Last week Brocade Networks announced Workflow Composer, an automation platform to provision, monitor, diagnose, and troubleshoot data center networks.
For instance, if Workflow Composer detects a problem on a switch, Brocade says the software will be able to automatically investigate the issue, copy the configuration of the switch, and either alert an engineer, or attempt a remediation action such as testing an interface or rebooting the switch. All the information that Workflow Composer gathered in its investigation will be provided in the alert to the engineer.
The automation software also integrates with third-party compute and cloud platforms, including VMware vSphere, OpenStack, and Microsoft Azure; as well as with network operations products such as Nagios and PagerDuty.
However, the software doesn’t interoperate with networking gear from competitors such as Cisco. Brocade notes that Workflow Composer includes open APIs, so other network vendors could develop custom integrations if they were so inclined.
All About The Workflows
Workflow Composer is based on software from StackStorm Technologies, a data center automation startup that Brocade acquired in March 2016. According to a story in VentureBeat, StackStorm had several big-name users of its open source version, including Netflix and MasterCard, but just 10 or so paying customers at the time of the acquisition.
Brocade says StackStorm hadn’t done much with networking, so it saw an opportunity to leverage StackStorm’s data center efforts and add network automation capabilities.
Workflow Composer stitches together disparate systems to build its automation environment. Network and IT operations teams create workflows, which are sets of pre-defined rules and responses that should be executed based on particular events. Workflows can be created by users, and Brocade will also offer pre-written workflow packs.
Workflow Composer has three major components: sensors, rules, and actions.
Both sensors and actions are plug-ins that sit on Brocade equipment and on third-party products, and use APIs to interact with these products. The sensors listen for events, such as system messages. Actions execute commands.
In between the sensors and actions are rules. The rules are pre-defined, match-action responses to events. For instance, if a sensor detects a problem, it will send that message to Workflow Composer. The message is run against the rules, and Workflow Composer will then trigger an action. Depending on the rules in the workflow, that action may be some kind of automated remediation, or an alert (or both).
Availability And Pricing
Workflow Composer won’t be officially available until the third quarter of 2016.
However, StackStorm has a GitHub repository that includes all the basic capabilities of Workflow Composer, including nearly 2,000 sensors and actions. This community-supported version is currently available for free.
Workflow Composer will add an enterprise solution with pre-packaged workflows and additional sensors, actions, and rules for customers. Workflow Composer will also include a GUI, called Flow, to graphically represent workflows and allow operators to manipulate those workflows. Brocade will offer support options for Workflow Composer.
The more I talk with companies and organizations that are developing automation and orchestration tools, especially those involving the network, the picture that develops in my mind is a loosely-coupled, Rube Goldberg contraption made out of software plug-ins, API calls, workflows, playbooks, recipes, and duct tape.
This may be an unfair characterization, and it’s not meant to demean the efforts of individuals and organizations that are grappling with a difficult task: to stitch together disparate software and hardware elements that each have their own dependencies and individual quirks.
Given this state, one limiting factor around getting an automation project off the ground is the effort it takes to get all these pieces to line up.
Be prepared to dedicate time and effort to deploy an automation product, test it, monitor it, and then incorporate it into work routines. And have plenty of duct tape on hand. It’s not going to be an easy lift, but the payoff can be worth it.
If you’re a Brocade shop, Workflow Composer may be worth a look, especially considering that you can play with StackStorm first. And if the product can deliver as promised, it would be great to see it extend to other networking vendors.