Network automation is the science—or is it an art?—of automating different tasks typically handled by network administrators. As vague as this definition may be, it truly is what network automation is. Unfortunately, such a vague definition also means that what constitutes a network automation tool is just as hard to define. In fact, it seems like every vendor has his own idea of what network automation is. Some refer to it as network automation systems while others prefer the term network configuration management systems. One vendor even offers both tools. To help you shed some light on this complicated subject, we’ve compiled a list of the best tools for network automation and we’re glad to offer you a brief review of each of these.
Before we reveal what the best products are, we’ll start off by discussing network automation in general. We’ll try to better define what it is, at least from a software tool standpoint. We’ll also discuss the different types of tools available. As we’ve hinted, some are called automation tools while others are called configuration management tools. Are they different? If so, what are the differences? Once we’re all on the same page as to what network automation is and what the software tools do and how they operate, we’ll be ready for the important stuff, reviewing the best network automation tools we could find.
What Is Network Automation?
As we’ve mentioned in our introduction, network automation is simply the use of tools to automatically perform network administration tasks. This prompt the following question: which tasks? The answer is simply any task. Let’s see what the experts have to say about it. According to Technopedia, “Network automation is the process of automating the configuration, management and operations of a computer network. It is a broad term that includes a number of tools, technologies and methodologies used to automate network processes.” Webopedia’s definition is not much clearer and defines it as a “phrase used to describe the methodologies, processes, and technologies needed to help large organizations and enterprises automate the configuration and management of network devices, including hubs, routers and switches.”
One thing seems to be clear from these definitions. As we were initially sating it, network automation is vague at best. Any system or process that automatically executes some form of network administration task can be called network automation. So, instead of trying to provide a precise definition and explain a concept that, in essence, can be pretty much anything, let’s approach the matter by looking at the tools themselves. Let’s have a look at what the different tools that call themselves network automation tools do. And let’s not forget about network configuration management tools because, although they are not always referred to as network automation tools, most of them are.
Different Types Of Tools For Network Automation
Network automation tools have a variety of features. At the very top are fully integrated tools that have all sorts of functions such as performance monitoring, traffic and bandwidth analysis, configuration and change management, switch port and end-user monitoring and tracking, WAN performance monitoring, and IP address management. These tools are often meant to replace most other tools and offer an all-encompassing solution.
At the other end of the spectrum are tools which are much more targeted such as tools for configuration management. While such tools will only handle device configuration, they are still very useful and are often accessory to complying with several regulatory standards. In between are many different tools offering different levels of automation. Generally speaking, tools with more features will tend to be more expensive—although this is not always the case. But don’t be tempted to let the price influence you when assessing the value of a tool. A less expensive tool could very well be a better option based on your specific needs. For instance, if you already have some monitoring tool in place, you probably don’t need an automation tool that includes monitoring functions. After all, you’ve likely spent a lot of time configuring your monitoring tools and don’t want to see your efforts go to waste.
The Best Network Automation Tools
It is now time to look at some of the best tools for network automation. As expected with such an unclear concept, our list includes a variety of tools. We have tools which are all-in-one packages which do (almost) everything and some that are much more task-specific. Some of our top tools call themselves automation tools whereas others are self-described as network management or network configuration management packages. We’ve chosen to ignore the denominations of the tools and focus on their functionality.
SolarWinds is a well-known name in the field of network administration and rare are those who have never heard of it. After all, the company has been making some of the best network administration tools for about twenty years. Some of its tools, such as the SolarWinds Network Performance Monitor, are considered to be among the best tools in their respective class. To make thing even better, SolarWinds also makes a handful or two of free tools, smaller tools each addressing a specific need of network administrators.
The SolarWinds Network Automation Manager is one of the most complete network automation solution available. It is loaded with great and useful features. Using this tool, you can create custom, web-based network, traffic, WAN, and switch port dashboards, views, and charts. It also features topology- and dependency-aware intelligent alerts which will respond to multiple condition checks, correlated events, network topology, and device dependencies. This product also features real-time configuration change notification and compliance auditing. It will provide details and comparisons of configuration changes to demonstrate compliance with regulatory standards.
