Keeping the network running at the remotest locations: How smart out-of-band management can help

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This is the age of distributed network environments. The wave of transformation brought about by digitisation, the Internet of Things and increasingly decentralised hardware landscapes and systems brings new challenges for IT departments, says Alan Stewart-Brown, VP EMEA, Opengear.

They have to carefully consider how to maintain permanent connectivity and avoid the consequential costs of network downtime in branches, production sites and private clouds. In business sectors like oil and gas, mining, other extractive industries, marine and maritime industries, for example, networks are likely to be especially far flung.

Today, there are few corners of the earth too remote to host a computer network of some kind or other from the highest mountain to the densest jungle, and from the coldest continent to the hottest desert. That’s especially important when you consider that many such locations are used for exploration, observation and/or scientific research purposes scenarios where maintaining a high reliability network is especially important.

Establishing a network that combines land-based systems and data processing capabilities with underwater cables providing connectivity to marine research sites can be challenging in itself. Even the most remote network, though, must also be kept up and running at all times and that critical network resilience is not always easy to achieve.

Moving away from a traditional approach

Traditionally, this kind of network management and oversight has tended to be handled centrally from the data centre at the company’s headquarters. But that is not sufficient in itself. Technicians may struggle to get new systems up and running from the word go, let alone monitor the systems remotely and intervene as and when required.

Moreover, if the primary network (‘in band’) fails or Internet connectivity is not ensured by the service provider, the limits of standard remote maintenance are quickly reached. That’s typically an immediate problem. Getting engineers from outside to travel to remote locations is expensive and time-consuming at the best of times and has often been impossible over the past two and a half years, given the restrictions in place through the pandemic.

When you can’t easily  get an engineer to site, when repairs are difficult and time-consuming, when downtime is not an option, or even just when you need to get your systems up and running and keep them that way, that’s when a combination of NetOps (network operations), network automation and out-of-band management can be worth its weight in gold.

The Mars Lander solution

While few businesses will think about landing a module on the red planet, whenever they deploy to a new location, organisations will often need to send equipment to a “hostile” environment untrusted, unmanned and with no connectivity. That could be a mine, a marine location or simply a remote edge site, with no network engineers present. The clear challenge in this context is how does the organisation  get the new system up and running?

Today, with the latest technologies coming on stream, it is possible to send a secure NetOps server to that location to manage  this important day-one deployment, with an embedded Trusted Platform Module (TPM) chip to ensure protection of the configuration files and prevent tampering.

When the appliance “lands” at the remote site, it can ‘call home’ over a secure long-term evolution (LTE) connection and enables the deployment process to be managed via a centralised management software. Up-to-date configuration and image files can be pulled in, and standard Docker containers and Python runtime environment allow a range of automation procedures to run directly on that appliance.

From the outset of the NetOps deployment, an independent management plane, in the form of an out-of-band management (OOB) network, provides centralised management and makes certain that network equipment self-configures properly. It also gives organisations secure remote access to their network, and enables ongoing day-to-day management and remediation when issues occur.

Managing resources across remote network deployments

This simplified process also removes opportunity for human error, such as the wrong configurations or commands being entered. NetOps will always program automation routines correctly, removing the risk of incidents and downtime.

Instead of one engineer running through a unique configuration on each piece of equipment, NetOps will autonomously configure the devices, again removing the risk of human error.

Organisations can also use NetOps tools to concentrate their resource at a network operations centre effectively, rather than having to find resources to staff each site, helping them overcome the problem of a lack of engineers which is otherwise a significant concern for businesses whether they are running a remote site or operating in a mine, on a seabed or in the middle of a jungle, for instance.

Any business operating across remote locations will be especially focused on eliminating outages and keeping network downtime to an absolute minimum. Issues needing remediation can be particularly difficult to identify in these scenarios.

Delivering a coordinated response to network remediation

Smart Out-of-band management delivered as part of a NetOps deployment can plug into all of the equipment at a data centre or edge site regardless of geographical location, or level of remoteness from the main corporate network, map it and establish what is online and offline at any given time.

Alan Stewart-Brown

That enables a system reboot to be quickly carried out remotely. If that does not work, it might well be that an issue with a software update is the root of the problem. With the latest Smart Out-of-Band (OOB) devices this can be addressed, because an image of the core equipment and its configuration can be retained, and the device can be quickly rebuilt remotely. In the event of an outage, it is therefore possible to deliver network resilience via failover to cellular, while the original fault is being remotely addressed, enabling the business to keep up and running even while the primary network is down.

With this kind of approach in place, network resilience will be achievable even for the remotest network. That’s critically important when you consider that an ever-growing number of businesses today are running distributed network infrastructures and are completely reliant on these running well and operating to maximum performance. Combining Smart Out-of-Band and NetOps is an excellent way of ensuring that this happens at all times.

The author is Alan Stewart-Brown, VP EMEA, Opengear.

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