What is Zero Touch Provisioning?

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The immense benefits that technology brings continue to drive an insane adoption of software tools and applications, with 94% of enterprise businesses utilizing the cloud. This is because the cloud offers the much needed flexibility and scalability for unlimited deployments.

With the overreliance on the cloud environment, what happens when your organization suffers network downtime most of the time?

Network misconfigurations are one of the leading causes of downtime. And every downtime can affect many if not all the devices connected to the network. Criminals can also exploit a poorly configured network, leading to breaches.

To streamline the IT infrastructure management, a good number of organizations are adopting zero-touch provisioning.

Zero-touch provisioning makes it possible to automate massive deployments, scale up with as many devices as possible and eliminate unnecessary downtimes.  

The adoption rate of zero-touch provisioning is rapidly rising, thanks to its benefits, including lower operational costs and increased efficiency. It’s no wonder the zero-touch provisioning market is projected to grow at 10.3% CAGR between 2022 and 2030.

We discuss the concept of zero-touch provisioning, including benefits, use cases and downsides. You will also learn what a typical zero-touch provisioning process looks like.

What is Zero Touch Provisioning?

Zero-touch provisioning is the process of preconfiguring devices to automatically load installation files, patching and updates.

ZTP eliminates the need to manually configure each device when the end user first logs in. Instead, it leverages automation and pre-configuration. This enables the devices to load the configuration settings upon powering. 

As a result, ZTP saves the time and the cost the IT team would otherwise spend deploying a thousand+ devices, for example. The outcome is efficiency and productivity as well as offering the end users a hassle-free experience.

IT teams utilize OS imaging and deployment software such as SmartDeploy to configure devices before sending them to end users. They define software requirements, policies, and settings that apply to the devices, then store them in the ZTP server.

When a user powers the device and connects it to the network, it loads a boot file that sends a request to the server (where the pre-configuration files are stored). The device then retrieves the image and configurations to run automatically.

The basic requirements for ZTP

  • ZTP-enabled network device: To enable ZTP on a device, the connection between the DHCP server, TFTP server and router must be established.
  • Dynamic Host Configuration Protocol (DHCP) server: This is a network protocol that a device uses to request an IP address and other parameters. It defines boot loader files and the required Trivial File Transfer Protocol (TFTP) server. The required TFTP server hosts the installation kernel, initial RAM disk, and network configuration files, and it must be accessible to the router.
  • File server: The ZTP file server authenticates the ZTP-enabled device to retrieve, install, and execute the configuration files.

Also Read: Network Level Authentication

The Zero Touch provisioning process [step-by-step]

Here is what a typical zero-touch provisioning process looks like:

1. Enabling zero touch provisioning on devices

Zero touch provisioning only works on a ZTP-enabled device. Hence, before the device is sent to the end user, the IT team must verify that it is ready for deployment by ensuring the following:

  • Verifying the device's IP address
  • Installing necessary driver updates
  • Registering the device serial number
  • Performing initial settings
  • Testing hardware compatibility.

2. Creating the configuration profiles

A configuration profile contains the device configuration settings, software requirements, and configuration policies. The IT administrators develop these profiles, detailing the provisioning for the device. 

The details include security configuration, application installation, network settings, and user preferences.

3. Shipping devices to end users

Once a connection between the device and its configuration files has been established, the IT admins ship the device to the end user.

4. Activating the device configuration

The Zero-touch provisioning process is automatically initiated when the user powers on the device and connects it to a network. The DHCP server receives a request to provide an IP address.

The device receives the IP address and details such as image name, TFTP server location, and configuration file name. Other network configuration details are also provided, including domain name and gateway address.

5. Retrieving the configuration files

The device uses the given details to access the ZTP file server to download configuration files and the latest operating system image. It searches the file server for running scripts, configuration files, and software updates. 

If there are any organizational policies, such as user roles and departments, the device retrieves them as well.

6. Apply the configurations

The device installs preset configurations based on the given configuration profile. The device and organizational configurations are applied, rendering the device ready to use. 

If the downloaded software version differs from the running version, the device installs the downloaded version and reboots.

7. Installing virtual apps

If the organization utilizes virtual app delivery solutions such as Microsoft Azure Virtual Desktop and VMware Horizon, necessary applications are also loaded.

8. Onboarding the user

Users do not need any additional device set up. They have access to the device and relevant features. They can start using the device.

9. Managing the device

The IT admins can remotely manage and maintain the provisioned device. Common management tasks include:

  • Applying patches and updates
  • Implementing new organizational policies
  • Monitoring device security
  • Troubleshooting the device
  • Returning the device to factory settings when a user leaves the company.

With the given zero-touch provisioning steps, IT admins can securely provision, deploy and manage devices. 

Zero Touch Provisioning use cases

Zero-touch provisioning applies to the following device types:

  • Network switches
  • Routers
  • Wireless access points
  • Firewalls

Also Read: Firewall Migration Plan

Here are some common use cases for ZTP:

1. When scaling up with batch deployment

Traditionally, deploying large-scale IT infrastructure calls for network administrators to log in to a single unit, configure settings, rinse and repeat. 

The rinse-and-repeat model is prone to errors, potentially preventing out-of-band access during critical failures.

Network administrators can leverage zero-touch provisioning for more flexibility and large-scale deployment through automation.

2. Deploying new switches to a network

Any new network deployment calls for network administrators to deploy around 50 switches. Manually configuring all the switches means you log into each switch via a console port, paste configurations from a template, and then upgrade the software.

