While it’s almost difficult now to think of a time before Covid-19, the accepted approach among engineers for fixing networks in years previous would have been traveling to site with a toolkit of applications in hand to diagnose an issue and remedy the problem. With restrictions however in place over the course of the last 16 months, much greater focus has been placed on accessing networks remotely to reduce social contact and unnecessary travel, with organizations also looking to re-focus their resources and push for greater operational efficiencies. The age of the remote engineer has arrived, but what technologies are available for them to perform the role effectively?
Utilizing a NetOps approach
At the core of the emerging trend towards remote management is NetOps, or network operations, which is partly an evolution of DevOps, an IT approach the places focus on integration, automation, collaboration and communication among operational IT teams and developers. With the independent management plane, which is separate to the production network, otherwise known as an Out-of Band (OOB) Management network, providing remote access and proximity to existing network devices, NetOps automation can facilitate the use of centralized management software and enable network equipment to essentially self-configure. This ultimately enables engineers to perform the same tasks from an off-site location.
What this approach provides is a viable alternative method in which to remediate a faulty or inactive network. With the independent management plane or OOB as the facilitator, this also means that network engineers can access the network and its devices with their own unique log-in credentials, enabling the organization to lock down elements of the wider network to ensure higher levels of security and reduce the risk of a potentially catastrophic cyber-attack. However, in the worst-case scenario of a breach or attack slipping through the net, the secure management plane enables engineers’ remote access during an outage to rectify the issue, even if caused by misconfiguration or a network cable fault.
Taking remote access to a new level
There’s no doubt that the remote capabilities provided by OOB and a NetOps approach is not only facilitating secure and effective access from distant locations, but is also transforming the role of the network engineer due to the way that the tools running in a docker container can be applied and utilized. It was previously the case that remote management of tools needed to be facilitated from a network operations center (NOC) with a reliance on an effective level of bandwidth to ensure a task could be completed. This presented hurdles if the connection didn’t meet the grade. Now, it’s possible for these tools to be run on-site locally with the management process taking place remotely.
While beneficial to the engineer in enabling them to cut down on travel time, ease the burden on their workload and efficiently tackle more remote tasks in their working day, this NetOps approach also enables the organization to adopt a much less data-intensive and much more efficient way of remote managing a network, all in real-time. Ensuring this reduction in data transfer is even more pertinent due to the increasing complexity of modern IT networks and operations and the increased strain on bandwidth due to the exponential growth of data in recent years. With this approach also not requiring access to the main production network, this can also lead to further efficiency gains due to the reduced impact on bandwidth.
At the heart of equipping remote engineers with a NetOps toolkit is the ability for both engineers and the wider organization to benefit from efficiency in a multitude of ways, not just via reduced bandwidth requirements. With the number of skilled network engineers continuing to remain in short supply while the need for computing resource grows, it’s become virtually impossible to station engineers at the multitude of sites now requiring management. Being able to effectively remote manage networks in an efficient way is helping to provide the solution.
It’s also important to highlight the connection between automation and efficiency. NetOps toolkits can eradicate many of the repetitive manual applications and time-consuming routines that engineers were bound by previously. Take for example an incident taking place on a critical network. Before, the onus would have been on the engineer to log in to the system and run through numerous routines to decipher the issue with the network, wasting both time and resources. NetOps is able to automate the entire procedure and automatically run through each step, using OOB further simplifying the process of managing an incident remotely, removing human error and helping to resolve skills shortages.
To truly benefit from NetOps and its integration with remote management will however require organizations to ensure that their engineers are upskilled in Python to fully utilize docker containers correctly. Having knowledge of how to deploy commonly applied toolsets such as Chef, Puppet and Ansible will also help engineers to fully apply the technology to efficient and effective remote network management. organizations need to ensure that the relevant training is therefore in place.
It’s clear that the benefits of utilizing a NetOps toolkit are numerous, from upskilling the role of the network engineer through to increased automation that enables the removal of inefficient manual processes. Backed by an independent management plane and OOB Management the technology allows for reliable remote access for network engineers and the wider organization, meaning they can keep a close eye on any potential risks and threats to the network. NetOps toolkits and their ability to facilitate remote engineer access will play a pivotal part in future-proofing networks while also allowing engineers to work flexibly in the new normal.
Perhaps most importantly, a NetOps approach enables untapped efficiencies for both employees and the wider organization. During the economic pressure on industries that has coincided with the Covid-19 pandemic, the need to keep networks running 24/7 with as minimal downtime as possible has been crucial to ensure unnecessary costs are kept to a minimum and company reputation is upheld. At worst, the fiscal damage to organizations in this current period of uncertainty could be enough to threaten the survival of the business. Providing engineers with the tools to manage these processes with ease from remote locations will prove key.
Alan Stewart-Brown, VP EMEA, Opengear