The Networking Ecosystem and the New Normal: Itential Co-founder Chris Wade on Network Automation

Network technologies have been around—and mostly consistent—for a relatively long time. Only recently has the right combination of factors emerged to push network innovation forward.

The growing adoption of cloud infrastructure, introduction of 5G broadband technology and the shift to work-from-home or hybrid office models all place increased reliance on a fast and secure network connection. With the pandemic forcing digital transformation along, the last six to 12 months have demonstrated rapid innovation in the network automation industry.

I recently invited Chris Wade, co-founder and CTO of Itential, an Elsewhere portfolio company, to be a podcast guest. In our Capital GEEK episode about network automation, Chris and I discussed the factors pushing network innovation ahead and how the needs of modern organizations are piquing interest in these technologies.

The New Network Ecosystem

In the early days of network engineering, it looked like “integration” would mean connecting a couple of open source controllers. Now, innovation cycles are so fast that controllers are using bespoke containers.

“It’s been speeds and feeds for as long as I can remember,” Chris said, “but about five years ago, the network became more like software.”

Chris and his team at Itential focus on providing end-to-end automation to networking and cloud business units. Enabling this software-like virtualization and programmability has become the norm for champions of network automation. However, many of these teams have been missing the ecosystem to allow them to take advantage of these new features.

Allowing network automation to take the lead in programming, where command-line interface (CLI) stood in before, has paved the way for this new ecosystem. Where CLI was designed for human operators, new interfaces that are a better fit for software-first models are now seeing increased adoption.

These innovations are making network engineering less about avoiding an outage, and more about creating organization-wide efficiencies through automation.

Automation Implications for the DevOps, SRE and Cloud Teams

These innovations have un-siloed the network team. As the role of network engineers has surpassed managing outage risk, a lot of CIOs are restructuring their organizations and seeking the right fit for NetOps among the DevOps, site reliability engineering (SRE) and cloud teams.

When organizations first went into the cloud, it looked like networking would grow less important as cloud adoption increased. However, increased cloud adoption actually moved network back to the forefront by allowing us to push computing closer to the end user.

As increased cloud adoption has allowed for increased edge services exploration and innovation, the tide has shifted. Now, the cloud engineers should be focused on understanding networking at an advanced level to improve operation-wide security.

Ultimately, the wall between the cloud and network operations teams will erode at successful companies. As applications that take advantage of edge opportunities are built, networking considerations will become more important.

The Role of Network Automation in the New Normal

The number of SaaS applications that organizations are using has drastically increased throughout the shift to remote work. Organizations that haven’t adopted network automation technologies have understandably struggled to adapt.

“What is thought of as ‘automation’ today will just be ‘networking’ tomorrow,” Chris said. The complexity of modern networks won’t continue to scale to meet the demands of the remote workforce or the increasingly tech-savvy consumer.

End-to-end and API-first solutions will allow organizations to match the demands of the network infrastructure to the needs of remote or hybrid workplaces.

The demands on the NetOps team show no signs of slowing down as adoption of new applications continue to grow.

“When the CIO looks at [this] challenge, they’re looking at how to optimize the whole organization.” Chris said.

We agree that network automation is a key solution that will allow us all to do our jobs more efficiently.

Like what you’re reading? Listen to the full conversation on the Capital GEEK podcast.

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