Welcome!

SDN Journal Authors: Liz McMillan, David Paquette, Elizabeth White, Sal Fernando, Nate Lindstrom

Blog Feed Post

Automation through workflow state

The benefits of automation are well understood: more agile service provisioning, faster time to insight when there are issues, and a reduction in human error as manual interaction is reduced. Much of the premise behind long-term SDN architectural advantages is steeped in the hope that SDN will help enable and ultimately promote automation. But while centralizing control has significant operational advantages, by itself, it doesn’t actually address the most important requirement for automation.

If automation is going to be more than just reducing keystrokes, there will have to be a rise of workflow state.

Referential space

Successfully managing a network is an exercise in constant iteration through network state. Whenever something needs to be done, the architect or operator examines her current frame of reference to figure out the starting point. That frame of reference usually starts with some implicit understanding of how the network is designed. From there, she takes some action. Maybe she pings an endpoint, checks the state of a BGP neighbor, or examines some interface statistics. Whatever the first step, the point is that she knows when she starts that there is work after the first step.

The information gleaned from the first step yields additional understanding. Her frame of reference changes as she now knows more than before. With her new position in referential space, she takes the next step. And the next, and the next after that. Each step yields a different piece of information, and the process of iterating through a constantly changing referential space ultimately yields some outcome or resolution.

Byproducts of iterative workflows

There are two major byproducts of this iterative approach to workflow. The first is that the starting point is rarely based on an absolute understanding of fact. Rather it is an interpretation that the individual operator or architect creates based on a number of somewhat soft conditions – knowledge, experience, intuition, whatever. This means that for each task, the workflow is somewhat unique, depending on the operator and the environment.

The impact here is important. If workflows are unique based on the operator and the conditions (i.e., the referential space or frame of reference), then the outcomes driven by those workflows are difficult to repeat. Part of why networking is so hard is that so much of it borders on arcane dark art. Science demands repeatability, but the very nature of workflow management in networking makes that challenging.

The second byproduct of networking’s iterative nature is that workflows frequently depend on a set of chained tasks, each of which has a dependency on the preceding task. To make things worse, that dependency is actually rarely known at the start of a a workflow. It’s not that tasks cannot be predictably chained – first, you look at the physical layer, and then you move up stack perhaps. But each subsequent task is executed based on not just the previous task but also the output of the previous task. This creates a complex set of if/then statements in most workflows.

Part of the challenge in automation is providing the logic to navigate the conditional nature of networking workflows.

“Network engineers need to think like programmers”

With the rise of movements like DevOps, “network engineers thinking like programmers” has become a popular phrase. This is a very important change in how we handle network architecture and operations. But there are subtleties here that get lost in the cliche.

First, when people toss the phrase around, they often mean that network engineers need to pick up a scripting language (Python, Ruby, even Perl). Thinking like a software developer has very little to do with programming languages. Languages are a way of expressing intent, but it’s entirely possible to know Python and think nothing like a developer.

Second, when people refer to programming in the context of DevOps, they generally mean that network operators need to think about configuration less as a collection of commands and more like code. Once you make that shift, then you can think about things like source code management, automated testing, and rapid deployment.

But networking needs to do more than just treat configuration as code.  DevOps has more to do with deploying and validating changes. It doesn’t fundamentally change how workflows are executed, and it barely touches more operational tasks like troubleshooting network conditions.

Before anyone picks a religious battle over DevOps here, my point is not that DevOps is bad. It’s just that DevOps by itself is not sufficient. And there are things that ought to be done that are separate from DevOps.

Tiny feedback loops

So if thinking like a programmer isn’t about learning a programming language and it’s more than treating configuration as code, what is it?

Software development is really about creating something out of lots of tiny feedback loops. When you write functions, you don’t just execute some task. You generally execute that task and then return a value. The value provides some immediate feedback about the outcome. In some cases, the function returns the value of a computation; in other cases, it simply returns an indication that the function succeeded or failed.

These values are obviously then used by other functions, which allows us to string together small building blocks into complex chains. The important part? These chains can then be repeatably executed in a deterministic way.

Networking workflows shouldn’t be that different. Each individual activity yields some value (sometimes a specific value as when looking at some counter, other times a success or failure as with a ping). The problem is that while networking commands frequently return information, it is up to the operator themselves to parse this information, analyze what it means, and then take the next action.

Workflow state

What we need if we really want to make automation happen in ways that extend beyond just scripting keystrokes is a means of creating deterministic networking workflows. For this to happen, we need people who construct workflows to think more like developers. Each activity within a workflow needs to be a tiny feedback loop with explicit workflow state that is programmatically passed between workflow elements.

