Network demands up? Resources down? Here's one way to tackle the problem.

Virtualization, with a healthy dose of automation, can pave the way for network efficiency

Network managers regularly must deal with growing demands on increasingly complex networks. In the IT field, that just comes with the territory. But lately, constricted budgets and staff reductions have compounded the challenge, while the demands, whether from employees or the public, continue to rise. 

One way to satisfy those demands is through virtualization and automation, network managers and industry experts say.

Three years ago, as organizations began to explore the potential of virtualization, worried administrators prepared for the challenge of integrating virtual servers into a network environment. Virtualization presents problems for networks, but it is a tool that can help meet expanding network demands.

“Virtualization is a way to deal with the problem,” said Curlie Matthews, CIO of Colorado Springs, Colo. Matthews said that because virtualization allows for greater centralization and consolidation, his team can deliver more services with fewer people. That’s especially important because Colorado Springs has lost more than 500 staff members during the past two years, and Matthews’ department has lost approximately one-third of its staff, he said.

“We’ve gone from where every department had an application on their own server, located in the data center or under the desk of one of their people,” Matthews said. “Now you can’t have a server under a desk anymore. It has to be a blade in the data center. And it can’t be stand-alone.”

Although virtualization offers a potential solution to the problem, it also presents hurdles, at least in the short term. “There’s the challenge of how do you get a workforce that did not work in a virtual environment, that was decentralized — how do you train people in the midst of the implementation of a virtual infrastructure,” Matthews said.

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Consolidation and Automation

Virtualization helps with the ongoing effort to consolidate network resources, but vendors and network managers are also banking on increased automation to help organizations meet challenges with fewer staff members.

“We’re automating as many of our reporting and monitoring tools as we can,” Matthews said.

However, the push for more automation isn’t just to save staff resources. As networks become more complex — with virtual servers and switches, public and private clouds, and remote access from an array of portable devices — manual configuration is no longer a viable option, especially when rapid provisioning is necessary.

“Five or six years ago, when we talked about full-stack provisioning, we were talking about building a server and putting an operating system on it,” said Ben Newton, a tech expert for the public-sector team at BMC Software. “I think that ‘full stack’ now means you’re networking hardware connections, putting a server on top of it and doing an exterior network. All of that has to be automated end-to-end and delivered as a package. It’s nearly impossible to do that without some sort of configuration automation.”

Automation scripts, which BMC specializes in creating, save money and improve quality of service, Newton said. “You can’t just throw people at problems anymore,” he said. “You have to be able to reduce the cost and take the fat out of the process. I think it is also improving quality of service. And especially with the cloud, there’s an expectation that the quality of service is assumed. You just can’t do it manually any more. You just can’t write scripts that are going to be able to keep everything consistent. It just doesn’t work anymore.”

Tim LeMaster, director of systems engineering at Juniper Networks, said he agrees that network managers are calling for increased automation scripts. “The industry has recognized for a long time that the largest contributor to network outages is human error,” he said. “So anything we can do to remove some of the human errors adds to the overall reliability of the network.”

For example, Juniper’s network management applications support three types of user defined scripts: operational scripts, commit scripts and event scripts. The commit scripts probably are the most effective at reducing human error, LeMaster said. “If someone adds a new interface and they forget to add a protocol running on that interface, the script will check it,” LeMaster said. “I can actually check it as I commit that configuration.”

To combat the increased complexity of networks, event management automation is gaining in importance.

“Every device in your network, from servers to printer, firewalls, switches — every device spits out logs,” LeMaster said. “It’s overwhelming network operators. There are more events than they can keep up with.”

“When something happens in my network, I get tens of thousands of events in my event log, but I don’t know which ones are the real problem and which are just a result of the outage,” LeMaster said. “There’s a need for event management.” And the more that can be automated, the better.

“We’re still in the early stage of getting those automation tools to where they should be,” said Dan Kent, federal solutions director at Cisco Systems. “But we’re working feverishly in the industry to make that happen.”

Kent said automation tools are a prerequisite for agencies and departments that want to take full advantage of the benefits of cloud computing. “We do believe that is when you’re going to see the value of clouds come to a lot of the agencies,” he said.

Down the Road

Virtualization and cloud computing haven’t yet caused major headaches for most network managers in part because vendors have been quick to provide tools for managing those resources.

