Network Automation     Archive

Of state, idempotency, and CI/CD in the brownfield network

This post is a consequence of an interesting conversation around declarative control systems with a colleague. Throughout the conversation, we kept coming back to the ‘popularity’ of automation and specifically, how revolutionary, it appears for legacy, closed systems(aka 80% of network gear in enterprises). When you think about it, in a traditional control system (a bread toaster, in it’s simplest form), we interact with the system as follows:

1. We tell it (declare) what our desired outcome is (how brown do you
want your toast)
2. Inputs (the slices of bread)

The system then figures out how to achieve your end state. In other words..

    * EndState -> System
    * System determines current state and calculates diff to achieve end
    * System then does: Current State +/- diffs, to achieve end state

Imperative and declarative systems

Lately I have been working a lot with ansible, with a specific focus on network devices that natively do not have good/any api: Cisco routers and switches, in particular. If you are familiar, you already know, that the core ansible modules are idempotent. Ansible does this, by getting the current state of the device before execution, validating whether the differences to be applied, are already present, and if not, applying them. Going back to the earlier discussion on control systems, it is pretty obvious that the way we achieve the “end state” in ansible is quite different. Here, no desired/endstate is given to the system. The operator calculates the differences that need to be applied and gives it to the system. The system then assures that, the requested differences are currently not present in the devices and applies them.

    * Differences -> System.
    * System collects the current state
    * System validates that differences do not exist in the current
    * System adds the differences

I specifically say that the system adds the differences. What I am trying to point out, is the non-declarative nature here. For a real example, if I have to remove a bgp neigbor through ansible, I have to say

no ip bgp neighbor x.x.x.x

Rather than being able to define the end state, where I tell the system how I would like the device configuration to look like, I have to tell it specifically, what needs to happen. This is not a flaw/drawback. I am just pointing out the nature of closed systems. Contrast this with a system dealing with configuration files. You can define your end state, simply by writing the configuration file, the way you want it to be on the system. The automation tool’s job is to identify the differences and then decide whether configs need to be applied or removed to the end host - declarative

So what and are there declarative n/w automation options?

Declarative systems are IMO, elegant, and embody automation/abstraction better than imperative systems. However you have lesser control over the how (your toaster makes the call about the temperature to brown your bread). In the past, I have built a few automated services using tail-f systems This product helps the operator build network services, in a quasi-declarative fashion. The way it achieves this, is that the tool, caches/persists the current state of devices locally. When the operator drives a change, the tool, validates the following:

1. Does the current state on the devices match the cached configs
2. If yes; calculate the difference, stage the config locally,
   push to end device
3. If no; the operator has the option to treat the cached config
   as the source of truth *OR* the current device state as the
   source of truth

This brings me to the concept of state. In a previous post, I talked about stateful variable tracking for network equipment. However, how do we track configuration state?

CRUD and the database analogy

With tailf, having a cached copy of the “state” of the device, allows the operator to treat the end devices as rows in a database. So you have the ability to “commit” your changes and “rollback” when errors are encountered. However from an automation tool standpoint, I want to decouple the “state” from the tool. I believe such a declarative system can be achieved using a version control system + an imperative tool. For example:

1. The state of a topology is saved in say, github.
2. A change to the system is requested via a pull request. Note
   that this is a declaration of the desired end state, which is
   calculated by some imperative system, like the ansible cisco
   core modules.
3. The CI/CD tool chain evaluates the requested endstate validity,
   allowing the operator the opportunity to effect corrections.
4. The desired end state is achieved and subsequently stored at
   the "Source of Truth" - github in this case.

I am not sure how exactly, to handle out of band changes. The possibility exists, for writing playbooks, that can potentially overwrite the device configs with the configs stored in github or update github, with the current device state.

Another point of consideration, comparing network devices to databases, makes one think of how tightly coupled the “data” and the “configuration” is on network devices. I had not thought about a firewall rule in such terms, until this conversation with my colleague. The configuration of a database is very much decoupled from the data, whereas the configuration (permit traffic) and data (source/destination IP/PORTS) are extremely tightly coupled on network devices - food for thought!

I would love to hear your thoughts on the state of network automation for closed systems like routers and switches. Also feedback on this thought exercise would be awesome.

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