Last week at Cisco Live, the company outlined its vision for the next generation of networking and network analysis tools with something called intent-based networking, or IBN. The concept behind an intent-based network is that it is a closed-loop system that uses the data generated and machine learning to turn intent into actions. For example, a network manager might want to put all clinicians in a hospital into a secure zone. Instead of having to touch hundreds or thousands of network devices, he or she would simply issue the intent and the network would do the heavy lifting.
A good analogy to understand the difference between network automation and IBN is to consider what is happening with automobiles. A feature like parallel-park assist can automate a task that many find complicated, but the driver would still need to know where to park and whether it was permitted. With an autonomous car, the driver would issue the intent, like "drive home" and the car would figure out the rest. Once the vehicle got close to home, it may choose to parallel park or not, depending on the data. If the street is going to be cleaned that night and therefore no parking is permitted, the car should park elsewhere. The key is that intent is turned into action based on the data that it has.
Many network managers I've talked to about this have looked at this with a skeptical eye and wondered if IBN is the death knell of the network engineer. But I understand how one could feel that way. The networking professional has been the Jedi Knight of enterprise IT for years. The ability to fly through CLI commands, cutting, pasting and scripting with the precision of a surgeon is something to behold. Networks are hard to architect and often harder to manage, and only the best of the best could run large-scale networks. Intent-based networking automates all of those tasks, so it could certainly be a threat to the people that perform them today.
The fact is that this thought process is completely incorrect. What threatens some network engineers is an unwillingness to change. The digital era has arrived, and businesses need to move with speed. That means IT needs to be operate at a pace that is uncomfortably fast and requires new network analysis tools. The network, in particular, is highly rigid and has long lead times for change because operations require manual tasks that need to be repeated on a box-by-box basis. Network operations already struggle to keep up with the pace of DevOps. Project to when IoT, the cloud and mobile crank up by orders of magnitude, and network operations won’t be able to keep up.
Another factor to consider is that digital transformation requires greater cooperation between the IT department and lines of business. My research has shown that a tight partnership exists between business and IT leaders in every successful digital organization. The network is the resource that sees all and touches all, and it is incumbent upon network operations to actively try and lead change and drive innovation. But they can't do that if they're spending time updating ACLs, VLANs and applying patches to the operating system.
The best advice I can give to network engineers is to consider all of the tasks they're doing today. If they're doing things that don’t add to their resumes and skill sets, then they shouldn't do them. Automate those tasks instead. Cisco's intent-based networking system should be considered the network professionals’ best friend, as it will fully automate mundane and repetitive tasks and let them focus on building new skills that will set them and their companies apart from the competition. Don't fear intent-based networking and emerging network analysis tools, embrace them and reap the rewards.
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