Enterprise networks require a lot of planning and action behind the scenes. Especially in larger networks with thousands of users and devices, the maintenance of networks can become overwhelming. Network automation tools alleviate some of these pains by automating administrative actions like device and software management, configuration, deployment, testing, and security updates. Read on to learn more about how network automation tools help and some of the top tools on the market for 2021.
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Network Automation Solutions for Your Enterprise
Network Automation Software Features
Network automation tools can automate several different action items for an enterprise network. These are some of the most common automations available:
Asset Inventory Management
Network automation software is often used not only to document the assets of an organization, but also to automatically update their statuses, alert for upgrades, and notify network administrators for performance and maintenance needs.
Device Setup and Management
When you hire a new employee or a current employee needs a new device, network automation software can assist with setup and management. Setup and management features include setup wizards, diagnostics, mean time to repair (MTTR) improvements, and compliance setup and alerts.
Configuration Backup and Device Setting Controls
Network automation tools assist network administrators with device and software configuration at its outset, but many of them also keep up with needed updates and rollbacks by storing encrypted backup data for multi-vendor platforms.
An extension of the configuration management capacity, most network automation tools offer a performance monitoring feature. This feature often includes interactive dashboards and data visualizations to help your team read and measure important performance and configuration insights.
Capacity planning is a network automation feature that combines a mixture of project management, business intelligence, inventory management, and data analytics into actionable alerts and automations for achieving enterprise goals. Capacity planning is sometimes referred to as network resource provisioning.
Top Network Automation Solutions
The network automation software market is ripe with strong competitors across infrastructure automation, software-defined LAN, and other more specialized categories of network automation. Here are the specifics and capabilities of some of the best network automation software options.
Red Hat Ansible
The Red Hat Ansible suite of network automation tools has been a longtime favorite of larger enterprise network administrators, especially with the added capabilities that came with Ansible’s acquisition by Red Hat in 2015. With its wide-ranging support for network device and IT environment configurations, Red Hat offers a strong product that comes with a higher price tag than some of the other products on the list. But to match that price point, it consistently scores higher than most in performance metrics like overall speed and usability of the UI. Red Hat Ansible has traditionally only offered on-premise solutions but has increased its open hybrid cloud offerings in recent years.
- Red Hat Insights with data visualization and analytics
- Role-based access control
- Supported, precomposed content collections
- Open hybrid cloud strategy
- Automation governance for compliance and procurement
Pro: Automation content can easily be managed, shared, and audited across an organization via YAML.
Con: Initial setup and training, particularly for their playbooks, has been rated as highly complex. Some users have also expressed that the open-source approach limits the true support infrastructure available for customer questions.
NetBrain Enterprise Suite
NetBrain is a network automation tool that specializes in network monitoring. The solution provides extensive visual aids to your team while they work to optimize your network, with a mixture of robust documentation and data visualization designs.
NetBrain particularly excels in demystifying hybrid network environments, decoding and mapping the entire hybrid network so that your network administrative team can manage all types of network devices from one control panel.
- Adaptive automation for troubleshooting
- Dynamic mapping with end-to-end visibility
- Control-plane modeling
- Runbooks for command line automation and enhanced incident collaboration
- Fully automated diagnostics via APIC controller
Pro: NetBrain offers some of the strongest UI and visualization/mapping features on the market.
Con: NetBrain is limited to a Windows Desktop deployment in most cases.
Micro Focus Network Automation Software
Micro Focus’s Network Automation software is frequently implemented in government and service sector organizations, with many users highlighting their thorough approach to compliance management across a large network. Their two main packages for enterprise-level automation are NA Premium edition and NA Ultimate edition, which is Premium plus additional network compliance features. For a strong configuration and compliance solution that offers top-tier support, many top companies choose Micro Focus to meet their networking needs.
- Automated compliance and configuration tasks
- Network Management Practitioner Portal
- Mean time to repair (MTTR) improvements
- Early detection of security vulnerabilities
- Automated change management practices
Pro: Upgrades, maintenance, and access to support are top-tier.
