Intent-based networking (IBN) is one of the most interesting and significant trends in networking in recent years. But, like many disruptive technologies, it’s still suffering through an initial adoption phase of being poorly-defined, over-hyped, and co-opted by too many disparate networking vendors. The challenge for savvy IT leaders is to focus on realistic capabilities that are now starting to accelerate IT processes and provide greater insights into network behavior.
Starting out on the hype cycle
IBN started out well-ahead of market demand and availability of solutions as soon as Gartner coined the term in early 2017. Gartner analyst, Andrew Lerner, noted then that, “IBN will not be mainstream for several years, but solutions are now emerging that provide value in the enterprise.” The IBN vision grew out of the need for greater network automation following the partial success of Software Defined Networking (SDN) to simplify cloud deployments and virtual networking. As defined, IBN would automate the analysis and remediation of network errors, as well as intelligently automate configuration updates to align with administrators’ high-level intent.
While everyone agreed this was a worthy objective, the obvious requirement for a layer of artificial intelligence in real-world solutions that mirrored the expertise of the most seasoned network architects posed a significant challenge. Meanwhile, many vendors started to take advantage of the hype and pitch any solution that guided configurations or analysis as "intent-based," diluting the term and confusing the market.
Reasoning about network behavior
An important milestone, though, has now been reached in layering fundamental intelligence about network behavior into emerging solutions. This is a critical piece that allows the automation software to reason about either what the current network design is actually capable of doing, or what proposed changes to a network will actually enable (or break). Reasoning about the possible behavior of a network can allow organizations to proactively isolate and remove potential configuration errors before they cause an outage. Or IT teams can accelerate change windows by verifying that proposed fixes will actually work as intended in a much shorter amount of time.
Being proactive also means a much greater focus on network designs and configuration details than on tedious traffic analysis, log files or individual device alarms. The intelligence now inherent in intent-based systems can provide reasoned analysis on the end-to-end path behavior that the network allows, giving richer insight into policy alignment than waiting to watch what actual packets do.
IBN is now fully capable of shifting the network IT model from a reactive approach to problems to a proactive approach where an automated analysis of current network designs can virtually eliminate human errors and misconfigurations to avoid issues in the first place. The automation that IBN can offer is also helping to replicate the rare expertise of the critical IT engineers in diagnosing outages, documenting network requirements and verifying fixes.
Moving towards a full IBN vision
Today’s network-aware systems are focused in their domain expertise, however, as with any AI-oriented technology. Anticipating the allowed policy behavior of the network from its current implementation is an easier problem than designing network configurations from scratch that map to high-level intent. For this reason, the most successful IT organizations leveraging IBN technology are looking to automate the verification process and much less so the design process.
Some of these processes may be closely aligned with audit and compliance requirements, as well as risk management and reduction. When organizations can manage and state their policy requirements and intent, and then automate the verification that their network is in daily alignment with those policies, even after the most extensive and tedious of changes, dramatic IT improvements are possible. The next phase of IBN automation will seek to improve the intelligence around network designs and automating the configuration of individual devices from those same high-level intent statements.
Netting it out: A practical approach to IBN deployments today
The key to successful IBN deployments requires carefully setting expectations and separating hype from reality in currently available technology. Equally important is avoiding the buzzword bingo that is looking to package legacy management solutions as “intent-based” technology. Successful projects are focused today on network verification or network assurance to proactively remove network errors, rather than a self-configuring or self-optimizing infrastructure. The main benefit to network architects and IT teams may well be the automation of the most tedious and time-intensive portion of their tasks, freeing them up to add more business-value and innovation to the organization.