Intent-Based Networking And Why You Should Care

There is a lot of buzz these days around intent-based or driven networking:  a “smart” topology that possesses the capability to monitor overall network performance, identify issues, and solve problems automatically without manual intervention. The question is, is it real or just a pie-in-the sky reference architecture that is years away from reality? What are the benefits? Intent-based networking promises to bring many benefits to organizations of all sizes. All IT administrators want better access control, massive scalability, security and multi-vendor device management. The latter consideration is the most compelling in my mind—the ability to manage hundreds to thousands of heterogeneous devices on a network as an aggregate, and do so with speed, automation and simplicity. Is intent-based networking a rehash of software defined networking? As I discussed in a previous article, software defined networking or SDN is a series of network objects (switches, routers, firewalls) all deployed in a highly-automated manner. Intent-based networking leverages the capabilities of SDN but marries it to intelligence. There are a dozen or so companies that are focused on intent-based networking solutions today, and I’ve spent time with executives at three to learn more about their vision for the platform.
Who should you keep an eye on?
Anuta Networks is focused on up-leveling network orchestration. Network orchestration is the notion of separating network services from the hardware components in order to highly automate processes. With its NCX platform, the company boasts it can orchestrate devices from over 35 leading network vendors by leveraging open architecture standards. NCX can provision services, scan network devices, and alert IT administrators to potential issue resolution. The company is having early success with installations, including Telstra, and most recently at F5 Networks, with its Silverline DDoS protection service. The depth of device support is impressive, and I think Anuta’s leadership’s Cisco DNA provides a solid foundation for future success.
Forward Networks offers a compelling set of capabilities and an innovative pricing model.  Founded by four Stanford PhD graduates, the company delivers two products: Forward Enterprise and a toolset called Forward Essentials. The enterprise product consists of a three-pronged approach: search for instant access, verify for intent-based scalability, and predict to model how change could impact the network. In essence, the solution creates a software copy of the network that can be modeled and tested without harming the production network. What I also like about Forward Networks is its “freemium” pricing model. Customers have full access to the solution during a 30-day trial, and at the conclusion have the ability to manage 50 network devices at no cost. Each additional device is priced at $2 per month. That’s a no-brainer for a smaller company and equally compelling for larger enterprises. Apstra has taken an operating system approach to intent-based networking. The company promises to automate the entire lifecycle of network infrastructure and services with self-configuration, healing, and defense. This entails the use of process automation, telemetry, analytics and validation. The resulting benefits can result in improved scalability, control/ visibility, and flexibility with respect to the ability to use devices from multiple vendors. I think it is an interesting holistic approach, and demos with Facebook and Cisco Systems earlier this year point to its longer-term potential. While I haven’t met with executives, I did attend the live stream event Cisco conducted in mid-June to announce its intent-based networking solution. Cisco may be a little late to the party, but it was certainly a watershed event that endorses the viability of the platform, given their 30+ years in networking leadership. Punctuating the launch, an executive stated that the underlying capabilities represent the biggest networking innovation in over a decade. The principal of my firm, Patrick Moorhead, wrote a comprehensive overview and analysis of the Cisco offering that can be found here. From my perspective, intent-based networking is in the very early stages of its evolution but it is a compelling platform that moves networking topology from legacy hardware to a more agile software defined implementation. As machine learning and artificial intelligence advance, intent-based networking systems will become smarter and more predictive. Do you remember the famous line from the first Terminator movie? “Skynet begins to learn at a geometric rate. It becomes self-aware at 2:14 a.m. Eastern time, August 29th, 1997”. That statement may have been nearly 20 years premature to the day, but let’s ensure that intent-based networking is used for good!  
Will Townsend

Will Townsend manages the networking and security practices for Moor Insights & Strategy focused on carrier infrastructure providers, carrier services, enterprise networking and security. He brings over 30 years of technology industry experience in a variety of product, marketing, channel, business development and sales roles to his advisory position.