We actually instinctively do this at times. XML, NETCONF, and the like have been used to encapsulate networking inputs and outputs for awhile with the intent of making things parseable and thus more automatable.

But we stopped short. We made the outputs more automation-friendly without ever really creating workflows. So while we can programmatically act on values, it only works if someone has automated a particular workflow. As an industry, we haven’t gotten to actually addressing the workflow problem.

Maybe it’s the highly conditional nature of networking combined with the uniqueness of individual networks. Or maybe it’s that outside of a few automation savants, our industry doesn’t generally think about workflows the way a software developer would.

The bottom line

Networking workflows rely way too heavily on an iterative pass through referential space. The reason change is so scary and troubleshooting so hard is that very little in networking is actually deterministic. But if we really want to improve the overall user experience en route to making workflows both repeatable and reliable, we do need to start thinking a bit more like developers. It all starts with a more explicit understanding of the workflows we rely on, and the expression of feedback via some form of workflow state.

And for everyone betting on abstractions, just know that abstracting a poorly-defined workflow results in an equally poor abstraction. We need to be starting elsewhere.

[Today’s fun fact: Only male fireflies can fly. Take that, females!]

The post Automation through workflow state appeared first on Plexxi.

Read the original blog entry...

More Stories By Michael Bushong

The best marketing efforts leverage deep technology understanding with a highly-approachable means of communicating. Plexxi's Vice President of Marketing Michael Bushong has acquired these skills having spent 12 years at Juniper Networks where he led product management, product strategy and product marketing organizations for Juniper's flagship operating system, Junos. Michael spent the last several years at Juniper leading their SDN efforts across both service provider and enterprise markets. Prior to Juniper, Michael spent time at database supplier Sybase, and ASIC design tool companies Synopsis and Magma Design Automation. Michael's undergraduate work at the University of California Berkeley in advanced fluid mechanics and heat transfer lend new meaning to the marketing phrase "This isn't rocket science."

