At a Glance
Goal: Eliminate or reduce manual efforts and instead, orchestrate and automate processes used by the MSP to change, update, and maintain the networks and devices used by its customers.
Challenge: Creating new, automated processes for network device upgrade and maintenance tasks required for the large and complex networks the MSP runs for its clients.
Solution: The Pliant Platform was used to build, test and roll out automated segments of key network upgrade, change and maintenance processes.
- Improved operations by automating several network change processes previously handled manually.
- Lowered operational costs of managed network services offerings.
- Freed up skilled engineers and technicians to focus on more strategic initiatives.
A division of a top three U.S. carrier, this Pliant customer is a major managed services provider whose business is primarily focused on large enterprises and government agencies worldwide. To its clients, the MSP offers a wide range of wireless and wireline communications services and products, including managed network services, data, video, and conferencing services, network security services, local and long-distance voice services, and IoT products and services.
The MSP maintains offices in 75 countries worldwide, and makes its services available in 150 countries. To support its substantial operations, the MSP runs 200 data centers in 22 countries.
While focusing on providing top-quality services to customers in simple, secure and reliable ways, this Pliant customer provides networking and communications services that enables its clients to concentrate on their core businesses.
The Business Challenge
A significant portion of the MSPs business is providing outsourced network services to its clients. Some of those clients use the MSPs’ network, while others have the MSP manage their networks. Either arrangement leaves the MSP responsible for managing a vast number of networks, many of which are very large and complex.
In the past, when changes needed to be made in any of their managed networks, such as applying software updates or configuration changes to routers or switches, the MSP’s team would make the changes manually. The main reason for this was the unpredictable nature of how routers, switches and servers may react to any given change. With demanding customers and high-stakes SLAs, the MSP wanted a skilled engineer on hand to respond quickly if trouble cropped up.
That meant making changes required engineers to make the change one device at a time. That created a three-fold business problem for the MSP.
- First, it was inefficient — Making changes one device at a time in the MSPs client networks, which often contained many hundreds or thousands of devices such as routers, switches and firewalls, was an endless task. By the time an engineer changed the last device on his or her list, the first device on that list was woefully out of date. So, the process would begin again.
- Second, it was costly. Recruiting, hiring, and training enough qualified and experienced engineers to handle the work was difficult and exorbitantly expensive. And the costs would only grow higher when the MSP sent all these engineers and technicians on the road.
- Third, the process was error-prone. These processes involved a great deal of granular detail, with engineers needing to record things like device passwords, community strings, and serial numbers. Mistakes would be made and not noticed until the next change was needed on a device. Then, identifiers wouldn’t match up or the passwords wouldn’t work and the whole process would grind to a halt, driving up frustration and costs. Ongoing analyses of its operations highlighted the already large and growing scope of this problem, the MSP’s executives and technology leaders decided to tackle the issue head-on. Their mission was to give their network engineers and operators modern tools that would make them more effective in their jobs and make their work lives easier.
They set out to find a way to orchestrate and automate many parts of the processes its team uses to make changes in their clients’ networks. What they found was Pliant and the Pliant Platform.
To solve the change-related business challenges with its managed services, the MSP set the following priorities.
- Maximize usage and value — The automation tool should be easy to lean and use so that more of the MSPs’ engineers and technicians could build and deploy automations faster and easier.
- Empower the MSP’s team members to transform the way they work and build agile IT operations.
- Provide broad coverage and avoid ‘tool sprawl’ — Select a single, unified platform capable of creating valuable automations across not just network devices but the full IT stack.
- Ensure that the solution would deliver the best value with cost-effective features, performance, flexibility, and scalability
“We reached out to Pliant and shared with them some of the key elements we were looking for in an automation solution,” said the MSP’s SVP of Products and Services. “Ease of use, fast time to value, broad applicability, and overall cost-effectiveness were all important to us. The Pliant Platform checked every one of our boxes. It really stood out against other automation tools we looked at, so the decision was a really easy one for us.”
The Solution — The Pliant Platform
The Pliant Platform is a highly scalable and flexible, yet simple automation technology. Leveraging sophisticated automation capabilities, it orchestrates and streamlines interactions between an organization’s mission-critical platforms, services, and applications — the whole IT stack.
