AutoCon 1 Recap

AutoCon1 Recap: My takeaways from what is now THE network automation event

Last week we traveled over to Amsterdam for AutoCon1, the second edition of the Network Automation Forum’s event which dares to ask the question: “Why haven’t we seen full adoption of network automation yet?”

The Network Automation Forum took AutoCon to new levels this time round and it’s pretty clear that this is now the network automation event. It was totally sold out, and with network automation practitioners and enthusiasts flying in from across the globe to participate, the excitement was palpable. We launched NetDevOps Days last year because we knew there had to be an event focussed on network automation and after two successful conferences in London and New York, we merged into AutoCon. I remain convinced that that was a very good idea.

NetBox Community Social

On the Tuesday evening we ran a community social at the beautiful Café de Sluyswacht in central Amsterdam and despite the rain, a load of NetBox community members showed up!

It was great to see so many old and new faces at the NetBox community social, and we all had some great conversations about our recent announcements, especially Diode and NetBox Enterprise.

The Kick Off

AutoCon1 was split across workshops on Monday and Tuesday with the conference itself running Wednesday through Friday. Everyone I spoke to at the community social who’d attended the workshops said they were very useful and I expect that workshops will become a regular feature at future events.

On the Wednesday morning we announced the NetBox Labs free plan to much fanfare and the response was huge! I don’t think my Slack stopped pinging with new signups all week and it’s still going. Suresh Vina did a great write up over the weekend in which he shared a similar sentiment to everyone else we spoke to at the event: “This is a big win for many of us who no longer need to worry about managing our own NetBox instances.”

The conference itself started at midday on the Wednesday, which was merciful for those of us who were still trying to finish talks and catch up with everybody at the booth. Dinesh Dutt of SuzieQ fame kicked off the event with the opening keynote and in his inimitable style posed a number of very good points about what is holding us back in network automation.

Dinesh urged the audience to map their automation efforts to the stages of the network lifecycle, just as we’ve done in our recent blog series and he also recommended that people avoid overthinking their tooling choices upfront, instead erring on the side of action. One question that Dinesh posed caught my attention: do you need a source of truth to get started with network automation? As it happens we’d released a blog post answering exactly that question earlier in the day in which I’d agreed with Dinesh that you don’t need a source of truth to get started with network automation, but added that you’ll wish you’d had one soon after you start to enjoy automation success.

Boat Ride through Amsterdam

On the Wednesday evening we took an enjoyable boat ride with some customers and community members through the canals of Amsterdam with our partner Nomios. The rain stopped just on time and we got to enjoy the views of Amsterdam from the water level while enjoying a nice dinner and conversations about network automation challenges and where NetBox fits in.

The Main Event

While Wednesday and Friday were both half days, Thursday was the full day at AutoCon and Stein Bjarnarson a.k.a Steinzi got the ball rolling with his talk “MVP (Minimum Viable Product) The keys to automation” in which he showed off the impressive (NetBox based) automation solution he and his team have built out at Advania to help their customers. In Steinzi’s usual enthusiastic style he introduced the idea of the “money river” to help teams decide where to focus their automation efforts, extending the idea of “just get started”, to “just get started, but make sure you’re solving problems that will actually help the business financially.”

Next up was my keynote in which the first thing I did was to ask everyone in the room to raise their hands if they use NetBox: pretty much every hand went up! My talk, “The future of Network Automation is Open and Composable”, walked through my journey as a software engineer, from idolizing John Carmack of ID Software as the lone ranger style coder who could do it all himself, through being forced to adopt new practices when I joined a larger company, and how eventually I came to understand and even like this new way of working. In my conversations with network engineers they often tell me how they have a similar feeling, of being expected to change not just how they work, but also the tools they work with and how that can be frustrating to them, just as it was for me. As networks become larger and more complex, collaboration becomes a key requirement and having tooling that enables collaboration is critical for making the transition smooth.

With collaboration in mind I took the opportunity to announce that NetBox 4.1 will include functionality for users to branch and merge data in NetBox so that they can collaborate with their colleagues more easily and that was very well received. Lots of people came over to ask for more details throughout the week and in our usual style at NetBox Labs we’ll be working very closely (and openly) with the community as we build out this feature, which is due to land in August.

Birds of a Feather

AutoCon1 saw the introduction of Birds of a Feather sessions during the Thursday lunchtime and NetBox Labs were involved in hosting two sessions. Chris Russell hosted “Components of Automated Operations” and I hosted “Reconciliation and Deviation Handling – Golden Config / Digital Twins / Network Drift”.

