What is intent-based networking?

Cisco has jumped into the intent-based networking market

intent based networking Cisco
Gerd Altmann (CC0)

Cisco this week jumped head first into the intent-based networking market, saying the technology that uses machine learning and advanced automation to control networks could be a major shift in how networks are managed.

But what exactly is intent-based networking?

+MORE AT NETWORK WORLD: Why Cisco’s new intent-based networking could be a big deal +

Gartner Research Vice President Andrew Lerner says intent-based networking systems (IBNS) are not new, and in fact the ideas behind IBNS have been around for years. What’s new is that machine learning algorithms have advanced to a point where IBNS could become a reality soon. Fundamentally, an IBNS is the idea of a network administrator defining a desired state of the network, and having automated network orchestration software implement those policies.

“IBNS is a stark departure from the way enterprise networks are managed today,” Lerner explains in a research note describing IBNS. “Currently, translation is manual, and algorithmic validation is absent… Intent-based networking systems monitor, identify and react in real time to changing network conditions.”

Lerner says IBNS have four characteristics:

  • Translation and validation: One of the key tenets of IBNS is its ability to translate commands from network administrators into actions the software performs. The idea is that network managers define a high-level business policy they want enforced in the network. The IBNS verifies that the policy can be executed.
  • Automated implementation: After a network manager defines the desired state of the network, the IBNS software manipulates network resources to create the desired state and enforce policies.
  • Awareness of state: Another key component of IBNS is its gathering of data to constantly monitor the state of the network.
  • Assurance and dynamic optimization/remediation: The IBNS constantly ensures the desired state of the network is maintained. It uses machine learning to choose the best way to implement the desired state and can take automated corrective action to maintain state.

In a nutshell, IBNS is about giving network administrators the ability to define what they want the network to do, and having an automated network management platform create the desired state and enforce policies.

Cisco, along with a handful of startup companies, have laid out product roadmaps to create IBNS platforms, but Lerner says none of them has a full-fledged IBNS product on the market yet. IBNSes are meant to be hardware-agnostic, although certain vendors, like Cisco, may make products that are integrated with their own hardware.

Lerner expects, given the nascent nature of IBNS, that it may not be mainstream until at least 2020. In the meantime, he believes IBNSes are best implemented in pilot and proof of concept deployments. “We anticipate that adoption will be pragmatic, associated with new build-outs and/or network refresh initiatives,” he notes. “Early rollouts will likely be for well-defined and specific use cases, such as a spine/leaf data center fabric or WAN edge infrastructure.”

Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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