Con: The user interface is considered outdated and difficult to navigate.
Forward Enterprise is one of the most mathematically driven options in the network automation market, using this backbone to create an accurate backup model of your network infrastructure that adjusts to changes and behavioral predictions over time. If your team is struggling to implement or manage a particular feature on this software, Forward offers several opportunities for hands-on training and tutorials on their website, including Forward Fixes. These are short videos that their team records to walk users through user-submitted queries, which all customers are eligible to submit.
- Native Network Query Engine (NQE)
- Ansible integration with Forward modules
- Mathematical model to copy your entire network infrastructure
- On-premises or cloud options
- Dashboard with Network Complexity and Network Verification panes
Pro: The REST API features, in combination with NQE, make it possible and simple to visualize data and performance metrics across multi-vendor platforms. Their support team is also very responsive and willing to make changes to the tool based on customer feedback.
Con: Visualizations grow increasingly complex and difficult to manage for larger enterprise network architectures.
ManageEngine Network Configuration Manager
ManageEngine Network Configuration Manager is a network change, configuration, and compliance management (NCCM) tool that scales with growing enterprise networks. Their Forever Free plan is a great option for small businesses that only manage a small number of devices and applications, but if that business grows over time, they can easily upgrade to a paid plan and stick with the software with which they’re already familiar. Regardless of your business’s size and expectations from a network automation tool, ManageEngine’s solution is a great option for organizations that want additional support for change management.
- Firmware vulnerability management
- Compliance auditing features
- Configuration change alerting
- Remote firmware upgrades
- Change review and approval mechanism
Pro: Mobile management and insights are available for features like configuration changes and backups, startup-running conflicts, and user activity tracking.
Con: Several of the available device templates are outdated and it can take an extended period of time to get requested ones added to your portfolio.
SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager
This SolarWinds automated network configuration management and backup solution is one piece of the SolarWinds Orion Platform, which combines the NetPath, Network Insight, and PerfStack features across its portfolio to allow users to manage configuration, performance monitoring, and troubleshooting all from one integrated dashboard. By itself, the solution primarily focuses on configuration management, zeroing in on compliance, backup, and vulnerability assessments.
- Baseline and configuration drift management
- Automated switch configuration
- VLAN configuration and troubleshooting
- Network vulnerability scanning and infrastructure management
- Network Insight for Cisco and Palo Alto
Pro: Quick, bulked, standardized configurations are possible across the platform.
Con: There are concerns about the security of the tool, especially in the area of privilege management.
Cisco DNA Center
Cisco DNA Center is a network management tool that focuses on scalability, while still maintaining an emphasis on security at every stage of your network’s growth and development. The DNA Center tool covers a lot of network deployment and compliance expectations, with features such as network device onboarding, network segmentation, and scalable access policies built into the framework. Users often compliment the navigability of this tool, and the Cisco support team receives high marks as well.
- DevNet open APIs
- End-to-end visibility and network inventory
- Automated device onboarding and deployment
- Software image management
- Enhanced AI/ML-powered analytics
Pro: Cisco DNA Automation offers several Cisco security integrations, including Umbrella, Stealthwatch, firewalls, and wIPS.
Con: This tool offers few options for customers that want to integrate legacy or outside vendor tools into their network automation processes.
vRealize Automation SaltStack Config
vRealize Automation SaltStack Config is the software configuration management component now available to users in VMware’s vRealize Automation tool. SaltStack, a full stack application and infrastructure automation tool, was acquired by VMware in October 2020, transforming the tool into vRealize Automation SaltStack Config. The combined forces of these two teams and platforms now include stronger workflow and integrated serverless automation, as well as increased software configuration, security, and infrastructure capabilities.
- Available for virtualized, hybrid, and public cloud environments
- Automation and orchestration for virtual, public, and private cloud VMs
- Agent, agentless, and API-based data center management
- Event-driven updates
- Prebuilt CIS and DISA STIGs content
Pro: The “self-healing” systems enabled by event-driven automation and auto-remediation make quick network repairs and upgrades possible.
