What Star Wars can teach you about network automation

Star Wars is a global phenomenon, raking in billions over the last four decades and making its creator George Lucas a very rich man. Network automation, on the other hand, is a far less sensational topic despite being one of the biggest industry trends amongst IT professionals at the moment.

However, there are parallels between network automation and the robots of Star Wars. From R2-D2, the charming can-shaped blue droid of the original trilogy, to the quirky orange BB-8 in the saga's latest instalment, the evolution of these droids mirrors the transition from traditional to programmable networks.

1. Agile networks: a new hope

In an early chase scene in The Force Awakens, when one of the space ships is flipped, sending passengers and cargo flying, BB-8 quickly adapts to this unexpected situation; stabilising itself by firing hooks into the fuselage of a space ship. This keeps it from being tossed around and getting damaged, which would have been R2-D2's likely fate had it been on-board.

While there's usually less action involved, managed services providers (MSPs) or network administrators can often find themselves in similar situations where they need to adapt to unexpected circumstances, like sudden traffic spikes from over-the-top (OTT) services. Where traditional networks, just like R2-D2, often struggle to react quickly, automated networks are far more agile because they leverage advanced software capabilities to adapt to sudden surges in demand or unexpected obstacles.

Just like BB-8, these can put measures in place almost instantaneously to deal with any situation. This level of agility is a key asset for BB-8 and a capability that IT professionals need to support their business and should expect their networks to have too.

2. The functions awaken

BB-8 may look like an orange football, but it actually has a multitude of tools hidden underneath its metal exterior, giving the little robot the right resources at its disposal to adequately deal with any situation. The same applies to software-enabled networks.

Network automation should be slick on the outside, with a lot of different tools available below the surface. Automated networks can leverage a plethora of different resources that allow network administrators to quickly and effectively act upon any challenges thrown their way. This includes underlying applications such as network function virtualisation (NFV) orchestration, network management systems (NMS), software-defined networking (SDN) or data centre controllers. Automated networks give administrators the freedom to deal with any problems they may face, without having to worry about the complexity of the resources they are using to solve these issues.

This manifests itself as a suite of simple, useful services that enterprise IT managers can quickly avail of without needing to worry about setting up lots of different network attributes.

3. Smart networks with Jedi powers

When navigating the sandy dunes of Jakku, where we first meet BB-8, or the rocky desert of Tattoine, the terrain is manageable for a ball-shaped droid. R2-D2, on the other hand, needs to rely on propulsion thrusters or some other inefficient form of transportation to move around. It would also take R2-D2 much longer to overcome these challenges before it could catch up with the rest of the group.

Traditional networks aren't really that different from R2-D2. They perform really well under specific circumstances, but if you take them out of normal operating parameters they struggle to compete. Scalability and automation are the trump cards of automated networks in these situations. Programmable networks are far more adaptable to change, allowing administrators to add resources or create and deploy new services that quickly meet the ever changing needs of their enterprise customers. This, in turn, provides them with a network that is much more self-sufficient and agile.

As with R2-D2, older technologies are certainly not redundant. R2-D2 is well loved, has many outstanding qualities and, just like traditional networks, is far from being taken out of service. But BB-8 has set the trend for the droids of the future; they will be more agile, autonomous and have greater freedom of movement. And the same is true for networks.

Joe Marsella is CTO EMEA at Ciena

Image Credit: Sergey Nivens / Shutterstock