Who doesn’t like automation? If you’re speaking to somebody in IT, then the short answer is “nobody”.
While the term Zero Touch Provisioning (ZTP) might be increasingly more common to networking, the concept of automation has existed for years in IT. At its core, ZTP is an automation solution that’s designed to reduce errors and save time when an IT administrator needs to bring new infrastructure online.
This is particularly useful for data center servers, where scale and configuration similarities across systems make automation a necessity. In the server world, the Linux-based operating system has revolutionized on boarding and provisioning. Rather than using command-line interfaces (CLI) to configure these systems one at a time, administrators can use automation tools to roll out the operating system software, patches, and packages on new servers with a single command, or the click of a mouse.
Advanced scripting capabilities also allow administrators to tailor the boot configuration of these systems with profiles for specific applications. So for example, if you need ten servers for a new Hadoop cluster, you can load this with one profile, but if you need six new servers for a new web application, you can roll that out using a different profile.
Essentially, automation drastically reduces the amount of time when you take a server out of the box to when it’s functioning in a production environment – all while minimizing the risks of manual configuration errors and missed keystrokes, or the additional challenge of knowing which driver or library is the correct one.
What about the network world?
The basic question here is why should it be any different? Much like servers, network devices have traditionally been managed via the CLI. What’s more, network administrators need to do this manually on each individual device.
Consider the typical on boarding and provisioning process of a network switch. A network switch has traditionally been coupled with a pre-loaded proprietary network operating system. Technicians must use CLI or the manufacturers own tools to provision a switch. This can be broken down into three basic steps:
- When the new device arrives, it already has an OS to help bootstrap the device. It is removed from the box and goes to a staging area. Here the administrator checks the operating system version, and makes any updates – for patches, bug fixes, or any new feature updates as necessary.
- An initial configuration is made to establish basic network connectivity. This includes parameters such as administrator and user authentication information, the management IP address and default gateway, basic network services (DHCP, NTP, etc) and enabling the right L2 and L3 network protocols are all examples of the bootstrap process.
- Once the initial OS and configuration has been verified, the device can be installed into the environment (racked and cabled), where further customized configuration can be made (either locally via the console or through a remote access protocol) that is specific to the application and location within the network.
The details may vary slightly for each environment, but the basics remain the same. This can be a verytime consuming process. Now extrapolate this model to ten network switches. Or twenty. Or one hundred. And when you consider that for each individual switch, there’s an opportunity for a configuration error that can bring down the network or create exposure and a security risk, the conclusion is obvious: there has to be a better way.
How does ZTP help with this process for the network? Remove all the manual configuration and steps listed above, and what you have left is ZTP. In this model, the network administrator receives the new hardware and the first thing they do is to physically install the device – rack and cable the switch. Once these physical connections are made, the technician no longer has to touch the box – hence the name, “zero touch”.
With the ZTP system in place, once the switch is powered on, it uses standard network protocols to fetch everything it needs for provisioning. It can send a DHCP query to get the proper IP address for connectivity and management. It can then use BootP/TFTP to get the right operating system image. And then another TFTP request to get the right configuration file based on the application profile.
In this model, once the network administrator sets up the IP address scheme via the DHCP server, and the OS and configuration files on the TFTP server, they can effectively roll out tens, hundreds, and thousands of switches in this way – all fully customizable and without the time consuming and error prone manual configuration process.
Sounds like a no brainer right? Now juxtapose this with some mega trends that are happening in the data center today.
The first of these is how more and more, the data center is becoming an application-driven economy that is fueling data center growth and virtualization. Bringing applications to market faster are the key to gaining a competitive advantage. Therefore, the faster IT teams are able to bring infrastructure online to support these applications, the better. With ZTP and server virtualization prevalent in the server world, it’s become extremely important to automate the network processes as well. Ask any network administrator, and they clearly don’t want to be viewed as the long pole in the tent.
The second is bare-metal switching. If the applications are driving the top line, then it’s the hardware going to help with the bottom line. Commoditization of network hardware is the next logical evolution, with the rapid adoption of merchant silicon. More and more customers are seeing less differentiation in the hardware, and more differentiation in the speed, features, and operational simplicity that the software can provide. Today, three manufacturers (Big Switch, Cumulus, and Pica8) are offering Linux-based OSs for bare-metal switches – effectively bringing the efficiency and familiarity of Linux to the network world.
In the context of these trends, it’s even more important to implement ZTP and automation practices into the network. As more applications come online, IT teams are being taxed to keep the infrastructure up to date – including provisioning, scaling, troubleshooting, and maintenance. This is not sustainable in any manual based process.
And as hardware and software continues to be decoupled, it’s critical to find a way to automate the new operational model. If I can purchase hundreds of switches from an OEM or ODM and rack these devices – would you rather install the OS and configure each of these individually, or do this through an efficient methodology using well known, reliable network protocols.
Much like the server world before it, the network world is seeing some significant technology shifts. Automation, software defined devices, and bare metal switches are all contributing to a fast-paced and dynamic environment in the data center. With ZTP, the network is leveraging best practices from the server world to drive greater speed and operational efficiency.
In short, it’s become an essential way to automate the network. Now who wouldn’t like that?