A look at some players in an emerging market that aims to radically transform how networks are built and managed.
Like it or not, intent-based networking has become the top buzzword in the industry. While software-defined networking used to dominate conversations in networking, today vendors and practitioners are talking about intent-based networking, and debating its promise of fully automated networks.
Incorporating machine learning and analytics, intent-based networking is touted as revolutionary technology that fundamentally transforms networking to support cloud adoption and digital initiatives. But some, including networking guru Ivan Pepelnjak, have dismissed it as marketing spin.
The buzz around intent-based networking kicked into high gear last summer after Cisco unveiled its intuitive network strategy. Others, notably startups such as Apstra, were already talking about intent-based networking, which Andrew Lerner, research VP at Gartner, had identified six months earlier as the "next big thing" in networking.
So what is intent-based networking? At a high level, it generally means a system in which the end user describes what the network should do and the system automatically configures what's needed to carry out that intent, or policy. IBN systems use declarative statements -- what the network should do – rather than imperative statements that describe how it should be done, Dan Conde, senior analyst at Enterprise Strategy Group, told me in an interview. A declarative statement could say, for example, that certain systems should be kept separate from other systems, and the system figures out how to do that, he said.
The goal is to use a graphical user interface and get away from time-consuming, tedious device-by-device configuration using CLI, as well as the scripts that some networking pros use for network automation, Conde said. "It's not a revolution that will happen overnight. It will take a few years to be realized," he said.
Indeed, intent-based networking is very much an emerging area. While Gartner set out clear requirements for IBN, others hesitate to draw such clear lines. IDC describes it generally as leveraging "machine learning, cognitive computing, and deep analytics capabilities to provide greater levels of programmability, automation, and security integration while reducing time spent on manual network configuration and management." But the firm hasn't defined the elements that constitute intent-based networking because the architecture is still high level and covers a broad swath, from data centers to campus networks, Rohit Mehra, VP of network infrastructure at IDC, told me.
"It's going to be a mix of wired and wireless infrastructure, and definitely a control element that has intelligence to make automated decisions," about bandwidth, QoS, and security, he said.
Mehra describes intent-based networking as built on SDN principles, but implying more power to the enterprise IT user by aligning the network with business goals. Automation is key, he said.
"We're all looking for automation in this day and age, when IT resources are scarce. We need to rise up to more strategic tasks, rather than the mundane job of looking at packets and trying to figure out what's going wrong with my network," he said.
Conde said a handful of vendors, including both startups and established networking suppliers, take various approaches to intent-based networking. Cisco takes a broad approach, while companies like Veriflow have a narrower take. Juniper Networks, meanwhile, tends to favor a different term: the self-driving network. There are also some emerging startups such as Itential and Waltz Networks.
"They are all trying to achieve the same goal," Conde said. "Networking pros can't ignore it."
Here's a look at a few vendors that play in this emerging space.
Apstra launched its Apstra Operating System for data center networks in June 2016. AOS uses intent statements to automate design and deployment of configurations across multi-vendor networks. Executives tout the ability to work across heterogeneous networks as a key differentiator.
In January, the company launched AOS 2.1 with "intent-based analytics." IBA is designed to enable customers to verify their networks are operating as they intended and quickly detect problems to avoid outages. IBA extends the closed-loop continuous validation capability in AOS beyond connectivity to every aspect of networking, including performance and security, Apstra CEO and Founder Mansour Karam, told me. For example, operators could deploy pre-defined probes to detect traffic imbalance between leaves and spines, or when links are reaching saturation. Customers can also create custom probes.
Karam said Apstra's 2016 launch was followed by "intent washing" and bristles at Apstra being grouped together with companies like Veriflow, which he says are very different.
Stanford Professor David Cheriton, who co-founded Arista Networks, is a fellow founder and serves as chief scientist.
(Image source: Apstra)
Cisco made a big splash when it launched its awkwardly named "The Network. Intuitive" initiative in June, effectively making intent-based networking the dominant topic in the industry. The launch focused on enterprise networking with a DNA Center management dashboard, new Catalyst 9000 switches, and security analytics. Since then, Cisco has expanded on its IBN initiative, announcing updates to its Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI) platform for data center networking that it said makes it easier for users to implement IBN, including multi-site management and Kubernetes integration. Cisco said its ACI software-defined networking platform, combined with its Tetration analytics software, provides the ability to implement intent policies across the data center network.
Last month, Cisco unveiled assurance capabilities across its IBN products, designed to continuously verify the network is operating as intended. The goal is to spot problems sooner, avoid outages, and reduce troubleshooting time. In data center networks, the Network Assurance Engine integrates with ACI to build a mathematical model of the network and provide assurance. For campus and branch networks, DNA Center Assurance collects and correlates data from multiple sources, including Apple IOS devices to provide network insight. Meanwhile, Cisco is adding Meraki Wireless Health to its cloud-managed WLAN, providing visibility and analytics.
(Image source: Cisco)
Forward Networks calls its software as "the search and verification engine" for intent-based networking by verifying intent is met. The startup, which launched in November 2016, uses formal verification to make a copy of an enterprise network in software in order to spot policy violations or misconfigurations. It's also designed to allow network engineers to test changes before deployment to avoid problems.
Founded by Ph.D. students who helped develop OpenFlow while working in Nick McKeown's research group at Stanford, Forward Networks has raised about $27.5 million in funding.
Last fall, the company began offering a free version of its software, Forward Essentials, to users with less than 50 devices in their network.
(Image source: Forward Networks)
Juniper Networks has been talking about what it calls the "Self-Driving Network" for a while now. In an email, Kireeti Kompella, SVP and CTO for Juniper's engineering team, described self-driving networks as going beyond intent-based networking " by taking the heavy-lifting aspect of network operation out of the hands of IT staff.
"A Self-Driving Network is able to self-configure, monitor, manage, correct, defend and analyze network traffic with no human intervention. Machines make decisions based on artificial intelligence algorithms that that adapt and get smarter over time. Over time, the network changes, situations change and customer requirements change, so it’s important to adjust and optimize for the new state of the network," he wrote. "Intent-based networking, on the other hand, is more specific to how the end-user specifies his or her intended outcome from a series of tasks on the network."
In December, the company says it took a major step towards its visition by launching applications that leverage its Contrail SDN platform and AppFormix cloud operations management technology to automate network management tasks. Juniper Bots use analytics to translate business requirements (intents) written in natural human language into automated workflows.
Juniper is also developing the E2 SDN controller on top of its Contrail platform to provide intent-based networking to service provider networks. E2 is being developed as an open source project, as is Contrail. Tasks like service assurance and maintenance will be automated, no longer requiring human intervention, Juniper engineers wrote in a blog post last summer.
Veriflow Systems launched its network verification system in 2016. The software applies mathematical verification to the network to verify network policies are carried out as intended and avoid outages and security breaches. In a blog post last summer, Veriflow Co-Founder and CTO Brighten Godfrey said network verification is a stand-alone entry point to intent-based networking.
"In intent-based networks, it’s more important than ever to automate understanding of the network, so that our speed of understanding matches the speed and complexity of network control," he wrote. "The emerging field of network verification provides a way to do that, rigorously validating whether intent matches operational reality. In fact, since verification can be deployed in a passive manner network-wide across existing multi-vendor infrastructure, without affecting hardware or operational procedures, it’s a practical and low-risk way to get started in intent-based networking."
In September, Veriflow expanded its platform so that it supports hybrid cloud environments.
(Image source: Veriflow)