Cloud providers are spearheading the automation movement in networking, with many data centers adopting cloud technologies. While the cloud is a significant step automating network management, automating portions of network management away from companies for a fee, it’s only the beginning.

The majority (85%) of organizations currently use at least one type of network automation, but companies are projected to adopt more network automation strategies as technology develops, according to Kentik’s The State of Automation, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning in Network Management, 2019 report. One company is leading the pack in these ground-breaking intelligent network management tools: Merck pharmaceutical company.

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Merck recently underwent a digital transformation journey using Gluware’s intelligent network automation systems in hopes of creating more reliable, efficient, and cost-effective networks, said Salvator Rannazzisi, associate director of Merck engineering.

The results were so effective that the network automation strategies resulted in a 98% reduction in time for global network configuration changes, and it enabled a cost avoidance of at least $220,000 per change on the global backbone, resulting in Merck saving over $2 million in the first year of implementation, according to Jeff Gray, CEO of Gluware.

Before automation

Similar to other organizations, Merck did already have a form of network innovation in place, primarily using Cisco routers and switches, but was only seeing marginal success, according to Rannazzisi. Before automation, Rannazzisi said he was manually configuring thousands and thousands of network devices and designs by hand.

Merck’s production network expands across 360 locations and was originally built for reliability, rather than agility, limiting the functionality of the network, according to a Gluware press release.

“When we talk about digital transformation, we must ensure that all devices are in compliance and meet our stringent standards, as well as have the same software on them and the same configurations,” Rannazzisi said. “Going to network historically has been rather stagnant. The network in general was pretty far behind a lot of other areas like servers, storage, and virtualization.”

Up to this point, the network automation industry could be compared to an iceberg, Gray said.

“[Organizations] start out with a little bit of automation that comes with some of the newer platform vendors, but that’s like the tip of the iceberg,” Gray said. “Everyone is working on scripting to build their own internal workflow, but the move from scripting to full blown [network automation] is a huge amount of work.”

Scripting, alone, is “above the water line,” but configuring, organizing, and fixing a network at scale is “like the rest of the 80% of the iceberg that’s under the waterline. And that is where customers struggle. [Automation] is there to accelerate customers with some very advanced and intelligent technology,” Gray added.

The manual approach to networking resulted projects taking at least 10 months to complete. Before, to make a single change in the network, “it would take months and months and months, now, it’s a couple hours,” Rannazzisi said.

After automation

Merck automated its network in the following five areas, according to Gray.

1. Inventory: “There’s such a difference in these enterprises, in what should be in the network from compliance and security standards, to what’s actually there,” Gray noted. “Our inventory is able to understand what is actually out there.”

2. Running a configuration drift and audit: “Like a Google search for your network,” the system is able to detect if there are any changes from the standard, as well as run an audit for compliance and security, Gray said. This keeps networks in policy.

3. OS upgrade: The automation ensures simplified management of network devices and operation/security upgrades, reducing risk and errors.

4. Policy automation: “Once you understand if your gold standard’s there in the audit, and if the software is current, vyou want to start being able to make changes, right?” Gray said. “[The system allows you] to make the policy change and then spread that change throughout the network.”

5. Workloads: Gluware automated the day to day operational tasks at Merck, with pre-built wizards that streamlined tasks.

Bumps in the road

The biggest obstacle for Merck engineers trying to adopt automation was maneuvering through the bureaucracy of the company, according to Rannazzisi. To be successful, network engineers must build trust with management that the automation is worth investment.

“You have to be in a position where you are able to attempt new things, and it’s not always easy for people to do; change is hard,” Rannazzisi said. “My advice to anybody would be to look at the state of the industry, look at what people build, what we’ve been able to accomplish,” and start small.

Rannazzisi suggested beginning with an aspect of this large-scale automation, breaking it down into digestible steps that make management want to hop on board.

“We started with smaller pieces, and we kept adding on and adding on and adding on, and now we have this huge automation model that’s very, very powerful,” Rannazzisi said.

For more, check out Multi-cloud adoption is driving demand for network automation, survey finds on our sister site ZDNet.

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