 2,381
In his keynote at 18th Cloud Expo, Andrew Keys, Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise, provided an overview of the evolution of the Internet and the Database and the future of their combination – the Blockchain. Andrew Keys is Co-Founder of ConsenSys Enterprise. He comes to ConsenSys Enterprise with capital markets, technology and entrepreneurial experience. Previously, he worked for UBS investment bank in equities analysis. Later, he was responsible for the creation and distribution of life sett...
Dec. 9, 2016 11:45 AM EST Reads: 7,384
DevOps is being widely accepted (if not fully adopted) as essential in enterprise IT. But as Enterprise DevOps gains maturity, expands scope, and increases velocity, the need for data-driven decisions across teams becomes more acute. DevOps teams in any modern business must wrangle the ‘digital exhaust’ from the delivery toolchain, "pervasive" and "cognitive" computing, APIs and services, mobile devices and applications, the Internet of Things, and now even blockchain. In this power panel at @...
Dec. 9, 2016 11:30 AM EST Reads: 1,026