- FREE TRIAL: SolarWinds Network Automation Manager
- Download Link: https://www.solarwinds.com/network-automation-manager/registration
There are also several IP address management functions built into the SolarWinds Network Automation Manager. It has IP alerting, troubleshooting, and reporting which will let you know about IP address conflicts, depleted subnets and scopes, or mismatched DNS records. DHCP and DNS administration is also included. The tool’s address management features will help you find an open IP address and make the DHCP reservation and DNS entries in one step from a single console. This is exactly what automation is all about.
There are simply too many features to this product to detail them all. A whole article could be dedicated to it. It has capacity planning and forecasting. It has wireless and wired network monitoring and mapping. The tool will monitor switch port usage to identify performance, users, and devices. It will monitor, alert, and report on key device metrics such as temperature, fan speed, and power supply.
With so many included features, you can expect the SolarWinds Network Automation Manager to be expensive but well worth the investment. Detailed pricing is available by contacting SolarWinds’s sales. If you want to try the software before buying it, a fully-functional 30-day trial is available from SolarWinds.
SolarWinds also makes the Network Configuration Manager or NCM. This is a tool of many uses. For starters, it can help you ensure that all equipment configurations are standardized. It is also a tool you can use to push bulk configuration changes to thousands of network devices. From a security standpoint, the tool will detect unauthorized changes. They could be the tell-tale sign of malicious configuration tampering. This product also has some interesting vulnerability assessment features and its integration with the National Vulnerability Database lets it use to the most current Common Vulnerability Exposures to find vulnerabilities in your devices’ configuration.
- FREE TRIAL: SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager
- Official download link: https://www.solarwinds.com/network-configuration-manager
The SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager takes care of equipment configuration backups and can be used to quickly recover from failures by restoring previous configurations. Its change management features can be used to quickly pinpoint and highlight changes within a configuration file by comparing it to a previous version. Another use for this tool is to help you demonstrate compliance and pass regulatory audits thanks to its built-in, industry-standard reports.
Prices for the SolarWinds Network Configuration Manager start at $2 895 for up to fifty nodes and go up with the number of managed nodes. Like with most products from SolarWinds, a free fully-functional, node-unlimited 30-day trial is available.
3. ManageEngine Network Configuration Manager
The ManageEngine Network Configuration Manager is a comprehensive package that can help ensure the integrity of your network. It is from ManageEngine, another well-known name in its field and the maker of numerous excellent network administration tools. This is a powerful package which can be used to manage the configuration of most networking equipment, regardless of the vendor. The product is compliant with the NCCCM (Network Change, Configuration, and Compliance Management) standards.
The ManageEngine Network Configuration Manager can automatically handle the backups of your devices’ configurations on a regular basis. But it doesn’t stop there. It will compare each backup to the previous one, spot configuration changes and alert you of unauthorized or suspicious ones. You also have the possibility to generate reports on configuration discrepancies between similar devices. Pretty useful if you care about standardizing your configurations
There is also a logging function. It will register every change made as well as which user made it. Accounts from users performing unauthorized changes can be automatically suspended. The system can also alert you when it suspects that a user account has been compromised. So, in addition to automating the configuration of your device, it also handles security.
The ManageEngine Network Configuration Manager installs on Windows or Linux and it’s available as a free version which is limited to two devices. For larger installations, prices start at $595 for up to 10 managed devices and vary based on the number of managed devices. A free 30-day trial is available on paid licenses.
4. TrueSight Network Automation
Perhaps you already know TrueSight Network Automation from BMC software. It used to be known as BladeLogic Network Automation. BMC didn’t only change the product’s name, though, it also upgraded the software and turned it into a pretty good configuration management system. Great attention was particularly paid in the standards compliance features of the product.
