Much has been said in the past few years about the benefits and drawbacks of intent-based networking (IBN). However, the concept of network visibility has been absent from the discussion, despite the critical role it plays when adopting IBN and software-defined networking (SDN). Automation and IBN abstract the underlying complexities of a network. While these technologies make networks easier to operate, they can leave operators with less understanding of how the systems actually work. Therein lies the problem. Without comprehensive visibility into the network, Network Operations (NetOps) teams struggle to establish whether or not their intent-based policies are effective, verify those policies are working appropriately, and gather the insight and understanding needed to troubleshoot IBN issues and failures.
IBN allows network administrators to set policies for the desired state of the network; then automated network orchestration software will implement those policies without further human interaction. The idea isn’t new, but network management automation has recently become increasingly common with the adoption of SDN and IBN in certain parts of the network. IBN is still largely considered an early-stage technology, but Gartner estimates that it will become “mainstream” by 2020.
While the move towards more automation in the network has many positives, it also decreases the NetOps team’s understanding of their network. There’s been a lot of research done over the last 30 years about the impact of automation. The results show that when users are no longer immersed in the daily, hands-on tasks of maintaining a system, that they have a reduced understanding of it. And when failures or errors occur in the automated system, it becomes more difficult for that system to recover. To overcome these challenges, IT and NetOps need to start to invest in next-generation network performance management and diagnostics (NPMD) tools. These solutions are designed to offer insights and visualizations from multiple network data sources that help network operators better understand, manage, and troubleshoot the infrastructure and applications that make up their complex IT environments, IBNs, or SDNs.
How exactly do next-gen NPMD capabilities help with IBN? We know that as this technology continues to mature and the use of automated systems grows, failures at various levels are inevitable. These failures can be caused by errors in human design and development, errors introduced around how a system interprets “intent,” or errors due to any number of unanticipated scenarios. When these failures happen, if the operators don’t have an understanding (i.e., visibility) of what the system is doing (or can’t recognize the issues), it takes longer to remediate the problem and restore the system to operational status. Therefore, granular network visibility plays a critical role in IBN and SDN planning, management, and troubleshooting.
There are other reasons that network visibility is important to IBN initiatives too. Human beings still need to set the policies that the IBN follows. If they don’t understand how the “intent” will impact network and application performance (or the other issues it can cause), then how can they be expected to adjust the policies (or the intent) correctly? If they can’t monitor the network over time, they won’t know if the automated policies are working as planned. This is especially important since users also need to build up that trust in their automations. Providing a way to verify and understand the policies helps to increase trust, which in turn increases the adoption and deployment of IBN.
Finally, IBN and SDN can create a network fabric that allows for the creation of virtual networks, but most legacy network management platforms lack the necessary integrations to understand these new constructs. This makes end-to-end troubleshooting for application issues difficult as the traffic hits the fabric and virtual networks, often creating a black hole for operations. Many SD-WAN vendors offer built-in monitoring solutions, but these only cover their fabric. What NetOps really needs is an end-to-end view of traffic entering and exiting the multi-vendor environment.
Gartner predicts that IBN will initially be deployed in phases over time and during this transition, enterprises will have hybrid networks that will be even more challenging to manage. As IBN evolves and SDN reaches broader adoption, NetOps will begin to demand better ways to see, analyze, and control the network for faster problem isolation and resolution. Visualizing complex data in simple, intuitive views delivers a more efficient way to do this.