The way we construct our digital infrastructure has changed substantially. Virtualisation heralded a shift that lead businesses to the cloud and we now are in the era of containerisation and the ability to scale in and out to dynamically meet the needs of businesses. The next phase of that shift will be intent-based networking, where network managers will define the preferred state of their network and use automation and machine learning to keep the network operating in that state.
The availability of programmable switches, streaming telemetry and machine learning are the key drivers, said IDC research director Rajesh Ghai, at the recent NetEvents global summit held in San Jose.
Intent based networking starts with a declaration of intent of what the system needs to look like. Then, the network is designed to meet those needs and appropriate software controls and automation are implemented to support those needs.
"Intent based networking is software that sits on top of your network infrastructure and allows to you operate that system as one system, and not box to box," said Apstra's founder and CEO Mansour Karam.
He added that the core of this technology is abut defining the preferred state of the network and using "powerful" automation to keep your system at an equilibrium. With 80% of outages caused by human error, he said, this can increase system reliability and better manage the associated costs, at scale.
It also means staff can be redirected into more strategic tasks, rather than the manual operations typically used to manage networks.
The network is purpose built for specific applications and kept operating optimally for that, added NetFoundry's Galeal Zinio.
Aside from the ability to improve reliability, Cisco's Prashanth Shenoy said security is part of the low-hanging fruit that intent based networking delivers. Most security experts agree that network segmentation is important for ensuring threat actors are prevented from moving laterally through an organisation. Intent based networking means the connections between systems can be dynamically assigned as needed and then automatically disconnected when not needed.
Dell EMC's Jeff Baher said the ideas behind intent based and application specific networks aren't new. But the ability to execute these has evolved. With the increased diversity of systems, caused by the proliferation of cloud services and the retention of on-prem systems has made the need more urgent.
Shenoy said one of the big challenges are the skills required to successfully deploy and intent based network. While in the past, maintaining your network in the preferred state required significant manual intervention, network management, DevOps and other skills, there is a challenge in integrating all those functions effectively.
Cumulus Networks' JR Rivers says the intent systems, that drive this, need to know how to manage each component. The challenge here is that some operating systems and platforms are standardised whereas others are proprietary. For this reason, he doesn't see a future where there is a standardised model for deploying intent based and application specific networks.
Each deployment will, while having common features with other deployments, will be unique based on the specific components and applications different businesses use. Mansour agreed, saying most businesses have a mix of several key vendors.
The journey towards intent based and application specific networks is nascent, said Zino. He expects this will follow a similar model to how VoIP evolved. While there are some standards that define the lower level of the stack, such as APIs and protocols such as SIP, there will continue to be differentiation at the higher level, where specific services and needs are delivered.
Rivers noted that while intent based and application specific networks have been around for a while, there's been disappointment and distrust as it's not been easy to understand what is going on with the tools. Baher said that while networks are often too large for individuals to manage, the systems that are put together to manage these systems are designed by people. Over time, this will change, suggesting that perhaps we are entering what Gartner calls the 'trough of disillusionment' in their hype cycle.
Where does this fit in with SDN (software defined networks)? Rivers said that while the full promise of SDN was never delivered some benefits were realised. In a sense, intent based and application specific networks represent an evolution on SDN.
When it comes to the cost, it's clear that investing in intent based and application specific networks will require significant resources. Rivers suggested the only way a CFO will support that investment is if CIOs are prepared to reduce their own budgets. Baher added that service providers will need to invest in order to maintain their relevance and deliver on what the next wave of customers will demand.
Anthony Caruana attended the NetEvents Global Media and Analyst Summit, held in San Jose, California.