A significant challenge of dealing with virtual servers is having the tools to envision the new virtual environment. “You’re adding more clutter to an already cluttered environment,” LeMaster said. “Whatever vendor you’re using for virtualization, you’re adding their pane of glass now to manage virtual machines. You’re adding yet another device. It means that as a network operator, I’ve now got six or eight — who knows how many — different screens and systems that I have to look at to get visibility into what is going on in the network that I manage.”

However, vendors have been surprisingly quick to deliver those applications. “There have been enough tools brought to market that help you manage the environment that it’s probably not as challenging as people thought it might be,” LeMaster noted.

But vendors add that another reason virtualization hasn’t created more challenges for network managers is that, to date, many agencies have implemented the technology only in a relatively straightforward or limited fashion.

“Certainly the bulk of virtual machines are deployed in a very simple fashion,” Kent said. “You may have consolidated the physical machines into one, but you’re not doing anything with it. As you start to take it to the next level — which is automation — you will start to move workloads, applications and machines.”

That is when network managers can expect to realize virtualization's benefits and challenges, Kent said. Most of virtualization is just starting to get into deployment now,” he added.

Vendors say they are ready. LeMaster noted that Juniper Networks has teamed with VMware to create Juno Space, which can manage all virtual machines and physical devices on one platform. The application has not yet been deployed on a federal network, but LeMaster said clients are hungry for the capability.

Cloud Bound

Another factor that will complicate virtualization and the network environment in general is the move to cloud computing.

“That is the current battlefield today,” Kent said.

The battlefield is particularly problematic in the public sector.

“We’re in the midst of looking at how cloud computing would work in our environment,” Colorado Springs’ Matthews said. “Do we take things like police and fire data and put it out there in the cloud, and how secure is that going to be? Do we trust someone out there in the cloud environment to maintain security around our data? We’re evaluating the difference between a public cloud and a private cloud.”

Whether the cloud is public or private, cloud computing, especially when combined with virtualization and automation, will present technical and cultural hurdles for many network managers.

“That’s one of the scariest aspects of cloud,” Kent said. “We like to know that when things get moved that somebody’s hand is on moving those things. There’s a cultural bias to doing that manually. Over the next two to three years, you’ll start to see that automation trickle in because that automation is what gets your ability to turn a server on in 15 minutes instead of two days. Or turning on a firewall port, turning on an [intrusion prevention system], turning on policies — that’s really where you start to see automation really add value to the agency.”

Kent also predicted that many organizations will wait for the next generation of hardware to fully implement cloud computing. “You’re going to see a lot of cloud systems built on newer hardware platforms that will have a lot of the capabilities and instrumentation in them to address a lot of the visibility and the automation issues,” he said.

IT as a Service

According to some industry observers, the trends in network management — such as virtualization, automation and cloud computing — are all pushing toward the same fundamental shift in network computing.

“What’s changing things is cloud computing,” Newton said. “It’s changing the way that our customers are looking at network management. If you peel the hype — and there is a lot of hype — it’s about IT as a service. It’s about a different way of interacting with your end-user. And it’s also about different expectations of speed, quality of service and service levels.”

Network needs and expectations for instant and reliable services are leading many organizations to think more in terms of outsourced modules. “They’re talking a lot about network containers and how they can automatically provision those containers, firewall settings, load balancers and all these things together,” Newton said. “It’s completely different than the way they were thinking about it before.”

At the same time, Newton said, the role of IT administrators is also changing quickly. “The very defined black lines between network administration, database administration, server administration, storage administration — those lines are going gray very quickly,” he said. “You can’t any longer say, ‘I’m a network administrator who doesn’t touch servers,’ anymore. The networking piece is woven in with the server now. As a network admin, I can’t live in an isolated world anymore. I’m having to live in a much wider context.”

The context that concerns Matthews the most is being between the rock of growing demands on his networks and the hard place of budget constraints. He said he hopes virtualization and automation can provide a way out. “Our big issue is going to be how do we continue to fund services our citizens are asking for,” Matthews said. “Citizens across the country are rejecting tax increases, yet at the same time, they want to have all the services. At the same time, we’re laying off people who provide those services.”

About the Author

Patrick Marshall is a freelance technology writer for GCN.


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