I believe that automation as a discipline is relatively immature within a networking context.

Pitchforks down. Let me explain my take.

A significant amount of network automation content I have viewed over the last three years tends to focus exclusively on the technical aspects. Download Visual Studio Code, Python, Ansible Core or Nornir, spin up a git repository set up a VENV, and start tinkering while following a trainer’s instructions. Of course, there is more to it than that and exceptions do exist, but you get the gist. This is great, as content accessibility will only see automation adoption increase. However, I have yet to see much discussion focusing on building automation as a practice and discipline within an organisation. Even less so actual content highlights “lessons learned” and the true costs of implementing automation for organisations wishing to scale the idea out.

This is a major problem.

As folks upskill and engineer solutions to problems using automated ways of working, their organisation may not be sold entirely, nor completely understand whether automation will help or hinder the business. Even worse, business units may already implement automation in highly ad-hoc (“unicorn”) methods without considering architecture, cultural, financial, or organisational implications. In my mind, this only leads to dependency hell (leading to further siloed development) and uncertainty as to whether there is a return on investment in tooling that enables an “automated” portfolio. This gets even worse when “return on investment” isn’t measured in a manner that aligns with how the business (not tools or technology teams) measures it. End result? The business will not support funding (new, sustained, additional) and automation will always remain in an ad-hoc state.

I have spent the last four years building a use case and implementing automation safely within an Operational Technology (“OT”) environment. The technical training was fantastic and helped me develop prototypes and demos. Yet, it took a significant amount of time to build a business case that proved automation tied to tangible business outcomes and would actually reduce operational risk.

In this series of blog posts, I want to kick off a general conversation by detailing how I have answered the following questions:

  • Are we mature enough and equipped to adopt automated ways of working?
  • How will we frame and determine the return on investment automation brings to our organisation? Why is “cost reduction” so difficult to prove in practice?
  • How can functional safety engineering standards derisk implementing automation within OT environments?
  • What influence do resource capability, existing systems, and digital strategy have on the partners and suppliers we work with?
  • What impacts could automation have on people and culture?
  • What factors might influence tool selection, and how can general/specific architectures assist with governing their usage?
  • How do value streams and processes influence CI/CD pipeline design?
  • Why is risk management critical when determining continuous delivery vs. continuous deployment?
  • What is event-driven automation, and what challenges does it pose to information systems and technology architecture?
  • What could extending automation into the physical world look like with robotics?

The intended audience includes technical leads, principals, or technical management personnel. The objective is to explore how to take what you’ve learned from the excellent existing technical resources and identify how to implement automation as a discipline within your organisation. Each post focuses on a specific topic or business problem, explores the technical concepts at a high level, and then investigates the business implications of implementing those concepts. While some topics may have accompanying labs to explore in your own time, I must reiterate – these posts will not teach you how to become an automation guru, as I certainly am not one! There are many more intelligent people and better resources out there who can teach you the technology.

The first topic will explore the prerequisites an organisation should meet before considering planning its network automation journey. We will explore how organisational capability influences automation strategy, why understanding existing value streams and processes is critical to avoid wasteful work, and what building an iterative architectural roadmap could look like. The first post will be published in late September/October.