TL'DR:  'Continuous Improvement' promotes a leaner cycle of data gathering and prioritized fixes which can deliver big benefits for Ops teams without large investments in organizational change.

People are thinking and talking about network automation more than ever before. There are a bewildering array of terms and acronyms bandied about. Whether people are speaking about DevOps or SDN, the central proposition is that you'll reach a nirvana of automation where the all the nasty grunt work is removed and our engineer time is spent, erm... engineering.

Yet many engineers and network managers are rejecting the notion of SDN and DevOps. These folk run real warts-and-all networks and are overwhelmed by the day to day firefighting, escalations, repetitive manual process, inter-departmental friction, etc. They can see the elegance and power of software defined networks and long for the smooth-running harmony of a DevOps environment. Most engineers can see the benefits of DevOps but see no path - they simply don't know how to get to the promised land.

Network equipment vendors purport to solve your management and stability problems by swapping your old equipment with newer SDN-capable equipment. Call me skeptical, but without better processes your shiny new equipment is just another system to automate and manage. I don't blame network equipment vendors for selling solutions, but it's unlikely their solution will solve your technical debt and stability issues. Until your operational and process problems are sufficiently well defined, you'll waste time and money hopelessly trying to find solutions.

DevOps is an IT philosophy that promises many benefits including, holistic IT, silo elimination, developers who are aware of operational realities, continuous integration, tighter processes, increased automation and so on. I'm a complete fan of the DevOps movement, but it requires nothing short of a cultural transformation, and that's kinda hard.

I propose that you start with 'Continuous Improvement', which is an extremely powerful component of the DevOps philosophy. You start by focusing your limited resources on high-leverage tasks that increase your view of the network. You gathering data and use it to identify your top pain point and you focus your efforts on eliminating your top pain point.  If you've chosen the top pain point, you should have enough extra hours to start the process again. In this virtuous circle scenarios you have something to show for every improvement cycle, and a network which become more stable as time passes.

Adopting 'Continuous Improvement' can deliver the fundamental benefits of DevOps without needing to bring in any other teams or engage in a transformation process.

Let's work through one 'Continuous Improvement' scenario:

  1. Harmonize SNMP and SSH access. The single biggest step you can take towards automation is to increase the visibility of your network devices. Inconsistent SNMP and SSH access to your network devices is one of the biggest barriers to visibility. Ensure you have correct and consistent SNMP configuration. Make sure you have TACACS or RADIUS authenticated SSH access from a common bastion. This can be tedious work, but it provides a massive return on investment. All of the other gains come from simplifying and harmonizing access to your network devices.
  2. Programmatically pull SNMP and Configurations. This step should be easy, just gather the running config and basic SNMP information for now. You can tune it all later.
  3. Analyze Analyze the configuration and SNMP data you gathered. Talk to your team and your customers about their pain points.
  4. Prioritize - Prioritize one high-leverage pain point that you can measure and improve. Don't pick the gnarliest problem. You should pick something that can be quickly resolved, but saves a lot of operational hours for your team. That is high-leverage.
  5. Eliminate the primary pain point Put one person on this task, make it a priority. You desperately need a quick win here.
  6. Celebrate Woot! This is what investment looks like. You spend some engineer hours but you got more engineer hours back.
  7. Tune up Identify the additional data would help make better decision for your next cycle and tune your management system to gather that extra data... then saddle up your horse and start again.

Summary

You don't need to overhaul your organization to see the benefits of DevOps. You can make a real difference to you teams operational load and happiness by focusing your limited resources on greater network visibility and intelligent prioritization. Once you see real results and buy yourself some breathing room, you'll be able to dive deeper into DevOps with a more stable network and an intimate knowledge of your requirements.