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.
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!