Con: Users mention the steep learning curve and lack of sandbox experimentation opportunities.
Puppet Enterprise is an open-source enterprise-level network management and automation tool that optimizes complicated, intertwined workflows across your network. Through its open-source format, Puppet Enterprise particularly shines in the areas of network orchestration and programmable infrastructure. Users can get started with Puppet Learning VM, a free version of Puppet Enterprise that allows you to run up to 10 nodes while you test out the product.
With advertised customers such as Google, NYSE, and Cisco and their portfolio of integrations with top players like HashiCorp and VMware, Puppet Enterprise is a proven enterprise solution that can back up the diverse network infrastructures and expectations of large corporations.
- Choice between agent-based or agentless automations
- Model-based and task-based scaling
- Continuous delivery
- Puppet Forge workflow automation
- Puppet Comply security and compliance enforcement
Pro: Infrastructure-as-code and configuration-as-code allow a lot of freedom for developers to customize automation features.
Con: As an open-source tool, Puppet Enterprise offers little in the support arena, which is especially difficult for users who aren’t familiar with the Ruby programming language.
BMC TrueSight Automation for Networks
This network management and automation tool from BMC specializes in the management of security vulnerabilities, configurations, compliance, and provisioning. BMC TrueSight Automation is a particularly strong software option for administrators who are concerned with security, compliance, and general vulnerability management. Their native security dashboards focus on a two-pronged approach of analyzing vulnerabilities and setting fix or configuration priorities as a response. The tool emphasizes auto-remediation through Cisco security advisories, National Vulnerability Database (NVD) guidance, and vulnerability management APIs for external vendor products on the network.
With BMC TrueSight Automation, you can enable additional security features like single-sign-on (SSO), automated imports of authorized users, role-based access controls, and multi-server administration through a single console.
- SmartMerge Technology for automated roll-back and change tracking
- Patching and image updates
- Discovery, drift detection, remediation, and reporting security features
- Role-based access control
- Export events to log management solutions via syslog
Pro: The dashboard interface is especially user-friendly for compliance management and policy creation.
Con: Users are interested in BMC growing their capabilities through external integrations, with either Red Hat Ansible or Windows tools.
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Benefits of Using Network Automation Solutions
Network automation software optimizes experiences and outcomes, not only for your network administrators, but also for users throughout the organization. If you implement a network automation tool that fits your particular business’s needs, you’ll reap the following benefits:
Strategic Role Shifts for Employees
Network automation tools automate several of the tasks that typically require extensive manual working hours from your team. As long as these tools are set up correctly from the beginning, your team will spend increasingly less time on these routine, typically unskilled tasks. This shift in their workday routine will allow additional time for them to focus on strategic planning for the business and other business tasks that require their human skill and expertise.
Decreased Human Error
Whether it’s a misconfigured device or a forgotten network-wide alert about a compliance or security issue, networks are always vulnerable to poor management and human error. Most network management expectations have traditionally been handled by an individual or a team of network administrators, but with a growing network and number of rules, regulations, and updates to keep in mind, even the most experienced administrators can make a mistake that negatively impacts one or dozens of users.
Network automation takes one correct action, and through the process of automation, makes sure that that same correct action can be replicated and multiplied whenever it’s needed in the future. But network automation only improves accuracy when these tools are properly configured from the outset; if you test a tool and confirm its efficacy from the start, it will save you from the potential for human error on network management and deployment tasks in the future.
Maintenance and Security Support
Other tools have been designed to focus on optimizing network security, but network automation tools often have some of these security supports built into their infrastructure. With features like performance monitoring and vulnerability assessments, enterprise networks have an additional layer of maintenance and security monitoring to catch potential problems.
Change Management and Scalability
Especially when an enterprise is growing its staff and capabilities quickly, it’s unrealistic to expect a team of network administrators to keep up with all network changes manually. Network automation tools provide them with the support structure that they need to manage a growing number of devices and programs, which allows organizations to grow and change their focuses over time without dealing with unnecessary technological or administrative hangups in their network management approach.