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DevOps for networking hits chokepoints, tangled communications

NetOps complements DevOps in enterprises that need to scale application delivery efforts up and out. Networking tools -- and teams -- need to advance to find their place in CI/CD pipelines.

Networking has stepped under the DevOps umbrella as a necessary consideration from the start of an application development pipeline.

NetOps -- sometimes called NetOps 2.0 to differentiate from traditional network operations -- is an approach that uses DevOps tools and techniques to more efficiently manage and operate networks. It aims to factor networking into the CI/CD pipeline to communication lines and data traffic as another extension of the build.

The DevOps for networking movement has gained attention as enterprises work to increase software delivery velocity, but operations teams should be cautious about how they bring the network into the DevOps fold.

The challenge of DevOps for networking teams

Challenges will arise with tighter integration of DevOps and networking. Network automation lags behind other areas of IT automation -- the networking team will argue that this is because automation decreases visibility into this vital component of the application infrastructure.

When applications run in the public cloud -- as is often the case with DevOps deployments -- the admins cannot touch the physical network. Instead, the focus shifts to virtual private clouds, autoscaling and failover via setup policies. Cloud certification training can help developers take over these tasks, but developers do not have expertise in network management, just as network admins do not have experience running cloud operations.

There's a cultural challenge set up by this change to NetOps. DevOps teams have to collaborate closely with both the in-house network operations team and their cloud service provider. Appoint in-house technical and strategic alliance managers, and request one from a cloud provider to build relationships and overcome these obstacles.

A DevOps team -- and, by extension, a NetOps team -- might struggle to monitor and analyze a cloud-based network that must be easily reconfigurable to suit iterative application changes. DevOps teams must collect, correlate and visualize network monitoring data from software-defined and cloud-hosted technologies. Enterprises often need to shore up their data collection strategies, tools and processes to successfully marry DevOps and networking.

Network tools lack the automation and integration capabilities of DevOps tools. Tools for DevOps software creation and deployment embrace open source and cloud technologies and offer direct integration with the other components of CI/CD toolchains. Network management occurs across proprietary hardware and software, with automation tools and scripts with limited functionality. For example, a script written for one network device's OS cannot be reused on a device from another vendor. This product landscape hinders network engineers' ability to build and support a more agile model for operations. There are signs, however, that the networking market is opening up to DevOps, automation and flexibility.

Market moves push DevOps for networking

While NetOps still lags behind DevOps, major market players look to bridge that gap.

Red Hat, for example, brought network automation into Ansible configuration management to enable DevOps and network teams to automate the deployment of network devices and connections in the same way they would with OSes and cloud services. Ansible Tower, a management console for Ansible Engine, can store network credentials and scale network automation, among other tasks. Collectively, these networking features are referred to as Ansible Network Automation. DevOps teams should watch to see if, or how, they evolve in light of IBM's acquisition of Red Hat.

In another move, this time by an established networking vendor, F5 Networks invested in NetOps via its acquisition of Nginx, an open source app delivery platform, early in 2019. With Nginx, F5 aims to blend network management with DevOps practices, as well as strengthen its multi-cloud presence. At the time of the deal, F5 said it will meld its app and network security services with Nginx's app delivery and API management portfolio.

F5 also said it plans to keep the Nginx brand intact and faithful to its open source roots.

Both F5 and Nginx made names for themselves in the world of VMs and are evolving with the concurrent and overlapping trends of enterprise container, DevOps and cloud-native technology adoption. For example, IT organizations can use Nginx to scale and load balance container deployments, and AWS, Microsoft Azure and Google Cloud Platform support F5's NetOps services via partnerships and their cloud marketplaces.

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