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Network automation and intent-based networking: A primer

Intent-based networking offers engineers intriguing network automation benefits, if it can deliver on promises and separate itself from the hype.

Intent-based networking, or IBN, could redefine how applications and services are delivered within enterprise networks. But before that happens, the concept must separate itself from marketing hype and begin to actually deliver on promises.

Throughout the existence of computer networks, from ARPANET to the current day, network administrators have managed networks using command-line interfaces. CLI remains a constant, even as attention shifts to new management and networking software approaches that use machine learning, artificial intelligence (AI) and other methods as a foundation. In fact, Gartner research indicated 75% of organizations still manage their networks manually.

Instead of complex scripts, intent-based networking allows engineers to use GUI-based tools to abstract the many complex technical steps underpinning how services are delivered. The intent is then interpreted across different devices, without engineers having to individually alter each device in a network.

The emergence of intent-based networking

For now, intent-based networking is primarily a transitional technology. To that end, the methodology risks being defined primarily by marketers, and on a case-by-case basis, rather than by engineers or standards bodies. The result, for now, is a variety of interpretations and little standardization or interoperability among offerings.

Intent-based networking and its associated network automation software must meet a number of important requirements in order for the concept to really gain traction. First and foremost, according to analyst John Fruehe, IBN must enable communications between servers and applications and allow systems to decide how to run highly routine tasks. Intent-based networking must also treat networks as a single entity, with interoperability a critical consideration.

Additionally, intent-based networking will require the evolution of robust artificial intelligence -- something that's lacking in networking today. Building and distributing policies isn't enough to fuel autonomous network automation.

Network engineers and where they fit it in

Because intent-based networking uses both machine learning and AI -- permitting an environment where the network, in effect, can be self-managed -- a popular misconception is engineers will no longer be needed as companies begin to deploy IBN within their operations.

In fact, engineers are needed just as much, albeit to perform a different set of tasks in retooled networks.

That's because intent-based networking is only as good as the intent set. Although an IBN might be free from command-line errors, errors in logic or scope can still occur. As a result, instead of writing configuration scripts, network engineers will need to carefully determine intent.

To do that, engineers will need to focus as much on what the network is intended to deliver as they do now to understand how an application delivers a service to users. An intent-based network hinges on policies that dictate how the network intelligently configures the underlying infrastructure to respond. And to do that, engineers must understand how the software driving IBN works, not necessarily how to code or program the software itself.

Open source options and intent-based networking

One big challenge for intent-based networking and network automation is building software that engineers can write once and run anywhere. Initiatives such as the Open Networking Foundation, OpenStack and the OpenDaylight Project are working on network automation software projects in this area.

However, coding an intent-based network is a much more complicated task than writing a RESTful API to conduct automated device provisioning. It's a very different proposition to develop a vendor-agnostic interface capable of configuring end-to-end service delivery even as an application's behavior changes second by second.

Cisco's DNA and intent-based networking

In June 2017, Cisco captured a lot of attention for a new line of campus switches and associated network automation software that many media outlets and analysts described as the first major IBN announcement by a legacy vendor. The new Catalyst 9000 switches and Digital Network Architecture software console bring policy-based management and other automated functions to the campus.  Cisco said its ultimate goal is to create a foundation capable of automating policies and configuration across the entire WAN, with integration of switching and related components a crucial first step.

Apstra, which is pitching a vendor-agnostic network operating system that can be used to deliver intent, meantime, announced an upgrade of its software in October. The upgrade, among other new features, allows companies to deploy overlay networks on top of existing legacy foundations to enable automation and abstraction across the entire network.

Veriflow added a confirmation engine to its software though which network engineers can ensure their networks are configured as imagined.

IBN vendors will be working hard to persuade enterprises to adopt software and systems engineered to support intent-driven management. At the same time, organizations will also have to take a fresh look at how they manage and train their engineering staff to exploit the efficiencies an intent-based networking architecture may yield.

Next Steps

Software-based networking, automation should free up network managers

How can network admins fit into software-based networking?

How does machine learning benefit networking?

This was last published in October 2017

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