A concept called policies is as the core of the product’s compliance auditing. The system comes with several predefined policies for such regulatory requirements as HIST, HIPAA, PCI/DSS, DIS, SOX or SCAP. Based on the contents of the policies, the TrueSight Network Automation system verifies device configurations for compliance. Configurations are not the only thing the tool will check. it can also be used to enforce standards, automatically modifying configurations as required.
The first thing the tool does after installation is to perform an initial scan of the network to find all devices, check them for compliance and, if needed, tweak their configurations. It then backs up their configurations and uses them as a baseline comparison point to detect future unauthorized configuration changes.
With TrueSight Network Automation you can create users and groups and you can authorize different user groups to access different sections of the user interface. A feature like that lets you have different dashboards for different users. Another powerful feature of the product is the possibility to do bulk configuration changes or firmware updates. The system also has patch management capabilities. In all, there are quite a few tasks that can be automated using this tool.
TrueSight Network Automation can be installed on Windows Server, RedHat Enterprise Linux, and Ubuntu. Pricing information can be obtained by contacting the BMC Software sales department. Unfortunately, a free trial does not appear to be available.
5. Net LineDancer
Don’t let the weird name of our next product put you off. Despite that, Net LineDancer, from LogicVein, is an excellent tool and it has all the features that anyone could expect from any network configuration manager. This tool can be used to manage thousands of devices through an automated process. It all starts by finding all devices and taking a snapshot of their configurations. This establishes a baseline. This baseline will then be used to identify changes to each device’s configuration. If this sounds vaguely familiar, it might be because most tools use a similar technique.
Net LineDancer is different from many similar software tools. In addition to providing a backup of the configurations, the stored files can also be used to configure equipment in batches. This can be done either by device type or individually. Reporting is another strength of the product. It can—and this is only one example—report on what user made what configuration change. Such a feature is great for auditing changes and change management process.
Net LineDancer can run on Windows servers or on CentOS and RedHat Enterprise Linux. It is also available as a virtual appliance for VMware ESX or as a cloud service. Pricing information can be obtained by contacting LogicVein’s sales and a 30-day trial is available.
6. LAN-Secure Configuration Center
Perhaps not as famous as some other products, the LAN-Secure Configuration Center is another excellent network configuration management tool which truly deserves its spot on our list. It has all the essential features you may want and then some. Like many similar tools, it initially scans your network to discover network devices and performs a backup of their configurations. The tool will then let you have a look at the configurations and decide on the correct policies for your organization’s needs and regulatory or contractual obligations.
The Lan-Secure Configuration Center is a super flexible tool which can be used to update configurations or modify settings of all devices, specific device types, or individual devices. It can also automatically run periodical checks of device configurations against the original backups, looking for unauthorized changes. When such changes are detected, an alert can be triggered. You can also elect to have the tool automatically roll those changes back to their initial state. You can use this tools to manage remote sites from a centralized location and it uses SSH to securely communicate with remote sites, even over unsecured circuits.
The Lan-Secure Configuration Center is available in several editions. At the base, there’s a Workgroup version which can be purchased for $99. It is, however, limited to managing up to ten devices. For more devices, there is an Enterprise version which is available at prices varying according to the number of managed devices. A free 30-day trial of either version is available.
We’re including rConfig on our list of the top network automation tools mainly because we thought it wouldn’t be complete without at least one free and open-source option but also because rConfig is a very interesting product. By virtue of being open-source, you are free to modify and adapt the product to your specific needs. And when the time comes to get support, the product has a robust community. This is very important when considering open-source options.
rConfig compares very well to commercial alternatives. It has customizable scripting and automation, compliance management that’s fully customizable, bulk settings distribution, single-click options for quickly downloading configurations, reporting, backups, a range of system support and much more.
Provided that this product’s features meet your needs, rConfig is certainly an option to consider. Being open-source also means that as long as the community thrives so too will the product. This is a free product so there is no trial version but if you want to see the product at work before spending hours configuring it to your need, there’s a demo version running directly on their website that you can try. That demo is even connected to an actual living network.