Plotting a Quick Path to Network Test Lab Automation

July 22, 2020
Operators and enterprises were already strategizing about how to cloudify the lab. But plans have accelerated amid the fallout from COVID-19 and the realization that having the ability to remotely operate labs and huddle with teams could be a gamechanger.

Operators and enterprises were already strategizing about how to cloudify the lab. But plans have really accelerated amid the fallout from COVID-19 and the realization that having the ability to remotely operate labs and huddle with teams could be a gamechanger. And that’s not just in these times where engineers are grappling with work-from-home realities, but long into the future. We anticipate that the current global situation will forever change lab strategies.

Of course, cloud-based labs, also known as lab-as-a-service (LaaS), are about much more than remote access. They’re about delivering test beds in minutes versus days. LaaS enables complex network designs to be shared and collaborated around in real-time and across vast distances with more teams, suppliers, and customers. The result is innovation and rapid solution delivery that is improved with reduced cost and increased productivity. In short, LaaS is about delivering speed, cost reductions, and flexibility.

The beauty is the move to cloud-based labs doesn’t all have to be taken on at once. As long as organizations have a broader vision for where they want to go, incremental yet impactful steps can be taken toward established goals.

Start fast with work order automation

Starting lab automation from scratch can feel like a daunting challenge, but it doesn’t need to be. An initial goal that is emerging as best practice is to automate work order flow. Keep in mind that in many instances, work orders are derived from designs sketched out on a whiteboard or pieced together offline in a visualization tool. When the visualized design is submitted to the lab, techs typically are left to determine whether resources are available to provision the test bed and to determine which connection and configuration aspects must be changed. A large portion of the effort to go from design to provisioning occurs here and can be reduced quickly.

LaaS platforms can help put remotely accessible lab automation into place with a step-by-step approach that can begin delivering benefits in as little as 10 days:

  • First, auto-discovery capabilities will capture the current configuration and resources available in the test lab.
  • The network image is made available through a “single pane of glass” to network engineers who stand up a sandbox, create a test bed design, and share it with all stakeholders.
  • Once a design is completed, it can be issued to lab techs as a work order.
  • With automation, the work order compares testbed designs to the lab’s network image and delivers just the “deltas” - changes in connections and configurations - needed to implement the design rapidly.

Whiteboard, anywhere

Traditionally, network test labs have been location-specific and operated by onsite teams of techs and engineers. As already mentioned, these teams typically gather around a whiteboard to map out testbeds before implementing them manually. While this approach has gotten the job done for many years, it doesn’t capitalize on the innovations afforded by today’s global, digital economy. Particularly, it misses out on the vast benefits of digital collaboration because it can’t incorporate expertise from around the world or share ideas in progress with partners and customers. This manual approach also doesn’t leverage automation that can take an idea from design to implementation in the lab within minutes.

Collaboration-driven LaaS approaches transform this familiar process for the digital age to power new possibilities, efficiencies, and productivity with:

  • the “single pane of glass” console approach mentioned above that gives all collaborators access to the design process, bringing whiteboard activity into a globally accessible digital setting.
  • A shareable environment that fosters collaboration much like digital economy workers are accustomed to. Stakeholders may include other engineers and lab techs, as well as other collaborators like suppliers, partners, and customers from around the world.
  • Optimal lab resource utilization that enables lab consolidation.

Discover continuous design and testing

With cloud-based, highly collaborative lab automation in place, the burden of implementing and then changing testbeds and network designs is alleviated. Instead, teams can focus on continuous design and testing processes with rapid iterations that drive improvements and innovation.

Digital collaboration means teams aren’t limited to one lab location; experts, contributors, and stakeholders can contribute from around the globe. Be it partners, customers, or beyond, anyone can be invited into a sandbox to contribute ideas and solutions that deliver better outputs, faster. Lab resources can be utilized more optimally, positioning companies to either federate or consolidate labs, reducing capex and other expenses while increasing output. As a result, it is possible to overcome limitations stemming from labs that are dedicated to specific locations, organizations, or technology silos.

Fuel innovation-driven success

The lab is an engineer’s creative space to invent new concepts and test them for market readiness. Because rapid innovation and prototyping are now a central part of the success equation for technology businesses, lab engineers must be equipped with all the advantages automation delivers. After all, what happens in the lab and how fast it happens can drive the pace of innovation and time to market for the entire product organization.

For example, effective DevOps and NetOps funnels are sought to continuously introduce, enhance, and update digital products and services. But continuous integration (CI), continuous deployment (CD), and release on demand (RoD) begin with continuous exploration (CE). The more efficient, collaborative, and visible the lab is, the faster and more effective the innovation driving the CE process will be. An automated lab is the foundation for sustaining a continuous flow of product innovation and enhancement. What happens in the lab contributes directly to the entire organization’s competitiveness in the marketplace. Because the continuous delivery process is based on automation and collaboration, an automated and collaborative lab environment is a requirement.

Win with full lab automation

With a LaaS solution, lab environments can be equipped with new, leading-edge capabilities that power DevOps and NetOps collaboration and a path to full automation, federation, and consolidation. In addition to rapid design, work order automation, and collaboration, an automated lab can enable zero-touch provisioning once any-to-any connectivity is established. Full lab automation flows from the design console to the lab network and enables federated labs where resources located in different regions are discovered and made accessible.

Lab automation’s benefits are significant. Filling development funnels via a fully automated lab environment makes rapid collaborative innovation a competitive differentiator. Automated labs have demonstrated a 300X acceleration of testbed setups and configurations, cutting the process from 50 hours to 10 minutes. Substantial reductions in capex are inherent as lab resource utilization is optimized and productivity maximized. The collaborative, automated lab is transformational in a world where a company’s ability to master digital innovation is a determining factor for competitiveness and success.

Clark Whitty is principal product line manager within Spirent’s Automation Platform Technologies Business Unit. With over 20 years in the test and measurement industry, he has deep expertise in deploying network automation and productivity solutions throughout the entire product lifecycle.

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