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Automation is reaching an inflection point

For many organizations, the lack of agility to adopt to network changes has become a bottleneck, preventing those companies from deploying a robust and highly responsive datacenter infrastructure. For service providers, automation is the cornerstone strategy to focus on to increase network agility and reliability while controlling operational expenditure (OpEx) and capital expenditure (CapEx). To improve operational efficiency, margins, and customer satisfaction, service providers can automate routine and complex tasks that may be time-consuming, repetitive, or error-prone. The openness and interoperability of automation support APIs, standards-based protocols, and open-source automation frameworks (such as Ansible, Saltstack, Puppet, and Chef). Service providers and enterprises can leverage those automation frameworks to expedite their network automation migration.

The route forward toward an autonomous network relies on telemetry, automation, machine learning, and programming with declarative intent. To be effective, automation must break free of traditional silos to address all network infrastructure elements, teams, and operations support systems.

Evolution of network operations

The desire to automate and program networks is as old as networks themselves. Early attempts at automation saw little success, but with the emergence of widespread IP networking and the growth of the internet, the demand for network engineering exploded. To deal with the demand for networking and the lack of processes for automating networks, responsibility for network operations was simplified from technologist to technician, mainly because of the move to network device command-line interfaces (CLIs). Network security specialists at the network infrastructure level followed suit.

Fast forward to today. The network CLI is still a staple, but it is increasingly being replaced by higher-order tools, such as graphical user interfaces (GUIs), application programming interfaces (APIs), and various other tools that abstract control and management, above the level of the individual device and its commands. To varying degrees, these solutions may be considered automation tools that allow engineers to refocus their energies on building systems that support business service levels rather than device-level operations.

Looking back, a decade of network innovation like new protocols, new architectural paradigms, and new APIs stemmed from industry discussions around programmability. That desire for programmability led to the development of software-defined networking (SDN) and more recent trends like intent-based or intent-driven networking.

In the same timeframe, server systems administration has similarly been driven – even forcibly pulled – away from manual operations by the evolution to DevOps and site-reliability engineering (SRE). These trends brought together the worlds of software development and operations with a focus on automation to improve velocity, agility, scale, security, and reliability.

The modern-day impact and influence of these movements on networking automation are undeniable. Recent research conducted by Juniper for the annual State of Network Automation Report (SoNAR) observes that SDN and intent-driven networking adoption was reported by 35 percent of SoNAR respondents, and over the past few years new networking job titles like Network Reliability Engineer (NRE), inspired by DevOps and SRE have been seen. While only 8 percent of respondents have four or more years of experience automating network operations, the journey is well underway; 57 percent of SoNAR respondents started their transition to automation between two and four years ago.

Acumen Research and Consulting estimates that this new round of automation will top USD 3.8 billion by 2026, representing an average annual growth rate of 13.2 percent. The key driver in this transition is the emerging Internet of Things (IoT), which can only function properly if there is broad connectivity across multiple data centers that can be configured and reconfigured in real time to accommodate a wide range of application needs.

On a functional level, Acumen sees the need for automation in three key segments of data infrastructure – device discovery, incident management, and asset management, with incident management expected to see the highest level of interest. This is due primarily to the need to provide consistent, reliable service for an increasingly demanding user base, both consumer and professional, as well as the growing potential for security breaches to disrupt the data environments that are quickly becoming integral to our daily lives. Through sensor-driven monitoring and other tools, automated systems will be tasked with identifying and correcting errors in networking, as well as internal system processing and storage.

Automation as a service

Like much of the rest of the infrastructure stack these days, automation is becoming readily available as a service. Zion Market Research estimates that the global automation-as-a-service (AaaS) market accounted for USD 1.9 billion in 2017 and is expected to reach USD 9.3 billion globally by 2024, at a CAGR of around 25.3 percent between 2018 and 2024. Much of this activity will center on non-IT assets, such as metering and maintenance in the utility and energy sectors, but it is also taking hold in the retail industry for inventory, payments, and other processes that require more traditional data infrastructure. And enterprises across the board will undoubtedly be looking for simplified ways to integrate automation into existing workflows for a wide range of functions.

The rise in the demand for automation in retail is likely to drive the AaaS market. Certain benefits of automation can be witnessed across supply chain and inventory management activities. Automation helps in streamlining processes via quick identification of goods, reducing delays as a result of additional paperwork, and curtails scams as well as manual errors. Various global retailers, such as eBay, Amazon, and Walmart, have opted for automated solutions for managing their inventories. In 2018, Walmart planned to expand its usage of autonomous robots for inventory management. The company is working with Bossa Nova to bring robots that help in detecting out-of-stock goods, along with guiding staffs and customers to their products in the shops.

The AaaS market is bifurcated on the basis of technology into knowledge-based automation and rule-based automation. By business function, the AaaS market includes finance, operations, sales and marketing, human resource, and information technology. The Operations segment is projected to expand significantly, owing to the growing investments made in automating various manufacturing processes for reducing wastes and costs.

North America is projected to hold a substantial share of the global AaaS market in the future, due to the increasing use of various automation services in online shopping for payments, marketing, customer retention, and delivering goods. The European AaaS market is mainly driven by the increasing use of robots in the manufacturing industry. Furthermore, technological advancements made in the European automotive sector are projected to drive this market in the near future. Asia-Pacific is anticipated to grow prominently in the market for AaaS in the upcoming years. India and China are expected to be major contributors in this regional market, due to the increasing investments made in the transportation sector. Latin America is likely to make a considerable contribution in the projected timeframe, with Brazil being a major contributor. The Middle-East and Africa is expected to grow at a noteworthy rate in the estimated time period, owing to the increasing investments made in the energy and utility sector.