Both sessions were well attended and packed with useful conversations. Chris’ session touched on how having a “single” source of truth is tricky and how focussing on singularity of data can be a better approach than focussing on a singularity of systems, how being the lone ranger automator of networks can lead people into a siloed situation where they end up being the only person who can understand or maintain the automation, and of course, how justifying automation to the business still remains a challenge for many.

In my session we found that limiting the number of sources of information can greatly ease the burden of deviation handling and discussed one example in which an attendee described how in order to avoid drift across ServiceNow, NetBox and their Network they would dump information from all three sources into flat files and run an offline diff process at the device level to find out where there were issues!

If you’re struggling with drift between NetBox and ServiceNow, you should check out our ServiceNow integrations which offer bidirectional syncing: https://netboxlabs.com/blog/netbox-labs-unveils-data-and-workflow-integrations-with-servicenow-to-enrich-it-service-management-for-networking-teams/

A common pattern for dealing with drift that came up not just during my BoF session but also in other conversations during the week was to auto-update devices with the last known good config whenever drift is detected, which has the advantage of immediately removing any drift issues while also making it pointless for people to manually update the devices. While that approach seems to be popular in more advanced organizations it did raise some eyebrows with many pointing out that this only works when you give engineers other ways to get their jobs done. I suspect we’ll see a lot more conversation around this model in the coming months.

So many great talks

Despite mainly being at the booth on Thursday I was able to catch a couple of great sessions. The first was from Dan Bartram of Gamma with his talk “Our automation journey at Gamma”. Dan shared some fantastic perspectives on their journey including:

  • The importance of a trusted source of truth and the discipline required to keep it trusted, which Dan and team achieve with a system they built
  • Their “cookie cutter” repo from which all projects begin, which enables them to enforce standardization and reduce the time it takes for their colleagues to get started
  • A reconciliation mechanism which checks for config drift and automatically creates JIRA tickets for operations to inspect.
  • “AutoChecks” which allows engineers to easily view the before and after state of config deployments so they can more easily understand the impact of their deployments

Dan also shared that one of their upcoming focusses will be on their orchestration platform so that users can easily run ad hoc jobs.

Jeff McAdams of Vultr (in his first ever public talk 👏) shared useful perspectives on getting started with network automation including getting buy-in, overcoming imposter syndrome, focussing on small tasks first and resisting the urge to control all the outcomes in a network automation initiative, leaving space for others to learn and grow too.

The last talk I caught was another sponsor talk from Wim Hendrickx of Nokia. Nokia has a strong vision for network automation which is evidenced by their support for the increasingly popular ContainerLab project and that vision is now being further underlined through their Kubenet initiative which is intended to “help people and to train them to leverage Kubernetes in their network automation.” Bravo!

If you’re interested in ContainerLab check out our recent Network Automation Heroes session in which we look at generating ContainerLab definitions from NetBox using NRX: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xemyVQbaWq4

VR Headsets

The Network Automation Forum went big on the conference social, shipping 400 of us in buses to the H20 eSports arena in Purmerend where we were able to play all sorts of games against each other. My personal favorites were the retro area where I saw video being played from vinyl on “Capacitance Electronic Discs” and the VR area where we got to have a lot of fun fighting off zombie hordes while looking ridiculous to everyone watching.

Winding Down, with a Workshop!

I unfortunately didn’t catch a single talk on the Friday morning because the booth was still humming with activity and I was still putting the finishing touches on a workshop. As if the week hadn’t already contained enough network automation content, we teamed up with Wim, Otto and Pieter from Slurpit and Netpicker to run a workshop in central Amsterdam covering the full gamut of intent-based networking. It was awesome to see the Amsterdam networking community joined by people from the conference for one more hit of network automation goodness at Fiberplane, who very generously let us use their beautiful office for the event.

We covered everything from ingesting a brownfield network into NetBox with Slurpit, through testing the configs with Netpicker and finally deploying intended state configurations to the devices using NetBox’s Remote Data Sources and Configuration Templates. You can see the whole workflow described in this guest blog from Wim, and you can find my code for the configuration generation and deployment part of the workshop on the NetBox Learning repo (which is packed with other free goodies) under AutoCon Workshop. I also hear that Rick Donato of Packet Coders will be recreating the whole workshop and sharing it publicly, so if you couldn’t attend, subscribe to the NetBox Labs newsletter and we’ll add it when it arrives.

What a week!

Everyone here at NetBox Labs would like to say a big thank you to Scott, Chris and the entire Network Automation Forum team for putting on an incredible show, and to the NetBox community for showing up in force! It’s clear that AutoCon is now the network automation conference and we’re already looking forward to Denver in the fall.

Try out the new NetBox Cloud Free Plan here: https://netboxlabs.com/free-netbox-cloud/

See you at AutoCon 2: https://networkautomation.forum/autocon2

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