Network Automation Can Deliver Almost Zero-Touch IT

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Automation is often seen through the negative lens of costing people jobs, disrupting career plans and depersonalising services. But there are substantial benefits. Rather than making service less personal it can ensure what customers want is delivered quickly and reliably. We took a look at Waterman Business Centres new coworking facility in Melbourne's eastern suburbs and took a dive into how they've automated almost every aspect of their network.

Coworking spaces have moved ahead a long way from the days of simply delivering a chair, desk and wireless internet connection. Businesses expect the ability to connect their own servers and infrastructure. That means today's co-working spaces need to be part facilities manager and part ISP/telco. And then you can through in the complexity of having multiple sites.

The reality is that many businesses face the same struggles.

The Service

In my experience as an IT manager, whenever I moved to a new organisation, one of the first things I looked at was on-boarding. How is a new person welcomed into the business? Does it take days to get their network connection sorted out or are they ready to work as soon as they arrive on day one?

Martin Reidy, Operations Manager at Waterman, described himself as "lazy", saying that he wanted new tenants at Waterman to be up and running with the least possible contact from IT. That meant provisioning services perfectly every time without the need for an IT team intervening at every step in the process.

Waterman offers services such as voice/telephony services with contact centre functionality, private VLANs so clients can move seamlessly from one Waterman site to another, dedicated IPv4 address ranges, the ability to connect their own routers and firewalls, dedicated bandwidth, and enterprise-grade data centre facilities.

Waterman Co-Working Raises The Shared Office Bar

Coworking facilities are big business at the moment. Rather than requiring businesses to enter long-term leasing arrangements for office space that might not be fully utilised, they allow companies to rent workspaces as they are needed. In an effort to stand out from a rapidly growing pack, Waterman Business Centres has created coworking spaces that focus on community and comfort, as well as providing business services. I spent some time at its newest centre, in Melbourne's south east.

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How It's Built

Reidy said the network is built on Extreme Networks equipment, and includes several thousand ethernet ports and in excess of 100 wireless access points.

When a new client joins Waterman, they simply tell the sales person what services they want. For example, if they want a dedicated IP address and the ability to run their own routers, internal networks and security appliances they let Waterman know. It's all entered into the Customer Relationship Management (CRM) system.

The CRM is linked directly to the network configuration systems. Once the client's payment clears, their preferences are sent to the configuration systems which create all the necessary settings and policies automatically. That process takes about 15 minutes.

Reidy says all of this is managed without any full-time IT staff. Moves, additions, changes and deletes are actioned via the graphical interface by front-of-house staff.

Homegrown Automation

The integration between the CRM and backend systems uses LDAP which is directly hooked into Extreme’s network access control. That required some bespoke software to be be created - something Waterman did by utilising into the expertise of its own clients.

Tenants of the coworking space worked with Waterman to build the solution.

“We can on-board and fully provision a new member as fast as we can enter the data in the CRM. We exist for the business owner, and there’s nothing a business loves more than hitting the ground running. We do our best to ensure that, and we’re succeeding.” said Reidy.

As the network is completely BYOD, the need for security is high. While many coworking spaces focus on the needs fo smaller businesses, Waterman also provides serviced offices with banks and branch offices for multi-nationals among its clients. That means security is about a lot more than having a strong WPA2 passcode.

“We are 100% BYOD,"said Reidy. Our members can bring their own devices, phones, printers and routers. There are no constraints on what devices are on the network".

Clients can use numerous authentication methods, including 802,1x rather than simply catering for the lowest common security denominator.

The level of integration and automation Reidy and Waterman has created is stunning. I've worked with IT teams that have automated aspects of the on boarding and network management processes but I've never seen an approach like this where there is literally no need for technical personnel.

When Reidy discussed the on-boarding of a bank with me, he said the bank's IT team expected the process to take weeks as they wanted dedicated addressing and a number of other services to ensure their infrastructure was operational in good time as well as being well secured.

The process took minutes from the moment the bank provided their shopping list of requirements and had it entered into the CRM.

While much of what Reidy has engineered is proprietary, it does highlight that it is possible to automate seemingly complex processes. To achieve that, the focus isn't on the technology but on understanding precisely what services you want to deliver and focussing on the needs of the customer.


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