Some of the key players in the AaaS market are HCL Technologies, UiPath, Nice Ltd., Kofax Inc., Blue Prism, Automation Anywhere, Inc., Microsoft Corporation, Pegasystems Inc., IBM Corporation, and Hewlett Packard Enterprise.

Why security needs to automate, too

Let us face it: Security does not like automation, says Arthur Cole, an analyst and senior author. Putting machines in control of things like provisioning, data access, backup, and a host of other functions, merely adds more risk to an already risky environment that is now pushing way past the firewall to the cloud and the edge.

Things were simpler, comparatively, back in the days when humans were in charge; everything moved at a nice leisurely pace, and security could track and secure changes as they were made or even get ahead of them to head off any potential problem proactively.

Then along came DevOps and CI/CD and all the other initiatives designed to boost scale and performance without a thought as to how all of this will affect the security posture. And automation is at the heart of the problem. Or so it would seem. While an automated enterprise does pose new security challenges, the fact is that the same tools being used to augment the development and operations side of the house can also be applied to security. And the results are largely the same – faster, more thorough performance, and the ability for security professionals to shed the dull drudgery of their jobs to focus on more important matters.

Perhaps the most important reason security needs to jump on the automation bandwagon is because hackers and other wrongdoers are most certainly heading in this direction as well. With intelligent automation platforms and code readily available on the internet, along with the hyperscale cloud resources to use them, the bad guys have all the tools they need to make life miserable for organizations that fail to effectively automate their security postures. Like all other elements in the IT stack, security has to keep up with the times, concludes Cole.

Robotic process automation

Due to significant growth in technologies, such as artificial intelligence and cognitive learning, the adoption of business automation technologies by enterprises has increased. This has led to rapid increase in demand for virtual workforce to eliminate repetitive human efforts, driving the market, globally.

ResearchAndMarkets pegs the global robotic process automation market at USD 8.69 billion by 2023. Significant increase in ease of doing business, surge in demand for virtual workforce to eliminate repetitive human tasks, decreasing cost of automation software and services, and increased adoption of new automation technologies for business transformation will drive this market. With increasing demand for virtual workforce globally, particularly in technology and business process outsourcing services, robotic process-automation with the help of voice recognition software or automated online assistance, can retrieve information and structure basic content that is required to answer customer queries or complaints in natural language. Apart from this, increasing adoption of automation software by enterprises is also driving the growth of the robotic process-automation market. Rapid advancement in automated business process technologies has led to low cost and easy availability of automation software in the market. Such software has attracted the attention of small and medium enterprises, with limited budget for business automation transformation. The intensity of rivalry in the global robotic process automation market is moderate.

Some of the key players operating in this segment are Nice Systems Ltd., Pegasystems Inc., Automation Anywhere, Blue Prism PLC, Ipsoft Inc., Celaton Ltd., Redwood Software, UiPath SRL, Verint System Inc., Xerox Corporation, and IBM Corporation. Most of the major vendors in the market are actively focused on enhancing their offerings to meet the ongoing demand for advanced business-automation solutions. This includes software integrated with artificial intelligence and cognitive learning.

Way forward

The outlook for RPA and AI-powered, intelligent automation (IA) adoption is positive. For instance in North America between now and 2025 the outlook is positive, with over 50 percent of businesses already using some sort of RPA or intelligent automation solution, 75 percent of organizations of all sizes planning to invest in automation technologies, and an equal proportion feeling that intelligent automation, RPA, and AI solutions will make them more competitive than they are today, observes Futurum in its report, The State of Automation 2019: RPA, AI, and Intelligent Automation.

RPA investments will shift outward. While RPA investments have mostly been focused on optimizing internal business functions like manufacturing, logistics management, data analytics, and IT, the shift toward applying intelligent automation to outward-facing, customer experience-focused business functions (like Customer Service and Customer UX) is ongoing. This shift from inward use cases to outward use cases should help drive RPA and intelligent automation adoption among industries that were initially uncertain about the value of technology to their particular business operations. Retailers, transportation, travel, and service-focused industries especially should begin to catch up to manufacturing, media and publishing, energy, and banking and finance sectors, which were the earliest adopters of the RPA solutions.

Automation will impact culture. Plan for that and facilitate that transformation. Without question, automation will have an impact on company culture. Organizations position themselves for success when they focus on creating a culture, in which automation augments humans rather than automation replacing humans. Successful automation implementations start with a strategy, and communications are an integral part of that strategy.

Getting out in front of understandable trepidation on the part of employees with communication, discussion forums, and the offering of training and reskilling opportunities will help ease the transition from manual, people-driven processes to processes where automation works in tandem with people and, as a result, collectively they realize greater business efficiencies, outcomes, and job performance and enjoyment.

Organizations will also need to communicate a shift to automation to customers and others who might be impacted by a shift in operational practices. This communication plan will also need to be a component of the corporate automation journey strategy. And working with a trusted vendor partner will bring deep expertise at working with other organizations to the fore and can help minimize missteps along the way, and maximize the benefits realized in the shortest possible time.

The future will belong to the companies who understand the power of technology and who put automation – RPA, AI, and intelligent automation – to work alongside their human counterparts, to help deliver the best possible business outcomes, to remain competitive, and to deliver the very best in customer experience, customer service, and customer outcomes. It is an exciting time for business leaders who see the possibilities ahead.

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