Intent-based networking systems: More questions than answers
Intent-based networking systems promise a new way to deliver network services. But the concept needs to be fine-tuned before it can usher in a new era of network automation. In a hyper-converged system, networking is still a missing link Network hardware components scrutinized as apps move to cloud. Phil Gervasi said he loves the idea behind intent-based networking. But that doesn’t mean Gervasi, a network engineer at a large pharmaceutical company in the Northeast United States, is even close to being ready to deploy the methodology. IBN — in essence telling the network what you want rather than telling it exactly what to do — could redefine how applications and services are delivered across networks, even as it ushers in evolutionary technologies like artificial intelligence and machine learning. Gartner, for one, estimated more than 1,000 companies will have intent-based networking methodology in production by 2020. But to be successful, the approach will have to deliver on promises and separate itself from hype. Central to intent-based networking systems is automation. Manual steps performed by IT — usually via a command-line interface (CLI) — currently program the switches and scores of other devices underpinning enterprise networks. Instead of using a CLI, IBN abstracts those configuration requirements via a graphical user interface through which users can plot their intentions — and the network does the rest. By harnessing intent as well as context — that is, taking into consideration the application, the user and the user’s device — IBN could prove to be a formidable network management tool, proponents say. For Gervasi, the lure of intent-based networking is simple: It’s not a new technology. Instead, it’s a new way to exploit the tools engineers already have at their disposal. “Adding that abstraction level hides some of the complexity” that modern networks possess, he said. “With intent-based networking, you can add your business requirements, and then the network knows what to do. But it’s just another abstraction level. It’s not a new technology under the hood; instead, it’s a new paradigm of how to implement it.” That being said, implementing IBN at his employer’s network isn’t something Gervasi sees happening anytime soon. “We like the concept, but we have no desire to play with beta equipment for the next few years,” he said. Vendors taking different positions with intent-based networking systems Even as engineers like Gervasi evaluate IBN, vendors are jockeying for position. A few companies — among them @Apstra, @ForwardNetworks and @Veriflow — have already released software that companies can use to automate and authenticate their operations. But it was @Cisco’s announcement in June — unveiling a new #DigitalNetworkArchitecture ( #DNA) that automates configuration policies for a new line of campus switches — that kick-started the market. Soon after, other legacy vendors, including @Juniper Networks, @Hewlett Packard Enterprise and @BigSwitch Networks said they, too, would introduce #IBN software and components. Most of these initiatives remain in trial or very early production phases, leaving the industry to determine how valid intent-based networking will be in the real world. You need to automate things. And in this world, you can either automate around arcane language and technology, or you can automate it around what the business is trying to do. John Fruehe independent analyst The percolating interest in IBN comes as little surprise to John Fruehe, an independent analyst who has followed the methodology’s development. ”For the longest time, you’ve had complexity in the network, but you have had people who were trained and specialized to handle that complexity,” he said. “But what’s happening now is that particular model doesn’t scale well; networks are more complex than ever before, and no one can know everything. You need to automate things. And in this world, you can either automate around arcane language and technology, or you can automate it around what the business is trying to do.” No IBN standards or specific work processes yet But intent-based networking, like every other new methodology or technology, still needs to sort itself out, Fruehe and other market watchers say. For one thing, placing intent across an entire network — whether it’s ensuring that switch A is really talking to switch B or ensuring that a critical application receives the top quality of service priority — isn’t easy. Myriad network components and operating systems have to be considered. And harnessing all of them under a single IBN umbrella is a formidable undertaking.