Automation can play an important role in maintaining IT operations during the COVID-19 pandemic, say network pros from Netflix, Zoom, Dropbox and Equinix.
Zoom’s videoconferencing platform has exploded in popularity as stay-at-home mandates have swept the globe, and some of the credit for being able to keep up with demand goes to automation.
“We have automation in place so that we can quickly scale our infrastructure – the network as well as the compute infrastructure – with very little human intervention,” said Alex Guerrero, senior manager of SaaS operations at Zoom.
That has translated into being able to maintain service levels at a time when traffic levels are in flux and physical access to network infrastructure is constrained.
Guerrero took part in a virtual panel last week designed to provide an inside look at network operations at Zoom, Netflix, Dropbox and Equinix during the pandemic. (See related story: Providers address capacity, supply-chain challenges brought on by COVID-19)
Industry-wide, network programming skills have become more important as companies navigate the shift to software-defined networking and embrace automation to combat the complexity of IT infrastructure management.
Software fluency is a required skill for Zoom’s network team, which uses programming tools including Ansible and Puppet. Senior network engineers at Zoom need to “know more than Perl today. They need to be able to script in some other language,” Guerrero said.
Zoom isn’t alone in relying on automation to quickly scale networks and infrastructure. Data-center provider Equinix has seen traffic levels rise between 10% and 40% over the last few months, and its customers have been accelerating their plans to scale network capacity. Having the physical capacity, along with automation capabilities, has made it possible for Equinix to absorb the uptick in volume, said Bill Long, senior vice president of core product management at Equinix.
At Dropbox, network teams are also relying on automation capabilities to keep pace with increasing demand for the company’s cloud storage platform. “[Automation] is one of the main things that we’re doing with networking today,” said Dzmitry Markovich, senior director of engineering at Dropbox. “We rarely touch those devices manually.”
Panelists on the webcast also talked about how they’re supporting their own corporate IT staff and adjusting to new patterns of work.
“We are operating in a very uncertain time,” said Dave Temkin, senior vice president of network and systems infrastructure at Netflix. “One of the things that I’ve told my team, frankly, is that I don’t look at this as a race. I don’t even look at this as a power walk. We really don’t know how long we’re going to be in this mode for. And so I want to ensure that our customers have a great quality of service, but I also want to make sure that my teams feel supported.”
Going from working in an office to working from home, without the usual social interactions, can be a painful transition that requires support, Markovich said. “I’ve seen it in our company. I’ve seen it in different companies. I see how people struggle. So that’s important to keep in mind.”
Dropbox is taking the opportunity to learn best practices from its employees who are used to working remotely. Keeping track of productivity is also important. “We track our productivity every single week, because we make different decisions within the company on what the next week will look like,” Markovich said. “When everyone is working from home, it’s easy to lose momentum… You need to have a clear metric to understand.”
At Equinix, network teams are settling into remote work. “We have network operation centers around the world. Those are all now work-from-home. And it’s going great,” Long said.
While the pandemic has caused companies to quickly shift IT operations and investments, it’s not clear which changes will remain once travel restrictions are lifted. “How much of these shifts that we’re seeing now, that actually work pretty well – how many of those are going to stick and become the new normal?” Long said. “And how many are we going to revert to old ways of doing things?”
It’s too early to know, obviously. IT hiring – which is challenging even under normal conditions – is another unknown. “How do we even recruit? Hire? Onboard? Train?” said Kentik CEO Avi Freedman, who moderated the panelists. “There’s a lot we don’t know about how long this is going to last, which creates stress.”
One thing that seems clear is demand for software-fluent network engineers is unlikely to abate.
“When we hire network engineers and network automation people, we require everyone to be able to code,” Dropbox’s Markovich said. Five years from now, “there will be no job” for network engineers who haven’t learned network automation skills, he said.
If approved, a Federal Communications Commission proposal would add the 6GHz band to the unlicensed spectrum used by Wi-Fi 6, making room to support more devices from a single Wi-Fi access point.
A proposed FCC rule would allow Wi-Fi 6 devices to make unlicensed use of an additional range of wireless spectrum, which would more than quadruple the number of channels available to Wi-Fi routers.
While that might be good news for enterprises seeking higher density Wi-Fi deployments, current license holders of the 6GHz spectrum are concerned about interference from unlicensed use.
The driving factor, as ever, is the bottomless demand for spectrum caused by the increasing use of wireless just about everywhere, and the FCC’s announcement cites projections from Cisco that say about 60% of worldwide data traffic will move across Wi-Fi links within the next two years. Using the full 6GHz spectrum – all 1,200MHz of it – is part of the Wi-Fi 6 (802.11ax) standard that can’t be put into use until it is freed up by the FCC. With that spectrum extension in place the standard is known as Wi-Fi 6E, and devices with new silicon would be needed to implement it. (Wi-Fi 6E products are expected to hit shelves by the 2020 holiday season, per PC World.)
“By doing this, we would effectively increase the amount of spectrum available for Wi-Fi almost by a factor of five,” said FCC chair Ajit Pai in a statement. “This would be a huge benefit to consumers and innovators across the nation.”
But the incumbent licensed users of parts of the 6GHz spectrum – which are mostly businesses using microwave links for wireless backhaul and public safety services – aren’t pleased. The Utilities Technology Council is one of several groups that has been critical of earlier proposals to open the 6GHz band to broad-based unlicensed use, saying in response to Wednesday’s announcement that assurances that existing users would be protected from interference are unconvincing.
“We have and will continue to provide the FCC with technical detail demonstrating the very real interference potential from unlicensed use across all parts of the band and the need for thoroughly tested automated frequency coordination (AFC) to protect incumbent users,” the group said in a statement. “While we appreciate the FCC proposing to require AFC for the standard-power access points, these measures must also be applied to all unlicensed devices in the band to prevent interference to mission-critical utility communications systems.”
Farpoint Group principal and Network World contributor Craig Mathias said that it’s not going to be a smooth process, but argues that the opening of 6GHz spectrum is too great an opportunity to ignore.
“Yes, it’s a mess – spectral re-allocations always are,” he said. “[But] I don’t see any issues here that can’t be addressed, and more unlicensed spectrum is of course always desirable.”
Incumbent users of the 6GHz spectrum are unlikely to see the type of interference they’re particularly worried about, he added, given the nature of the connections currently in use and the proposed safeguards in the new rule that are specifically designed to protect existing networks.
“Point-to-point microwave links operate at fairly high power and use both directional antennas and error-checking protocols to ensure reliability and otherwise deal with typical radio issues beyond interference, like the various forms of fading,” said Mathias. “A nearby Wi-Fi transmitter will be operating at much lower power and use its own signal-integrity-management techniques as well. So – likely no issues in the vast majority of cases, especially if history is any guide.”
The FCC will vote April 23 at an open meeting on whether to make the proposal official.
This story, “FCC wants to add a new swath of bandwidth to Wi-Fi 6” was originally published by Network World.