• 11/05/2015
    8:00 AM
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The Future Of Networking Is Watson

Forget SDN. IBM's cognitive system demonstrates the power of artificial intelligence, which will run our networks and transform IT management.

Practical AI control of networks is on the horizon. We’ll see the AI network overlay controllers likely first from boutique SDN vendors like Plexxi. AI-defined networks won’t be about automating routine tasks, programmatically managing networks or providing a platform where humans create evermore clever access policies. Instead, we’ll become teachers to machines that watch our network traffic, monitor our applications and cognitively recognize novel behavior on our firewalls.

Many, like financial services CIOs, will be incredibly resistant to handing over security to “a machine,” but we won’t have a choice. Increasing complexity of highly converged and hybrid infrastructures is creating more, not less security risk. Smaller teams of less experienced administrators, increasingly abstracted by vendor layers above the technology they manage, are barely staying ahead. The result is  numerous, brand damaging data breaches. But that’s not the biggest threat to traditional or even automated IT management. The bad guys will have learning machines too.

Today, advanced persistent threats (APT) driven by botnets and teams of resourceful engineers chip away like jackhammers at our defenses. But like all humans, their operators are biased in favor of approaches that AI won’t be. AI attacks will be based on machine learning with hundreds or even thousands of neural network-backed machines, playing billions of hands of network poker against our networks. It won’t matter that they have incomplete information about us. Instead they will routinely discover hundreds of previously unknown and completely unanticipated vulnerabilities that humans haven’t.

Human admins simply won’t be able to respond to an attacker wielding tens of thousands of demonstrated, multi-variant attacks combining zero-day and operator error vulnerabilities, AI phishing and more. Attacks might play out over minutes, days or weeks; they will be filled with decoy penetration aids and won’t tire. Worst, they’ll be much cheaper to wield. Our systems will have to respond immediately based on cognitive learning from thousands of collaborating enterprises. 

We won’t have Cisco UCS racks with Watson stickers on the bezels. Instead, we’ll subscribe to network and application security intelligence services that will manage complex algorithms and machine learning while we concentrate on infrastructure and application service delivery. IT AI vendors will publish security service-level agreements to allay CXO fear, and an industry of consultants and auditing standards will emerge. New AI security vendors will emerge based on nascent machine intelligence services with back end services from Amazon, Microsoft and Google.

Remember when the idea of putting your most valuable data offsite kept you up at night? Today we’ve accepted that virtual private clouds pose acceptable risk. With demonstrated success, we’ll do the same with AI network management because, again, we’ll have to.

IT cognition engineer

A vision of software-actuated-everything requires a small leap of futurism, but it’s not science fiction. The curious inverse proportion of increasing complexity to size of IT staff remains steady. And as with previous automation in financial services, medicine, physical security and yes, Las Vegas video poker, automation always wins. IT is no different and it’s now just a question of when, not if AI begins to manage our data centers.

What will our “config” sessions look like while we try to teach a machine that even though it determined the executive wing telepresence doesn’t really need dedicated bandwidth to manage jitter, it’s a political policy the machine will have to accept? Will we be ready when our IT systems' performance algorithms include a measurement of our performance as machine instructors?

But it’s just possible we may also be set free to so some of our most imaginative work as administrators. Machines, from the wheel to motors to AI, eliminate drudgery, freeing us to be more creative -- the actual differentiator of human intelligence. Imagine the freedom to imagine new services, new ways to delight our customers and new ways to drive business without worrying about the gorp of implementation. What if you could stand up a new application, safely, in minutes, not weeks or months?

We’re all riding careers molded by machine education. Not machines providing educational content, but routers, servers, hypervisors and cloud infrastructure. They’ve answered us in their limited ways of “yes” or “no” since the beginning of time and our skills as administrators are the result. We don’t need to fully understand the internal workings of ESX to wield hundreds of VMs, just the lessons vCenter teaches us.

If an AI infrastructure controller alerts me that it’s noticed a strange pattern of emails and file share probes that no system on earth has ever seen, I’m ok with that. And the first time AI prevents the plunder of my company’s business, the execs will be all in. 

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