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One Framework to Rule Them All

Level 11

The Dream of the Data Center

For me, it started with OpenStack. I was at a conference a number of years ago listening to Shannon McFarland talking about using OpenStack to bring programmatic Network Functions Virtualization (NFV) into the data center. My own applications are much more small-scale, but the idea was captivating from the beginning. Since then, many other approaches to this have come into play, but all of them share that single idea of programmatic control over large-scale installations.

The thing about data center architectures is that they need automation. It's not an optional thing or a nice-to-have item. The human resources required to maintain those systems the way most network engineers maintain our networks just don't make financial sense. They're not all that efficient in smaller networks and are particularly ineffective at scale. Necessity is the mother of invention and that is what built the network automation infrastructure we see in large-scale DC deployments.

For smaller deployments, automation makes things easier and takes the drudge work out of the job. It's something we want, but not something we can always justify. Still, a guy can dream.

Automation at the Device Level (NETCONF/YANG)

Meanwhile, back in the real world of smaller networks and device-centric configurations, we're trying to make things easier as best we can. We've got NETCONF interfaces for programmatic control, and YANG models to use as templates for how things should be. Some of us are using tools like Ansible and SaltStack to go beyond device-by-device configurations, but we're still focused on the devices.

I'm not sure if this is due to the unwillingness of network engineers to change our paradigm of thinking from the devices to the network as a whole, or if it's the vendors creating equipment that interacts with the network only from its own perspective. It may well be that each feeds the other, creating a vicious cycle that's difficult to break.

If the necessity isn't there, where's the need for invention?

Commoditization and Virtualization (NFV)

As virtual machine technology began to become more common in smaller enterprises, the option of virtualizing all of the things became more appealing. If we're saving money and making more efficient use of resources by virtualizing server loads, why wouldn't we consider virtualizing some of our network infrastructures, too?

With Network Functions Virtualization, we came full circle to the dream that began with that OpenStack presentation. If the network, or at least portions of it, could be addressed programmatically like the other virtual machines, we were getting closer.

Were we dreaming too small?

Systemic Networking (SDN)

Even with NFV and the ability to use cloud and DC automation tools to provision and configure our virtual routers and switches, we're still being traditional network engineering greybeards and thinking in terms of devices rather than in terms of the entire network.

Enter Software Defined Networking, where we theoretically see the network as a programmable whole. The virtual components and the physical components share a single southbound API from a set of central controllers and the whole thing can be programmed through there.

Of course, depending on whose definition of SDN our products are working with, this may or may not be a complete solution, but that's a topic for another article.

Once this becomes commoditized, we theoretically have all of the tools to automate the network from a holistic perspective, but do we have an automation framework that will work equally well for all of the components in the platform?

The Whisper in the Wires

We have what it takes to virtualize and automate most of the network, making automation via central controllers a workable option. We can use one framework to deploy, provision, and automate the lot, right? Here's where I'm not quite sure. Even if we have a good strategy for our NFV devices and/or SDN controllers and their satellite devices, do we have a single framework that we can use to handle the deployment and management of the lot?

8 Comments
Level 14

Thanks for the article.  This topic should have a weekly segment

You're right when you observe there are fewer innovations and inventions when there is no perceived need.  Could it be we're merely at the plateau of that specific type of innovation, and a quantum leap is around the corner?  In human and computer terms, fifty years has accomplished so much innovation that we've become accustomed to rapid changes.  But the rapid changes have come with gaping security holes and vulnerabilities.

Sometimes it's OK for innovations to occur a little more slowly than we've seen in the last three years.

While I'm waiting for network automation to free me up for more time fishing, some other technology-related innovations have caught my eye.  Maybe they'll tide me over until my boss tells me "You've got it made!  We're going to implement new all-in-one I.T. Network/Server/Application/Storage/Security automation, and you'll be able to work from your boat and just watch your paycheck grow as it's automatically deposited from here on out!"

