Abstraction vs Automation

There has been quite a bit of twitter buzz these last few weeks, during the OpenStack Summit, around the notion of abstraction vs. automation and I’m not really sure I understand what I’m missing here and why it almost seems both ideas are being seen as mutually exclusive. I’ll give you all my viewpoint and then I will let anyone who has a response, respond, because maybe I’m missing something.

First, let’s talk about automation. Is automation possible today? Yes, yes it is. Is it the easiest thing to accomplish? Not necessarily, but its possible. Mike Bushong from Plexxi writes about the linearity in thinking behind today’s Network Engineers, which definitely exists, but I think its because they haven’t been challenged to think any other way.

Using tools that exist today, like Ansible (I prefer this CM tool because its agentless which works well with network devices that typically have closed NOS’s), you can build out the workflows that Mike writes about all the while still instantiating configuration on the devices that need to be configured via the CLI, just in an ‘automated’ way, ie. not pushing line after line of config to the box by hand. Is this much different from Perl/Expect of the past? No. But it becomes more structured and controlled through the use of the Ansible framework.

So, in a way, we’ve already been able to ‘abstract’ that away from direct human interaction with devices. This might not necessarily be the best way we can do things, but we’re working toward that through the many efforts in the industry today. This is the point that made earlier in the post, I don’t think the Network Engineers today have been challenged with respect to their thinking when it comes to how to design the workflow from end to end. The typical concerns exist, ‘how can I connect all of these disparate devices and deliver bits as fast as possible’. When in reality, they should be thinking about delivering the service that the network supports, end to end. From how we connect the cables(L1), to how we deliver the bits(L2/L3), to how to app ingests those bits are what we should be paying attention to(L4-L7). Stop limiting ourselves in the stack and start thinking about end to end service delivery with respect to the infrastructure.

I keep thinking back to Derick’s post on the Plexxi blog as well, surrounding UX. He references how policy constructs that closely represent the design choices of the underlying system make it much more difficult for a consumer of that system to express their intent in which they want to use that system. Let me give you an example : when configuring a campus network, lets stay away from the DC for a minute, and you’re choosing the VLAN Identifiers to use within the design, does it really matter what numbers you use as identifiers? Sure you have a 12 bit unsigned integer’s worth of space to utilize, but does it really matter WHAT numbers you use? Probably not. How many times have you had to reference an excel spreadsheet to figure out which ID’s have been used and which you can use for the new segment you’re trying to configure? Does this decision still get left up to the engineer responsible for designing and instantiating the system? It sure does. That’s an example of a knob that doesn’t necessarily matter to the overlying consumption of the system (end users utilizing whatever systems ride the wires).

So, abstract that away using some sort of automation toolkit. Code into the tool that that its a 12 bit value and to sequentially utilize the range of VLANs ID’s at your disposal and you shouldn’t care what that number is. Take it a step further and make sure that can tool is aware of all of the tagged links your have in your network and adds them through whatever security workflow you’re trying to honor as well. Get where I’m going with this? Abstraction takes that decision out of the equation. It isn’t a life changing event to not have to decide which VLAN IDs to use and where they need to propagate, but its the little changes in tooling and thought process that will take us where we need to go. Once that function is abstracted, automating it is that much easier. The real effort comes in with deciding how that abstraction works. Once that is decided, consuming that abstraction becomes easier.

Overall, I’m just trying to point out that it isn’t necessarily abstraction vs. automation, or a problem that we have with today’s tools. It can all be accomplished. Again, is it necessarily easy? No. But abstraction will ultimately lead to easier automation.

Thoughts? Comments? Suggestions?

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