Managing with intent

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If you were asked to compile a list of significant IT trends over the last few years, technologies using artificial intelligence and machine learning figure prominently. But, the benefits of these technology trends applied to the world of business networking has been slow to evolve. This is especially the case with networking management which, even with the advent of software defined networking (SDN), remains a slow, inflexible and still largely manual task, putting it very much at odds with the needs of the fast moving digital business.

That, however, could be changing, with Cisco putting its weight behind a radical new approach dubbed intent-based networking (IBN). Claiming it to be the most ambitious re-think of networking in its history, the aim of IBN is to make the network a more agile, resilient and secure resource, by effectively enabling it to manage itself.

Good intentions

So what exactly is intent-based networking all about and why are independent analysts Gartner and IDC, among others, tipping it as the next big networking trend?

To answer those questions we have to first understand what’s meant by the term ‘intent-based’ and a good way of doing that is to compare networking with driving a car.

At present, network management and driving are both input-based which, in the case of a car means using the accelerator, clutch and brake to manage vehicle speed, the steering wheel to control direction and the indicators to signal to other road users. On a network, manual input is, similarly, needed to configure, monitor and manage things like switches, routers, load balancers and firewalls to make sure that traffic always gets safely to its intended destination and in a reasonable time, regardless of conditions.

The similarities, however, don’t end there, as cars and networks both require skilled operators and could both benefit from becoming more automated. With cars that’s already started, with lane assist and collision detection systems, for example. More than that, fully autonomous vehicles are well on the way to becoming a reality, at which point driving will switch from being input-based to intent-based, where you simply tell the car where to go and leave it to the technology to work out how best to achieve that end.

Unfortunately networking services are still stuck in the car park. And parked there despite numerous initiatives and technologies designed to automate management processes. A big reason for this is that networking has been hampered by a silo-based mindset when it comes to making different technologies work together. In essence, while vendors may have cracked basic interoperability issues, they have yet to make it easy to share higher level information about network traffic, application loads, security and so on that would enable the network to behave as a whole and adapt to changing conditions without the need for constant manual supervision.

It’s this lack of synergy that IBN is designed to address. To enable the network to be as autonomous and agile as a driverless car and able to automatically translate business intent - things like application service levels, compliance requirements and so on - into the policies required to make the supporting infrastructure deliver what the business needs. More than that, when fully implemented, IBN will also enable the network to use context and analytics to learn and adapt to what’s going on across the infrastructure. To, for example, change QoS policies during periods of heavy video conferencing activity, for example, or automatically disable ports when a malware attack is recognised, and so on.

The benefit of intent

So that’s what we mean by intent-based, and it's easy to understand why the concept is gaining momentum. Not least as companies move away from the self-contained data centre, towards hybrid infrastructures spanning both the cloud and on-premise platforms. A trend which may lead to more agile IT but, in terms of network integration and management, just adds more silos to the mix. Managing a hybrid, multi-cloud, network is a full-time job and that’s without growing pressure from new technologies, such as the Internet of Things and the adoption of microservices and containers. All of which are making it clear that the time has come for a different approach.

As confirmed by Gartner and IDC, intent-based networking is that approach and the timing certainly seems right. Especially given the growing maturity of supporting technologies, such as data analytics and machine learning, which are essential if network management platforms are to understand what’s going on and to take action in a proactive manner.

Put these technologies together with increased awareness and use of open APIs to drive process automation and orchestration platforms, and it doesn't take a genius to work out that all the parts are ready to come together. This brings us to the all important matter of what vendors are doing to turn this intent-based model into deliverables.

Beyond intention

The good news is that some progress has already been made, as might be expected, with Cisco taking the lead and positioning its products as a means of building the required framework. The fact of the matter, however, is that Cisco can’t do it all alone and for intent-based networking to deliver on its promises, every part of the network needs to be ready and able to take part, regardless of who makes it and regardless of whether its on-premises, in a co-lo data centre or the cloud. It also requires vendors to put more effort into developing open APIs to enable their products to share information and, equally, for customers to abandon their reliance on inflexible legacy appliances. Instead, they must adopt newer software-based technologies better suited to the modern digital world in which they operate.

This will all take time, but interest in the approach is growing and momentum behind its practical implementation building. So while intent-based networking may not be fully formed right now, it’s definitely on its way and could be coming to a network near you sooner than you might expect.

David Moss is Regional Director, Western Europe at Avi Networks
Image Credit: Flex

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