With its graphical approach and intuitive user interface, the Pliant Platform makes it easy to build and deploy cost-effective automations consistently. Instead of endlessly writing and rewriting scripts and lines of code, engineers and technicians can drag-and-drop the Pliant Platform’s unique, graphical ‘action blocks’ to quickly automate IT infrastructure tasks that previously were done manually.
In short, Pliant smoothly orchestrates the entire technology stack, all in a single, secure, and simple to use platform. Automation through the use of the Pliant solution saves time and money, and delivers significant operational improvements for clients.
Three Key Automations… and Counting
After successful testing of a POC in its lab, the MSPs’ team quickly aimed the Pliant Platform at several network maintenance processes in need of automation. The following are brief descriptions of these initiatives.
Device Health Pre-Check
As mentioned earlier, whenever devices in one of its managed networks needed to be changed, updated or replaced, the MSP would assign an engineer or technician — and usually teams of them to do the work. Due to worries about how some devices would behave, and the impact that may have on network operations, they would do all the work manually, one device at a time.
It was clear to the MSP’s team that in their clients’ networks, most routers, switches, optical boxes, and other devices could be automatically updated or changed. Only a small subset of devices required in-person, hands-on attention from a technician. The trick was figuring out which devices had to be handled manually, and which ones could be done automatically.
Using the Pliant Platform, the MSPs team quickly built out an automated device health pre-check process for devices. In addition to ingesting the unique identifiers for each device, the automated process also captured a range of other device data, including how long the device had been up, memory consumption, available disc space, etc.
The results of this health pre-check enabled the MSP team to focus on only the potentially problematic devices, while executing changes automatically on all others. That greatly accelerated the change process, improved the tech staff’s productivity, and reduced costs. In one client network that contained close to 1500 routers, for example, fewer than 100 of them needed in-person attention; more than 1,400 of them were updated automatically. Saving the MSP hundreds of man hours and allowing them to complete the upgrades in record time.
Changing Processes from Serial to Comprehensive
Prior to Pliant’s involvement, the MSP would exclusively use a serial process for updating or making any other changes to devices. Its team would, for example, use scripts on individual technicians’ laptops, written to handle changes to just 10 or 20 routers at a time. Each technician would execute changes to the first group, evaluate the results, make any necessary adjustments, then move on to the next group of 10 or 20. Technicians were unable to share the results easily and this approach left the MSPs on the hook for lots of manual work — data entry, code-writing, etc.
Using the Pliant platform the MSPs team quickly built an elegant automation that eliminated the serial nature of the process and replaced it with an update process capable of handling any number of devices in one fast and smooth process. For the MSP, this eliminated the inefficiencies — all the starts and stops — of the earlier approach.
Bringing Automation to Network Asset Lifecycle Management
Large customers for whom the MSP is running their expansive networks face a challenge when swapping out old gear. In these scaled-up networks, there are high numbers of routers and other devices that need to be retired as part of the normal course of business.
One might think that this de-provisioning of network gear would be relatively straightforward. In these very large networks, however, that’s not the case. Stripping of passwords and community strings, and wiping configurations off of old gear and putting them on new gear isn’t as simple as it seems — especially when you need to handle hundreds or thousands of devices at a time.
With its major clients, the MSP assigned dedicated technical resources. Those engineers and technicians build and deploy things that are specific to that client’s environment — including things like customized de-provisioning scripts. For these engineers, the thought process is “My client is Company X, so all my scripts are specific to my client and their particular environment.” The problem for the MSP was script sprawl, with no repeatability and lots of inconsistency across companies X, Y and Z.
With the Pliant solution, the MSP’s team was able to build a single process that brings automation, consistency and efficiency to the device de-provisioning process for all of its large clients. By leveraging and reusing the same automated workflows, the MSP has significantly improved its asset lifecycle management for its premier clients, while also saving staff time and expenses.
Based on these successes, the MSP is reviewing all of the IT infrastructure processes used to support its managed network services offerings, and looking for ways to streamline them using Pliant’s automation solution. One use case presently under consideration by the MSP is possibly extending Pliant’s automation into its server realm. Another is automated checking of billable assets against a highly accurate asset inventory.
With its massive infrastructure and network operations, there is no shortage of other potential applications of Pliant automation with this MSP.
This customer’s experience is a good example of how MSPs, enterprises, and organizations of any kind can use the Pliant Platform to solve stubborn network operations challenges with automation. The Pliant Platform’s simple, scalable, and flexible automation technology makes it easy to orchestrate and streamline even the most complex network-centric processes.