Zero Touch Provisioning can help the network world catch up to server advances

Rather than using CLI to configure systems one at a time, ZTP can roll out new switches with a click of a mouse

This vendor-written tech primer has been edited by Network World to eliminate product promotion, but readers should note it will likely favor the submitter's approach.

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 IT 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, for example, Linux has revolutionized on boarding and provisioning. Rather than using command-line interfaces (CLI) to configure 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 that with one profile, or 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 between 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.

But what about the network? 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 device.

Consider the typical provisioning process of a network switch: switches have been traditionally coupled with pre-loaded proprietary network operating systems.  Technicians then use CLI or the manufacturers own tools to provision the device, a process that can be broken down into three basic steps:

* When the new switch 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. Now extrapolate the model to ten network switches. Or twenty. Or one hundred.  This can be very time consuming. And when you consider that for each 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 administrator receives the 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 ZTP, 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, 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 the fact that bringing applications to market faster is the key to gaining competitive advantage.  So 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 critical to automate the network processes as well.  No network administrator wants to be the long pole in the tent.

The second is bare-metal switching.  If applications are driving the top line, then it's the hardware that will help 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 light of these trends, it's even more important to implement ZTP and network automation practices.  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 you 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.

Chai is the Head of Product Marketing for Pica8 Inc., the leader in open systems for software-defined networking.  He is currently responsible for the GTM strategy and execution for the Pica8 portfolio of open switching systems and software. Calvin holds a BS degree in Computer Science and Engineering from the University of California at Berkeley.

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