I recently caught up with Eddie Chan (CCIE/CISSP), a Sr. Network Architect at Nordstrom, who shared his experiences with StackStorm, an open-source automation and orchestration platform. Although StackStorm has long flown under most folks’ radar, it’s been a game-changer for Nordstrom. Offering a centralized and mature solution for handling network automation tasks. In this article, we’ll dive into the key features and benefits of StackStorm based on Eddie’s insights. Whether you’re a network engineer or simply curious about network automation, let’s explore how StackStorm can transform your most tedious workflows.

StackStorm: From Semi Commercial to Fully Open-Source

I first encountered StackStorm several years ago when it was still a commercial product owned by Extreme Networks, having been acquired from Brocade. However, StackStorm is now fully open-source, with the entire platform — including the “Workflow Composer” graphical user interface (GUI) — available for free. This shift (back) to completely free and open-source made StackStorm an even more attractive option for Nordstrom, especially considering its powerful features and ease of use.

Building a Mature Automation Environment

For Nordstrom, network automation is not just about individual scripts running under someone’s desk. They needed a more scalable and sustainable approach. StackStorm proved to be the perfect solution, offering built-in features like role-based access control, audit trails, and centralized management. These capabilities provided Nordstrom with a more mature and reliable automation environment.

User-Friendly; from Administrators to Developers

StackStorm caters to a wide range of users, from entry-level admins to seasoned developers. Non-coding users can leverage the GUI, allowing them to point and click to build automated tasks and conditional workflows without any coding knowledge. On the other hand, developers can fully utilize StackStorm’s framework, which provides guidance on script placement and library management within virtual environments. This flexibility makes StackStorm a valuable tool for network engineers with varying skill sets.

Orchestration Made Easy

One of StackStorm’s standout features is its orchestration capabilities. Users can create workflows and combine individual tasks to build complex automation processes. The GUI allows for seamless flow creation, defining sequential steps or introducing conditional checks between tasks. With StackStorm’s workflow-oriented design, orchestrating network operations becomes a breeze.

Integration with Slack for ChatOps

StackStorm goes beyond automation and integrates with popular tools like Slack for efficient communication. Nordstrom leverages StackStorm to receive and process requests from Slack. For example, users can request health checks on specific store locations by simply typing a command in Slack. StackStorm processes the request, executes the necessary automation tasks, and provides a response back to the user in Slack. This integration streamlines communication and empowers teams to interact with their infrastructure effortlessly.

Automatic Ticket Handling and Troubleshooting

Nordstrom relies on StackStorm to handle various types of tickets, eliminating the need for manual intervention. For instance, when a new ticket is created in the ServiceNow ticketing system, StackStorm’s sensor automatically detects it and triggers the corresponding automation. This streamlined approach saves time and reduces errors by automating tasks such as blacklisting wireless clients based on provided MAC addresses. On tickets that can’t be resolved automatically, StackStorm ensures that critical information is gathered and recorded, simplifying troubleshooting and enabling more efficient ticket resolution.

Adoption Challenges and Training Efforts

To ensure that I don’t cause any undue imposter syndrome in readers who are struggling to deploy widespread network (or other) automation in their organization, it’s worth noting that everyone has challenges in this area. While Nordstrom has been successful in implementing StackStorm, they face challenges in terms of adoption across the organization. Many engineers and administrators are already occupied with their existing tasks and hesitate to add automation to their skill set. Others have their own favorite tools and are reluctant to switch over. Eddie and his team work closely with other teams, providing training and assistance to help them get on board. And the top-down support from Nordstrom’s management has been instrumental in driving adoption and promoting the benefits of network automation.

Future Developments and Usability Enhancements

Eddie envisions making StackStorm even more user-friendly, extending its usability beyond technical experts to essentially any employee at all. To this end, his team has developed an even more user-friendly GUI front-end that allows completely non-technical users, such as project managers, to interact with StackStorm’s automation capabilities seamlessly. This approach facilitates adoption by providing an intuitive interface and abstracting the underlying technical complexities almost completely – making it truly intent-based.

The Bottom Line

I came away from my conversation with Eddie Chan very impressed with the level of network automation maturity at Nordstrom. And I was excited to learn more about the role StackStorm has played in revolutionizing their network automation efforts by providing a mature, centralized, and open-source platform. From its powerful workflow orchestration capabilities to seamless integration with tools like ServiceNow and Slack, StackStorm streamlines network operations and enhances collaboration. I, for one, think it’s worth a look for anyone planning to automate their network.

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