@CloudExpo Stories
Personalization has long been the holy grail of marketing. Simply stated, communicate the most relevant offer to the right person and you will increase sales. To achieve this, you must understand the individual. Consequently, digital marketers developed many ways to gather and leverage customer information to deliver targeted experiences. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Lou Casal, Founder and Principal Consultant at Practicala, discussed how the Internet of Things (IoT) has accelerated our abil...
With so much going on in this space you could be forgiven for thinking you were always working with yesterday’s technologies. So much change, so quickly. What do you do if you have to build a solution from the ground up that is expected to live in the field for at least 5-10 years? This is the challenge we faced when we looked to refresh our existing 10-year-old custom hardware stack to measure the fullness of trash cans and compactors.
Extreme Computing is the ability to leverage highly performant infrastructure and software to accelerate Big Data, machine learning, HPC, and Enterprise applications. High IOPS Storage, low-latency networks, in-memory databases, GPUs and other parallel accelerators are being used to achieve faster results and help businesses make better decisions. In his session at 18th Cloud Expo, Michael O'Neill, Strategic Business Development at NVIDIA, focused on some of the unique ways extreme computing is...
The emerging Internet of Everything creates tremendous new opportunities for customer engagement and business model innovation. However, enterprises must overcome a number of critical challenges to bring these new solutions to market. In his session at @ThingsExpo, Michael Martin, CTO/CIO at nfrastructure, outlined these key challenges and recommended approaches for overcoming them to achieve speed and agility in the design, development and implementation of Internet of Everything solutions wi...
DevOps at Cloud Expo, taking place Nov 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 19th Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The widespread success of cloud computing is driving the DevOps revolution in enterprise IT. Now as never before, development teams must communicate and collaborate in a dynamic, 24/7/365 environment. There is no time to wait for long dev...
Cloud computing is being adopted in one form or another by 94% of enterprises today. Tens of billions of new devices are being connected to The Internet of Things. And Big Data is driving this bus. An exponential increase is expected in the amount of information being processed, managed, analyzed, and acted upon by enterprise IT. This amazing is not part of some distant future - it is happening today. One report shows a 650% increase in enterprise data by 2020. Other estimates are even higher....
Aspose.Total for .NET is the most complete package of all file format APIs for .NET as offered by Aspose. It empowers developers to create, edit, render, print and convert between a wide range of popular document formats within any .NET, C#, ASP.NET and VB.NET applications. Aspose compiles all .NET APIs on a daily basis to ensure that it contains the most up to date versions of each of Aspose .NET APIs. If a new .NET API or a new version of existing APIs is released during the subscription peri...
Today we can collect lots and lots of performance data. We build beautiful dashboards and even have fancy query languages to access and transform the data. Still performance data is a secret language only a couple of people understand. The more business becomes digital the more stakeholders are interested in this data including how it relates to business. Some of these people have never used a monitoring tool before. They have a question on their mind like “How is my application doing” but no id...
Identity is in everything and customers are looking to their providers to ensure the security of their identities, transactions and data. With the increased reliance on cloud-based services, service providers must build security and trust into their offerings, adding value to customers and improving the user experience. Making identity, security and privacy easy for customers provides a unique advantage over the competition.
Qosmos has announced new milestones in the detection of encrypted traffic and in protocol signature coverage. Qosmos latest software can accurately classify traffic encrypted with SSL/TLS (e.g., Google, Facebook, WhatsApp), P2P traffic (e.g., BitTorrent, MuTorrent, Vuze), and Skype, while preserving the privacy of communication content. These new classification techniques mean that traffic optimization, policy enforcement, and user experience are largely unaffected by encryption. In respect wit...
Using new techniques of information modeling, indexing, and processing, new cloud-based systems can support cloud-based workloads previously not possible for high-throughput insurance, banking, and case-based applications. In his session at 18th Cloud Expo, John Newton, CTO, Founder and Chairman of Alfresco, described how to scale cloud-based content management repositories to store, manage, and retrieve billions of documents and related information with fast and linear scalability. He addres...
Is the ongoing quest for agility in the data center forcing you to evaluate how to be a part of infrastructure automation efforts? As organizations evolve toward bimodal IT operations, they are embracing new service delivery models and leveraging virtualization to increase infrastructure agility. Therefore, the network must evolve in parallel to become equally agile. Read this essential piece of Gartner research for recommendations on achieving greater agility.
SYS-CON Events announced today that Hitrons Solutions will exhibit at the 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Hitrons Solutions Inc. is distributor in the North American market for unique products and services of small and medium-size businesses, including cloud services and solutions, SEO marketing platforms, and mobile applications.
Internet of @ThingsExpo, taking place November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, is co-located with 19th Cloud Expo and will feature technical sessions from a rock star conference faculty and the leading industry players in the world. The Internet of Things (IoT) is the most profound change in personal and enterprise IT since the creation of the Worldwide Web more than 20 years ago. All major researchers estimate there will be tens of billions devices - comp...
SYS-CON Events announced today that Venafi, the Immune System for the Internet™ and the leading provider of Next Generation Trust Protection, will exhibit at @DevOpsSummit at 19th International Cloud Expo, which will take place on November 1–3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA. Venafi is the Immune System for the Internet™ that protects the foundation of all cybersecurity – cryptographic keys and digital certificates – so they can’t be misused by bad guys in attacks...
The 19th International Cloud Expo has announced that its Call for Papers is open. Cloud Expo, to be held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA, brings together Cloud Computing, Big Data, Internet of Things, DevOps, Digital Transformation, Microservices and WebRTC to one location. With cloud computing driving a higher percentage of enterprise IT budgets every year, it becomes increasingly important to plant your flag in this fast-expanding business opportuni...
As the world moves toward more DevOps and Microservices, application deployment to the cloud ought to become a lot simpler. The Microservices architecture, which is the basis of many new age distributed systems such as OpenStack, NetFlix and so on, is at the heart of Cloud Foundry - a complete developer-oriented Platform as a Service (PaaS) that is IaaS agnostic and supports vCloud, OpenStack and AWS. Serverless computing is revolutionizing computing. In his session at 19th Cloud Expo, Raghav...
DevOps at Cloud Expo – being held November 1-3, 2016, at the Santa Clara Convention Center in Santa Clara, CA – announces that its Call for Papers is open. Born out of proven success in agile development, cloud computing, and process automation, DevOps is a macro trend you cannot afford to miss. From showcase success stories from early adopters and web-scale businesses, DevOps is expanding to organizations of all sizes, including the world's largest enterprises – and delivering real results. Am...
Fact: storage performance problems have only gotten more complicated, as applications not only have become largely virtualized, but also have moved to cloud-based infrastructures. Storage performance in virtualized environments isn’t just about IOPS anymore. Instead, you need to guarantee performance for individual VMs, helping applications maintain performance as the number of VMs continues to go up in real time. In his session at Cloud Expo, Dhiraj Sehgal, Product and Marketing at Tintri, wil...
Ixia (Nasdaq: XXIA) has announced that NoviFlow Inc.has deployed IxNetwork® to validate the company’s designs and accelerate the delivery of its proven, reliable products. Based in Montréal, NoviFlow Inc. supports network carriers, hyperscale data center operators, and enterprises seeking greater network control and flexibility, network scalability, and the capacity to handle extremely large numbers of flows, while maintaining maximum network performance. To meet these requirements, NoviFlow in...