Firms Welcome Cisco to Intent-Based Networking, So What's That?

For one thing: "the next big thing on the networking horizon."

Cisco Systems Inc. last week announced its future direction -- intent-based networking -- as it shifts from hardware-centric to software-driven networking.

The company said the intent-based networking (IBN) approach will provide the "network of the future" and an exec referred to its IBN initiative as the company's "biggest innovation in the past decade."

Shortly after the news broke, existing players in the immature IBN space welcomed Cisco to the party, with both Apstra Inc. and Veriflow Systems immediately contacting Virtualization and Cloud Review Magazine with their views on Cisco entering the arena.

But first, what exactly is IBN?

According to research firm Gartner Inc., IBN promises to be "the next big thing on the networking horizon."

"Intent-based networking is not a product, or a market," Gartner analyst Andrew Lerner said in a February post announcing new research for IBN. "Instead, it is a piece of networking software that helps to plan, design and implement/operate networks that can improve network availability and agility. Another way to describe it would be lifecycle management software for networking infrastructure."

Intent-Based Networking
[Click on image for larger view.] Intent-Based Networking (source: Gartner).

Lerner said intent-based networking systems (IBNS) -- Gartner's own acronym, apparently -- incorporate four key things:

  1. Translation and validation -- The system takes a higher-level business policy (what) as input from end users and converts it to the necessary network configuration (how). The system then generates and validates the resulting design and configuration for correctness.
  2. Automated implementation -- The system can configure the appropriate network changes (how) across existing network infrastructure. This is typically done via network automation and/or network orchestration.
  3. Awareness of network state -- The system ingests real-time network status for systems under its administrative control, and is protocol- and transport-agnostic.
  4. Assurance and dynamic optimization/remediation -- The system continuously validates (in real time) that the original business intent of the system is being met, and can take corrective actions (such as blocking traffic, modifying network capacity or notifying) when desired intent is not met.

Furthermore, Lerner said, "Right now, it is very early days and Intent-based networking will not be mainstream for several years, but solutions are now emerging that provide value in enterprise. Startups like Apstra, Forward Networks, Waltz and Veriflow are doing some cool stuff and driving innovation, but incumbent networking vendors are working on this also."

To find out what "cool stuff" Apstra and Veriflow are doing, we asked them for more information.

"At the highest level IBN promises to improve network availability and agility, which are key as organizations transition to digital business," Veriflow exec Milind Kulkarni told VCRM. "IBN saves significant time, reduces management complexity, improves automation, reduces workload on networking teams, increases robustness of the network, improves network security and helps maintain regulatory compliance. IBN helps the network go from fragile to agile.

"IBN takes a top-down approach and starts by asking the question 'what is the desired business outcome?' and then constantly manages the network in a closed feedback loop. This approach ensures that the network is supporting the digital business, and not standing in the way."

IBN is also related to software-defined networking (SDN), another young movement with an emphasis on software over hardware. IDC analyst Rohit Mehra was quoted as saying IBN brings SDN to the enterprise level. "Although Cisco didn't talk much about SDN, they did talk about software-defined access security and automation, policy and automation, the issue of machine learning and how their security platform actually enables and empowers the network in real time," Mehra said in an SDxCentral article.

That IBN/SDN relationship was further explained by Kulkarni.

"SDN and IBN are complementary and orthogonal technologies," Kulkarni said. "SDN and IBN can be deployed together or can be deployed without the other. SDN and IBN share the goal of helping to make the network more agile. Hence the Open Network Foundation (ONF) -- the main body that drives SDN -- published the north bound interface specification for SDN to support IBN.

"SDN focuses on how to control network infrastructure. IBN focuses on aligning the network infrastructure with business goals and to constantly maintain that alignment."

However, Apstra, another startup that Gartner said is doing "cool stuff" with IBN, begs to differ on the IBN/SDN relationship.

"We don't use SDN either," Apstra CEO and co-founder Mansour Karam told VCRM about the Cisco announcement. "In my mind, SDN represents the collection of early attempts at solving what emerged as major pain points in networking: the operational challenge and vendor lock-in. Those efforts were too early, so the ecosystem was not there to support them. And because of the hype, all vendors jumped in and defined SDN in a way that suited them -- which created massive confusion. The best description of SDN I have heard is 'Still Don't Know.' For this reason, when we pioneered intent-based networking back with Apstra, we were careful not to use the term SDN. When we launched the company, some commented on social media that our approach is 'what SDN should have been.' "

The company provides the Apstra Operating System (AOS), which automates the lifecycle of network infrastructure and services, kicking into action various processes involved in fulfilling customer-declared statements of intent.

"Apstra has the only vendor-agnostic intent-based networking system generally available today," claimed Karam. "In our experience, most customers have multiple vendors in their infrastructures, and want a vendor-independent operational model."

In published research about "Cool Vendors in Enterprise Networking, 2017," Gartner said: "Apstra's goal is to dramatically improve data center network design, implementation and operation. Its intent-driven algorithms enable network architects to define high-level data center network design, then generate a mathematically verified correct design/configuration."

Key benefits, analyst Joe Skorupa said, include:

  • Improved agility and availability through replacing the "calculated guesswork" common today in network design with algorithmically derived and verified designs
  • Reduced mean time to discover and repair faults through continuous monitoring, algorithm-driven analytics and dynamic optimization capability
  • Reduced capital expenditure (capex) and operating expenditure (opex) through support of mixed-vendor configurations and optional disaggregated, fit-for-purpose switch hardware and software

Veriflow, also named a "cool vendor" by Gartner along with Apstra, offers enterprise solutions based on its patented continuous network verification technology.

While Kulkarni said traditional network approaches are characterized by their device-by-device, prescriptive and bottom-up approaches, he opined that Veriflow is unique in that: it provides accuracy of verification and risk; it's proactive, finding vulnerabilities before they are exploited; it pinpoints violations of business intent; and it provides visual interaction.

"Veriflow's product applies mathematical algorithms to improve network availability, via reducing unplanned network outages stemming from configuration changes," Gartner said. "Veriflow's software works by modeling an organization's existing data center, campus and WAN network infrastructure."

Key benefits of the Veriflow approach as listed by Gartner include:

  • Prevention of outages and/or reduction in mean time to repair (MTTR), enabled by proactively modeling configuration changes
  • Dynamic documentation of the network, which can improve troubleshooting, reduce MTTR and simplify network compliance and audits
  • Identification of security policy violations, via predicting traffic flows against the network model

In its February "Innovation Insight: Intent-Based Networking Systems" research report, Gartner summarized the IBN scene. "Intent-based networking is nascent, but could be the next big thing in networking, as it promises to improve network availability and agility, which are key as organizations transition to digital business," the report said. "I&O [IT Infrastructure & Operations] leaders responsible for networking need to determine if and when to pilot this technology."

With Cisco entering the IBN fray along with startups like Apstra and Veriflow, I&O leaders and enterprise networking managers will likely soon be under increased pressure to determine when and if to pilot this emerging technology.

About the Author

David Ramel is an editor and writer for Converge360.


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