  • 3D Metal Printing is becoming cheap and easy enough to be practical.  Mass production of custom items may no longer remain an oxymoron.  Check out companies like Markforged and Desktop Metal.
  • Artificial Embryos.  England's University of Cambridge has grown something that looks like a real mouse embryo using only stem cells.
  • Toronto's Quayside is rebuilding urban neighborhoods from the ground up using the newest tech solutions.  The goal is to make more practical city living and working space that meets needs about noise and pollution and transportation.
  • Imagine if everybody had their own AI.  Or multiple AI's.  Amazon and Google and Microsoft are doing things that could make that practical and affordable.
  • Think of a way to design "imagination" into an AI.  One group is working on this as the result of a conversation in a bar outside of the University of Montreal.  Their direction using a "generative adversarial network" that they call "GAN".  Its neural net is based on a generator and a discriminator, and it sounds pretty cool.
  • If you really want to communicate with others, and I mean ALL others, Google's Pixel Buds and the Pixel Smartphone and Google Translate app let two people without no common language converse in  real time through the use of that tech. The video I saw is impressive.  It overcomes the background noise issues that have been a hurdle for Apple and Android translation apps.
  • If the self-aware autonomous network isn't happening fast enough for you, divert your brain cells and imagine a team adjusting natural gas so it puts out no carbon as it releases energy.  Net Power is a company that's already got a pilot power plant going that uses this idea, and they says it will generate power as affordably as traditional natural-gas plants, without releasing all the carbon.

As for me, I'm just excited about new technology that lets a person combine fishing with a real-time sonar screen to see the fish taking interest in a lure and striking at it.  They call this "video gaming" the fish, and while it may seem like cheating to some, it makes me smile and want to try it myself.  I'm 100% Catch & Release, so I'd not be one to abuse it.

Hello, Santa?  Here's what's on my list:    LiveScope Musky Jigging (Garmin Panoptix) - YouTube

Level 11

One person's cheat is another person's go-to method. If it works, you don't have to justify it to anyone. Enjoy the fishing!

Level 20

Between Cisco ACI and VMware NSX... the NFV is full on now for us.

MVP
MVP

Thanks for the article

Level 13

Good Article thanks

Level 14

Put VMWare NSX into my last place.  Real pain to set up and probably a nightmare to maintain as we have all left.  Looking to simplify loads of stuff at my new place.

"...do we have a single framework that we can use to handle the deployment and management of the lot?"

I have to imagine at some point the application layer comes into play. These aren't just servers running bases OS'es. SQL, SAP, middleware, etc. These have to inflict deviations into the single framework as well as, at times, wreak havoc on the pristine landscape of automation.

About the Author
Network Greasemonkey, Packet Macrame Specialist, Virtual Pneumatic Tube Transport Designer and Connectivity Nerfherder. The possible titles are too many to count, but they don’t really mean much when I’m essentially a hired gun in the wild west that is modern networking. I’m based in the Niagara region of Ontario, Canada and operate tishco networks, a consulting firm specializing in the wholesale provisioning of networking services to IT firms for resale to their respective clientele. Over my career, I have developed a track record designing and deploying a wide variety of successful networking solutions in areas of routing, switching, data security, unified communications and wireless networking. These range from simple networks for small-to-medium business clients with limited budgets to large infrastructure VPN deployments with over 450 endpoints. My broad experience with converged networks throughout Canada and the world have helped answer many complex requirements with elegant, sustainable and scalable solutions. In addition, I maintain current Cisco CCDP and CCIE R&S (41436) certifications. I tweet at @ghostinthenet, am a Tech Field Day delegate, render occasional pro-bono assistance on sites like the Cisco Support Community and Experts' Exchange and occasionally rant publicly on my experiences by "limpet blogging" on various sites. Outside of the realm of IT, I am both a husband and father. In what meagre time remains, I contribute to my community by serving as an RCAF Reserve Officer, supporting my local squadron of the Royal Canadian Air Cadets as their Commanding Officer.