Key Takeaways from the Industry’s First Dedicated Network Automation Conference


On November 13-14, 2023, in Denver, CO, I had the unique experience of participating in the Network Automation Forum (NAF), the first conference dedicated to network automation. I have to admit that when I first heard of the event, also referred to as AutoCon, my mind immediately jumped to Optimus Prime from the Transformers. As you probably know, he is the leader of the Autobots whose rivals are the Decepticons, and I conflated the two. Fortunately, I quickly self-corrected and didn’t make the mistake of asking why I’d speak at a conference about the Transformers (although I’d welcome the opportunity). The point is, this inaugural event was a welcomed surprise and affords the industry an ideal opportunity to dig deep into the why and how of network automation.

Over the last year, BackBox has participated in several industry events sponsored by major network and security device vendors, as well as the Tech Field Day series. These conferences typically attract a broad group of network teams interested in a broad spectrum of network-relevant education and how to improve their network operations.

AutoCon was very different. Attracting nearly 350 attendees and more than 20 exhibitors, this hyper-focused event included sessions on the state of network automation – how it is being used and how to accelerate adoption. Keynote presentations by John Willis, one of the founders of the DevOps movement who shared lessons on how to get the automation ball rolling in NetOps, and Juniper Networks’ CTO Kireeti Kompella who discussed the company’s automation journey, set the tone for each day.

The attendees I spoke with were all automation-focused members of the network team, which means they were from organizations large enough to have a team of network automation experts – think Fortune 500 companies, and organizations including a few major league sports organizations, service providers, and financial institutions. Many of these practitioners told me that they came to AutoCon looking for solutions to some very specific pain points:

  • They were using an orchestrator-level product and felt like it might be overkill given how long it takes to build automations and how much money they were spending on professional services. So now they were looking for a new path forward.
  • They had bought into automation frameworks, in many cases a combination of open source and commercial products, and the framework approach of cobbling tools together was proving to be too burdensome on the team and they needed a simpler alternative.
  • They had invested in a network automation platform, but the platform was not providing a strong ROI and the total cost of ownership (TCO) was something they could no longer afford. So, they were investigating less expensive solutions.

In addition to many one-on-one conversations, I also participated in a panel discussion moderated by Richard Piasentin of Accedian (now part of Cisco). Together with Craig Johnson of Forward Networks, with whom I recently co-presented at the Network Users Group in Dallas, and Justin Ryburn from Kentik, we discussed the intersection of observability and automation and why it is important to think about those two things together, especially when managing today’s network operations environments that consist of legacy, virtual, and public cloud networks.

At a breakout session on the challenges to network automation adoption and through an informal survey conducted by Forward Networks at the conference it became clear that the top barrier operations and automation teams cited to moving forward more rapidly with network automation was lack of funding. The second most common reason was lack of executive support.

This feedback reaffirmed findings from a survey BackBox commissioned in early 2023 in which 98% network operations and network security professionals surveyed said automation is crucial, but 48% said their company has not implemented or deeply invested in automation. Additionally, 92% reported feeling overlooked compared to IT teams in their contributions to ensuring company security, and 80% cited distrust in automation and skepticism by leadership as top barriers to increasing adoption.

In our work with network engineers and administrators looking to accelerate an automation initiative, we have found three win-win approaches that enable them to secure funding while also strengthening overall technology ROI for the company.

  1. Network teams can displace a legacy network configuration management (NCM) tool with an automation tool that has NCM capabilities. There is almost always a monitoring budget within the NetOps team being used to also pay for NCM. Many teams are now realizing that because legacy NCM tools are intended to be used with an engineer at the keyboard, the ability to scale is limited by how much work a human can get done manually. Diverting spend from a legacy NCM tool to automated NCM makes it possible to keep up with best practices such as nightly configuration backups without overburdening staff.
  2. Tying network automation investment to defined and budgeted cybersecurity initiatives, provides additional inroads to budget. The first is through vulnerability management. Most enterprises have a vulnerability management initiative with budget allocated to vulnerability management tools and cyber asset and attack surface management (CAASM). These investments arm server teams and security teams with tools, but organizations still need a way to apply their vulnerability management methodology within the network ecosystem. Network teams need their own tools to track and remediate network and security device vulnerabilities with an automation tool that has these capabilities built in.
  3. Many organizations are also spending money to deploy Zero Trust security principles within their environment which will inject a continuous and massive amount of change to corporate networks. This affords another inroad to funding because an automation tool that can support Zero Trust, for example, integrating with a privileged access management solution to introduce a best practice for making and auditing changes at scale, can qualify for budget allocated to the company’s Zero Trust initiative.

Those two days in Denver were really invigorating as attendees and speakers were eager to share how they are using automation to solve many of their network challenges and explore what more can be done. Many of us are already looking forward to getting together at the next AutoCon to talk about the progress made in the intervening time. Until then, I hope to see you at Right of Boom in March in Las Vegas, NV or at a local Network Users Group in your region. If you’re interested in meeting up, please leave me a note on LinkedIn.

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