Technology-led automation has fundamentally changed how businesses operate. Companies are using technologies like robotic process automation across their networks and security infrastructure and inside their call centres to improve efficiency, reduce human error and lower operational expenses. By automating functions on network devices, for example, people no longer have to perform time-consuming tasks.
No doubt, CIOs and other c-level tech execs are saddled with shrinking budgets and increasing demands from business users, and are turning to networks that are secure, automated and ready for multi-cloud. Certainly, with disruption transforming and impacting all industry sectors, businesses need to be able to weave automation into the workplace and prepare for the future.
Tech leaders discussed how automation has transformed their organisations during panel sessions at the Juniper Nxtwork 2018 events in Melbourne and Sydney.
Melbourne-based Luther College has automated activities around cyber security and is also experimenting with internet-of-things technologies to create smart classrooms. Luther College has 1,200 people connected to its network and it’s crucial that it is secure inside and outside, says director of IT, Christopher Topp.
“Up until recently, we sort of got the sense that it was a bit of a losing battle if we didn’t employ machine learning in some way, shape or form. We essentially send a lot of telemetry to the cloud and do constant 24x7 analytics to determine what’s going on in our network.
“Then we have automated procedures to remediate or isolate devices if they are seen to be a risk for suspicious behaviour. We don’t cut off complete functionality, we allow authorised applications. One of the things about education is that we try and build agile and critical thinking among students and part of that is to give them flexibility to have a play and let them do what they need to do.”
Luther College is also using internet-of-things (IoT) technologies to create ‘smart classrooms’ – environments where students can more easily absorb information and learn.
“There’s a sweet spot in education called the ‘zone of proximal development.’ [Optimal learning] can come down to the temperature of rooms, air quality and all of those sorts of things. If we can get the balance right and look at feeding that information into a front end … to visualise how people are learning.
“We can also cross reference this information with some of the metrics that we get from the cloud around the use of applications and we can also see whether there’s risky behaviour going on due to threats in the outside world.”
Topp adds that Luther College is also toying with the idea of ‘checking a couple of devices’ to profile students in the classroom. “So basically, we know where they are meant to be, we can validate whether they are there or not and that information can be sent back to the system that manages attendance,” he says.
Between now and 2020, NBN is moving from a build organisation to an operational company. Automation is playing a big role during the building of this massive broadband network across the country. Most of the automation that has been rolled out by the company has been about ensuring the national broadband network can scale, says NBN’s principal architect, technology innovation, Carolyn Phiddian.
“The scaling experience within the NBN has just been phenomenal; we are now connecting homes at roughly 50,000 per week. It’s logistically huge and we’ve put a lot of effort into the automation of the processes associated with that,” Phiddian says.
NBN is rolling out ‘every kind of access technology for telecommunications’ including satellites, fixed wireless, and HFC, says Phiddian. “With all of that, we get a lot of demands for different things so we really need to understand how to best isolate, monitor and make changes [to the network],” she says.
“Certainly we are doing some of that using machine learning techniques. One of the areas that we are very active with at the moment is collecting and characterising data from the copper network. Copper is particularly ‘multi-parametered’ – depending on whether it’s wet, how long the loop is or whether there are good or bad connections.
“It’s so important that we are able to guarantee speeds … and for us it’s about delivering each service well. While we have started with automation, we’ve got a much longer way to go.”
Long term, NBN would like its network to be ‘self-healing’, where manual and repetitive tasks – such as configuration changes– are automated, enabling the company’s operations staff to focus on higher value tasks,” Phiddian says.
Long-standing Australian CIO Peter Nevin recalls when automation software was used for data replication between two physical sites when he was CIO at an IVF group with 12 clinics around Australia. It wasn’t particularly clever, says Nevin, but there was one particular time when it proved to be extremely useful.
“Everything we did was to make sure we were capturing in real-time patient data. When I say everything we did, I am talking about human gametes being joined together in an embryology lab, creating an embryo and within a few seconds, having critical patient identification data replicated to another location just in case there was an interruption,” Nevin says.
At one stage, the IVF organisation had a fire at one of its sites.
“It started in a tenant’s server room in the building. It spread to our tenancy destroying much of our Sydney based clinic. It was at that time that I realised the true value of the automated data replication we had put in place. The automated replication ensured we had a reliable offsite copy of all data.
But it [the data replication worked] and suddenly, you understood that Prior to putting this in place we had people doing that process manually and occasionally it would fail. wouldn’t work … so It was truly reassuring to know we had a reliable copy of all the clinic’s data at an offsite location. So the [replication] was very important at the time.”
In what is perhaps a more impressive use of automation technology, the IVF clinic also provided parents with a mobile application that enables them to view their embryos growing in real time, much like an embryologist would do several times a day. The clinic had previously attached a camera to an incubator, which enabled the embryologists to view how the embryo was progressing at any point in time during the day without having to remove it from the incubator. This was a very labour-intensive process, Nevin says.
“The technology behind that is not too difficult, if you have the image, it’s easy to hand on. But I found it a really interesting lesson in the difference between the technology and the actual effort in implementing it [for] people who are going through a very emotional time in their life,” Nevin says.
“While the technology was clever, it turns out that the structure around that in terms of people that were available for consulting … was the largest part of the project.”
The automation project worked well – 95 per cent of the parents who went through the IVF process said they would prefer to look at their embryos online rather than asking the embryologist how it was progressing.
“So it did turn out to be a success,” Nevin says.
Up until recently, cloud computing infrastructure provider Zettagrid’s staff were spending too much time manually provisioning network services, which prevented them from focusing on more value-added tasks, says network manager, Simon Dixon.
“It’s been a three-year evolution finding the tools and getting the guys to use them. The other challenge was that we had a very ageing network – we bought a bunch of kit, it was fantastic and doing the job … but the architecture for the equipment was 10 years old,” he says.
With new automation tools in place, staff have a ‘single source of truth’ when they provision new services, he says.
“[Staff] are not making the same mistakes; they are not taking customers offline and everything is running more smoothly. Our ‘level 3 guys’, those people with the greatest skill sets are freed up to do more innovation, more high value jobs – stuff that they are actually employed for such as product development and [rolling out] innovations [that provide] new revenue streams,” he says.
Automation has played a big role in the development of data centre operator NextDC’s AXON service, a virtual interconnection platform that provides high performance connections between clouds, carriers and data centres.
“NEXTDC data centres are the connectivity hub of choice for the world’s largest cloud platforms and Australia’s leading carrier and ICT service providers and any organisation that is in the business of on-selling cloud services. What’s important for them is that their services, the connections that underpin their business, are always available. In some instances they could be carrying thousands of customers and interactions, so it’s imperative their critical services are always on” says NEXTDC Head of Network Operations, Hugh Macready.
Automation in particularly useful during the change management process, he says.
“We have found a balance between what needs to be automated and what doesn’t and we carry out rigorous testing every time we make a change, ensuring it hasn’t affected anything else. That’s an important part of automation,” commented Hugh.
Macready adds that staff are no longer up late at night making configuration changes for customers on the other side of the world.
“We want customers logging into their connectivity portal, hitting a couple of buttons and a change happens almost instantaneously. We are focused on doing what matters most for our customers, and one of those things is making sure that the network is easy to use and their experience is seamless – automation helps us to achieve that,”