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Those following software-defined networking might sometimes hear the terms SDN and network automation used interchangeably. Indeed, one of the overarching benefits of SDN is the fact that you can automate network functions. But SDN is a far more wide-ranging concept when compared with network automation.
You don't need SDN to automate a network. For years, most network administrators have used various scripting tools to automate repetitive tasks. For example, Cisco's long-standing IOS software allowed for the creation of automation scripts using Tool Command Language that was coded directly into the configuration of a router or switch. While this is a fairly rudimentary method, it's still considered network automation.
The benefits of SDN take network automation to an entirely new level when network automation is placed within a software-defined environment. The reason for this is twofold.
First, one of the benefits of SDN is it gives an administrator unprecedented visibility from a centralized location. Because the control plane for all network components is unified, it's easier to automate tasks across the entire network using a single automation script. This is impossible to achieve using decentralized, legacy network hardware and software.
Second, SDN takes network automation to a new level with the AI analytics SDN is beginning to use. Because SDN offers end-to-end visibility and control, software can be used to intelligently route data across the optimal network paths. This routing intelligence can be used to build automation tasks that activate or deactivate based on thresholds such as network load, latency and jitter. Ultimately, AI can be used to create far more complex -- and far more useful -- automation scripts that keep data flowing as efficiently as possible.
SDN and network automation are often -- incorrectly -- used interchangeably due to the fact that automation is so much more useful in a software-defined environment. Previously, automation was used sparingly, because it was difficult to set up and maintain. That all changes because the benefits of SDN make it easier to build and manage automation tasks, let alone have the AI within a software-defined network create the tasks for you.
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