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Network automation isn't restricted to network equipment. It applies to managing unified communications infrastructure as well.
Every part of IT is being automated, and the UC network is no exception. The benefits are the same: lower costs, faster implementation, fewer errors and an increase in staff satisfaction. Another advantage, although more difficult to measure, is the ability to shift staff to strategic tasks that add more value to the organization. Case in point: provisioning. A 2018 survey of more than 300 IT professionals, conducted by Akkadian Labs, found that automation cut the time and effort needed to provision UC devices across the network.
Applying automation across the UC network
UC automation can be applied in a number of ways. An obvious place to start is to identify the area with the biggest payback. But it might be better to select the easiest function, especially if your organization doesn't have a lot of experience with IT automation.
Use what you learn in the first implementation to assure that the big paybacks are actually achieved within the expected time frames. It is also a good idea to restrict the implementation to a framework where steps can be easily achieved. It is too easy to get carried away with grandiose plans that are difficult to fulfill. This is especially important if your organization doesn't have a lot of experience with automation.
For example, you might want to launch a relatively small and self-contained automation project that centers on a website that enables end users to customize their phone buttons and update phone numbers for call forwarding.
The big payback here will likely be a reduction in the time and expense related to user provisioning -- moves, adds, changes and deletions, or MACDs. Big benefits can often be found by creating a front end that streamlines the MACD workflow.
Another upside is integrating the UC network automation system with other systems, such as those operated by HR. You may find that the HR system is a great place to put other useful information, such as an office location that can be used to populate an Enhanced 911 database. If you treat each component within MACD as a separate step, you will have smaller steps, successes and opportunities to improve the overall automation development process.
Another possible project is to automate the creation and maintenance of remote site UC configurations. Templates should be used to maintain consistency across sites, greatly simplifying ongoing administration. Avoid the temptation to make each branch site a unique design. Uniformity greatly simplifies automation.
UC security should be part of overall IT security
The UC network systems should not be an exception to IT security. Automation, when properly applied, reduces risk by using standardized settings and processes. There is less opportunity for an administrator to fumble a security setting that creates a security hole. Risk mitigation best practices address multiple attack vectors:
- Spoofing: Pretending to be an organization insider, either to another insider or to external customers. Once inside, it is easy for a bad actor to create emails that seem to be coming from a co-worker.
- Fraud: Gaining access to financial systems and redirecting funds. Phone calls, text messages or email can be used to trick co-workers into transferring funds or paying fraudulent bills.
- Eavesdropping: Theft of confidential information. Imagine a competitor being able to record all sales conference calls.
- Lateral attacks: Using the UC network system as a trusted platform from which to attack other internal systems. The typical objective is to get access to financial systems to redirect funds.
Unfortunately, smaller organizations, which often have incomplete security systems, are soft targets for bad actors. These organizations are the least prepared to lose money the bad actors are after.
Making it happen: Build or buy?
Should you build or buy? Building your own automation framework requires good software developers who have a good understanding of the objectives. This might be suitable for large companies that have the resources. It isn't the recommended approach.
Buying automation is much more feasible. It provides product continuity if a key developer should leave the project -- an automation vendor will have the backup resources necessary since its business depends on maintaining and selling the product.
That said, there are two issues that should be considered when purchasing automation. The first is if the vendor goes out of business. The second is if the vendor is purchased by another company and the product changes into something that's not what you need. In both cases, you may need to switch to a competing product. Use what you learned in the initial implementation to research the options and achieve greater improvements.