How much time would the network admins use to configure, say, over 100 switches? What’s even exhausting is that switches share configuration settings, except the management IP address.

With zero-touch provisioning, network administrators can use a Python script to automate the deployment for all the switches. 

They can then create configuration templates for all the switches and store them in a ZTP server to automatically load during boot-up. The zero-touch provisioning reduces the deployment time for 50 switches from a day to five minutes, saving time and money.

3. Managing virtual machines (VMs)

VMs are designed to run applications and the entire operating system. Managing the VMs manually means provisioning and configuring each VM at a time. Configuring all the applications in a VM environment can be complex and error-prone.

IT admins can use zero-touch provisioning to create profiles for each VM and store them on a central server, automating the entire deployment. Once deployed, the admins can manage the VMs remotely.

Also Read:

4. Server deployment

To make a server operational, IT teams install hardware on a server rack and configure the software required for the server’s intended functionality. 

When using policy configuration to configure servers on multiple data centers, the servers can scale up to as many as 3000 servers, challenging management. 

Hence, automating the server deployment for remote management prevents deployment errors and easens server management.

Benefits of Zero Touch Provisioning 

Zero-touch provisioning is invaluable, from saving time and money to reducing IT workload and deployment errors.

Here are the top five benefits: 

1. Centralized network management

With zero-touch provisioning, IT teams can easily monitor and control device configuration throughout the organization. 

The centralized management alleviates the complexities of configuring, tracking, and managing multiple devices with varied user access requirements. 

Since the configurations are standardized, IT teams can push new policies and updates remotely without interfering with user activities.

Also Read: What is Network Infrastructure Security? 

2. Quick and efficient deployment

Manual deployments are slow and prone to misconfigurations. Zero-touch provisioning offers faster deployments by automating deployment and configuration settings. 

Since human intervention is reduced, human errors are significantly reduced. Besides, rather than waiting until the IT team configures a device, users receive ready-to-use devices, ensuring business continuity.

3. Improved security

A 2023 Data Breach Investigations Report by Verizon confirms that 74% of all data breaches are caused by human intervention. These errors include misconfigurations, delayed deployment of patches and updates, and mistakenly clicking malicious links.

Misconfigurations are prone to occur when manual deployments are involved in massive deployments.

With zero-touch provisioning, IT teams ensure devices are securely deployed by automating the deployment. As well, organizational policies, including user roles and permissions, are enforced before the device reaches the end user.

Furthermore, zero-touch provisioning allows remote patching and installation of patches, which reduces the chances of cyber attacks. 

Also Read:

4. Scalability

Organizations can execute large-scale deployments daily without the fear of risking data security. Even new devices can be added at any time, from anywhere, as this method allows remote provisioning.

5. Cost and time-saving

If zero-touch provisioning can reduce switch deployment from a day to five minutes, that’s like reducing 30 days of work to 2 hours and 30 minutes. That’s a significant time saved for the IT team.

With the improved security that ZTP offers, you significantly reduce the chances of incurring losses resulting from data breach.

Downsides of ZTP

Although the benefits of ZTP are numerous, there are also downsides associated with it. These two downsides are the most common that we have constantly seen:

1. Security risks

Zero-touch provisioning demands a high level of security to protect all connected devices. This is because all devices can access the same network, and remote devices may have less protection. 

If, say, a man-in-the-middle attack occurs between any of the devices, the connected devices risk a data breach.

Also Read: What is Account Takeover: Prevention and Protection Strategies

2. Potential misconfiguration

If the configuration files are not debugged properly before storing them in the central server, they risk organizational data. 

This is because misconfigurations may occur, leading to security issues that can compromise connected devices.

Also Read: Common IT Challenges 

Zero Touch Provisioning vendors — examples

In case you might be wondering which zero-touch provision solutions standout, here are a few options to start with:

1. Cisco

Cisco’s ZTP feature focuses on reducing manual tasks such as deployment and upgrading for Cisco devices. It uses a combination of DHCP, Linux Guest Shell Container, and Python to configure devices automatically during boot-up.

2. Juniper Networks

Juniper ZTP focuses on automatically provisioning new Juniper Networks devices with minimal human intervention. It utilizes network ports or management ports to connect a device to the network.

3. Arista

Arista ZTP is a solution built to leverage Arista’s Extensible Operating System (EOS) to provide network infrastructure without human intervention. 

It focuses on automating switch configuration for scalable clouds and data centers.

4. Citrix

Citrix ZTP is a managed solution that allows new appliances in the SD-WAN network to be discoverable. 

It focuses on streamlining the deployment process of Citrix SD-WAN on the cloud and on-premises.

5. Anuta Networks

Anuta Networks provides a proper multi-vendor, zero-touch provisioning solution that utilizes a DHCP-based approach. 

It automates various processes, including deploying patches, updating software images, fixing bugs, and deploying Day-0 configuration templates.

Zero touch provisioning vs one-touch provisioning vs plug-and-play (PnP)

Zero-touch provisioning is undeniably a critical requirement for automating device deployment and configuration. But how different is it from one-touch provisioning (OTP) and plug-and-play (PnP)?

One-touch provisioning (OTP) entails the provisioning of a device using device IDs. The provisioning server listens to requests to see if the provisioning ID (PID) matches the provisioning passphrase (PPS) to authenticate the provisioning.

PnP(Plug and Play) provisioning is a template-based and coe-centric platform. This simply means that it allows you to copy whole extracts of a site (including content) to deploy it to an existing site.

Hence, PnP and OPT involve human intervention and have limited automation capabilities while ZTP offers massive deployment automation without human intervention.

 
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