Network Field Day 21 marked my first experience as a delegate and NetworkToCode (NTC) was my first presenter. Given my focus on all things network automation, and now that I am working on the customer side, I was really interested to ask NTC many questions about their customer experiences. The focus of my questions were more directed on the people, process, culture, journey, and less so about the technology. NTC launched in 2014 and I believe they have many insights into how companies are progressing on their network automation journey. This article summarizes my questions, and provides video time-marks so you can hear their answers.
The Critical Decision
NTC presented a slide that really caught my attention showing there is a critical distinction between network automation platform software and power tools.
This slide resonates with me because I believe there is a significant difference in the amount of time and money a company needs to invest depending if they go one way or another, or both. My takeaway from this slide is that Platform software should be bought/built by software engineers and used by network engineers while Power Tools could be developed by network engineers given they have the skills to do so.
My questions, with links to NTC answers on YouTube:
- “How do you (NTC) help at managing expectations with senior leadership in terms of how long something will take?” — answer
- “How do you help network engineers transition from using CLI and the network being the source-of-truth to using network automation?” — answer
- “After meeting with senior leadership, have you proposed hiring more people to do more automation?” — answer
- “Do you talk to teams outside of network engineering when you are are performing your assessments and forming project recommendations?” — answer
While I do not believe network engineers need to become developers I do believe they can learn basic skills that would allow them to create their own power tools. Two examples that come to mind are writing Ansible playbooks and writing just enough python to use spreadsheets as input to generate network configs — which they could then use Ansible to push to devices. As much as I wanted to ask a lot of questions about how NTC helps network engineers become builders-of-power-tools they wanted to focus on the Platform Software aspect and then get into some very cool demonstrations. But I did get in a few questions:
- “With training, what are you seeing with regards to network engineers learning and deploying Jinja2 templates given this is like a mini programming language?” — answer
- “Do you teach the process of taking a complete device configuration file and deconstructing it into Jinja2 templates and a set of YAML variable files?” — answer
NTC moved into the platform software topic, settings the stage with a very common architecture diagram
I believe the industry trend now, as shown in the diagram, is to create some form of closed-loop system that brings together the aspects of configuration and telemetry to ensure the desired outcome. Conceptually this is a great approach, but the devil is always in the details. There are a lot of tools out there that one can use, and NTC showed one approach:
- “How do you deal with the single-point-of-failure when building a controller based system?” — answer
- “How do you deal with changes when the individual components change, for example the InfoBlox API changes; or when your customer adds new requirements?” — answer
- “How hard and what challenges did you face when deploying this type of technology into customer environments?” — answer
- “When a customer needs to onboard a device into network automation systems, how many different products/systems have you seen, and how do you recommend customers address this complexity?” — answer
- “How long did it take you to build and end-to-end workflow that used ServiceNow to orchestrate a network automation process?” — answer
NetworkToCode showcased a number of very cool demonstrations, and I would encourage you to see what they’ve been working on. I always enjoy seeing how different companies are tackling real business problems, the tools they are using, and the software-stacks they have to put together in order to be successful. If your company is just getting started with network automation and you’ve got questions, NetworkToCode has a lot of great answers and years of experience.