Intent-Based Networking: Marketing Hype or a Magic Bullet for Automation?

Kelsey Kusterer Ziser

While not a new idea, intent-based networking has recently made a resurgence as the technology catches up with the concept.

In a recent Heavy Reading report, "Intent-Based Networking: Automating Next-Generation Networks," Senior Analyst James Crawshaw examines whether intent-based networking (IBN) holds water as a promising approach for telcos looking to operate more efficient and automated networks, or if its worth has been bloated by marketing hype. (See Intent-Based Marketing or Intent-Based Networking?)

Crawshaw explains that according to Gartner's definition, intent-based networking (IBN) "consists of four aspects: translation, automated implementation, awareness of network state and assurance."

Really, it's about having "a very high-level, simplistic language in which you basically ask the network what service you want it to deliver," says Crawshaw in an interview with Light Reading. "In its essence, IBN is about abstracting away the lower-layer complexity of the network where you get into all the issues of interoperability between different vendors and their different interpretations of standards, etc."

Crawshaw adds that IBN also involves middleware or intelligence in the middle "that takes those high-level instructions and translates them into low-level, nitty-gritty detail that depends on the network components that you're using."

The catch, Crawshaw says, is that if it "all sounds somewhat magical," it's because IBN is not that straightforward. For intent-based networking to work on a broader scale in the network, there has to be a standardization of the high-level language used to talk to the network elements.

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Some vendors that have taken this concept of abstracting away complexity are implementing it in a proprietary way, meaning each vendor could have its own intent-based language, which would lead back to the ever-present concern over lack of interoperability.

Creating a unified solution where IBN is utilized for the WAN is likely still a few years out, as Crawshaw says Juniper's AppFormix, and offerings by other vendors like Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) are currently focused more on the data center and enterprise.

Cisco refers to IBN as the "intuitive network" or "network intuitive," and announced in June that Cisco's DNA Center "will be the command center that communicates intent to the network devices and also receives and interprets telemetry from around the network," as Craig Matsumoto reported on Enterprise Cloud News. (See Cisco Declares a New Era of Intent-Based Networking.)

At this year's Cisco Live, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins said 75,000 organizations are conducting field trials of the intuitive network, and customers can now purchase Catalyst 9000 switches for intent-based programming.

Of the IBN companies examined in the Heavy Reading report -- Apstra , Forward Networks Inc., Itential LLC, NetYCE B.V., Sea Street Technologies Inc. and Veriflow Systems Inc. -- Crawshaw says network automation startup Apstra has had the most commercial success, while the others are still "trying to find their niche."

In June 2016, Apstra had possibly as many as 20 trials in progress or in planning stages for its IBN software -- the Apstra Operating System, which was available later that summer on a subscription basis. (See Arista Co-Founder Backs Network Automation Startup.)

The key in moving IBN into service provider networks lies in creating a standard language for management of networks to eventually increase the number of layers that are controlled and decrease the number of layers of management that are proprietary, says Crawshaw. Many of the key IBN champions have joined efforts in a working group hosted by MEF , but Crawshaw says the work is still in the beginning stages, and it will be several years before it is fully implemented in the network.

In his blog post, Crawshaw writes that "none of the tools from IBN vendors is a magic bullet." While IBN is promising for furthering network automation -- and isn't just a marketing ploy -- there's still a long road ahead to simplifying service providers' complex networks.

— Kelsey Kusterer Ziser, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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