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Using Data from Your Network

Chapter Description

In this sample chapter from Network Automation Made Easy, you will learn data preparation and visualization techniques to derive value from data collected on enterprise networks.

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Data Visualization

Humans are very visual. A good visualization can illustrate a condition even if the audience does not have technical knowledge. This is especially helpful for alarming conditions. For example, you do not need to understand that the CPU for a device should not be over 90% if there is a red blinking light over it.

Visualizing data can help you build better network automation solutions or even perceive the need for an automated solution. However, automation solutions can also build data visualization artifacts.

There are a number of tools that can help you visualize data. For example, Chapter 1, “Types of Network Automation,” discusses Kibana, which can be used for log data; Grafana, which can be used for metric data; and Splunk, which can be used for most data types. There are also data visualization tools specific for NetFlow or IPFIX data; for example, Cisco’s Tetration. This type of flow data is typically exported to specialized tools to allow you to visualize who the endpoints are talking to, what protocols they are using, and what ports they are using.

Say that you want to visualize the CPU utilization of routers. The best data gathering method in this scenario would be model-driven telemetry (but if telemetry is not available, SNMP can also work), and Grafana would be a good visualization choice. Grafana integrates with all kinds of databases, but for this type of time-series data, InfluxDB is a good fit. The configuration steps would be as follows:

  • Step 1. Configure a telemetry subscription in the router.

  • Step 2. Configure a telemetry server (for example, Telegraf) to listen in.

  • Step 3. Store the data in a database (for example, InfluxDB).

  • Step 4. Configure Grafana’s data source as the database table.

The resulting visualization might look like the one in Figure 3-3, where you can see the millicores on the vertical axis and the time on the horizontal axis.

Figure 3-3

Figure 3-3 Grafana Displaying a Router CPU Utilization Graph per Minute

This type of data visualization could alert you to the need for an automated solution to combat CPU spikes, for example, if they are occurring frequently and impacting service. Many times, it is difficult to perceive a need until you see data represented in a visual format.

Although data visualization is a discipline on its own and we only touch on a very small part of it, there are a couple things to have in mind when creating visualizations. For one thing, you should choose metrics that clearly represent the underlying status. For example, for CPU utilization, typically the percentage is shown and not cores or threads. This is because interpreting a percentage is much easier than knowing how many cores are available on a specific device and contrasting that information with the devices being used. On the other hand, when we are looking at memory, most of the time we represent it with a storage metric (such as GB or MB) rather than a percentage. Consider that 10% of memory left can mean a lot in a server with 100 TB but very little in a server with 1 TB; therefore, representing this metric as 10 TB left or 100 GB left would be more illustrative.

Choosing the right metric scale can be challenging. Table 3-3 illustrates commonly used scales for enterprise network component visualizations.

Table 3-3 Data Visualization Scales



CPU utilization

Percentage over time

Memory utilization

Specific storage in time (for example, GB)

Disk operations

Operations over time

Network traffic

Specific transmission over time (for example Gbps)

Another important decision is visualization type. There are many commonly used visualizations. The following types are commonly used in networking:

  • Line charts

  • Stat panels/gauges

  • Bar charts

Your choice of visualization will mostly come down to two answers:

  • Are you trying to compare several things?

  • Do you need historical context?

The answer to the first question indicates whether you need multiple- or single-line visualizations. For example, if you want to visualize the memory usage of all components within a system, you could plot it as shown in Figure 3-4. This line chart with multiple lines would allow you to compare the components and get a broader perspective. In this figure, you can see that the app-hosting application is consuming more than twice as much memory as any other running application.

Figure 3-4

Figure 3-4 Virtual Memory Utilization Graph of All Components in a Container

If you simply want to see the memory usage for a single component, such as a router or an application running on a system, you do not need to pollute your visualization with unneeded information that would cause confusion without adding value. In this case, a single-line chart like the one in Figure 3-5 would suffice.

Figure 3-5

Figure 3-5 Virtual Memory Utilization Graph of Sensor Assurance Application

Both Figures 3-4 and 3-5 give you a chronological view of the metric being measured. If you do not need historical context, and you just want to know the status at the exact moment, you can use panels or bar charts instead. For example, Figure 3-6 shows a point-in-time view of the Figure 3-4 metrics.

Figure 3-6

Figure 3-6 Current Virtual Memory Utilization Bar Chart of All Components in a Container

When you do not need a chronological understanding of a metric and you have a single component to represent, the most commonly used visualization is a gauge or a stat panel. Figure 3-7 shows a point-in-time view of the Figure 3-5 metric.

Figure 3-7

Figure 3-7 Gauge Representation of the Current Virtual Memory Utilization of Sensor Assurance Application

A way to further enhance visualization is to use color. You can’t replace good visualization metrics and types with color. However, color can enhance good visualization metrics and types. Color thresholds in visualizations can enable quicker insights. For example, by defining 80% memory utilization or higher as red, 60% to 79% utilization as yellow, and 59% or less as green, a visualization can help an operator get a feeling for the overall status of a system with a simple glance at a dashboard.

In some cases, you might want to automate a data visualization instead of using a prebuilt tool. This might be necessary if your use case is atypical, and market tools do not fulfill it. For example, say that a customer has an ever-growing and ever-changing network. The network engineers add devices, move devices across branches, and remove devices every day. The engineering team wants to have an updated view of the topology when requested. The team is not aware of any tool on the market that can achieve this business need, so it decides to build a tool from scratch. The team uses Python to build an automated solution hosted on a central station and that consists of a tool that collects CDP neighbor data from devices, cross-references the data between all devices, and uses the result to construct network diagrams. This tool can be run at any time to get an updated view of the network topology.

3. Data Insights | Next Section Previous Section

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