Intent-based networking: Essential for digital transformation?

Underpinning every digital business is a digital network, and according to Gartner, unless some drastic changes are made to the way those networks are operated digital transformation will stall.

Gartner estimates that by 2022, the percentage of enterprises deeming networking to be core to their digital initiative success will increase to over 75 percent, compared to less than 25 percent in 2017.

“Since enterprises' digital business initiatives rely on agile, robust connectivity, networking will become an increasingly critical enabler for such activities,” Gartner says.

According to Silicon Valley startup Apstra, the solution to making those networks mdash; in the data centre at least mdash; the efficient enablers of digital transformation and digital businesses is something called intent-based networking.

Apstra's founder and CEO, Mansour Karam, told a NetEvents conference in San Jose that intent based networking meant that “as a user, the way you interface with the system is by describing your desired outcome, as opposed to describing the specifics of how you want to get it done.”

He argued that networking had not kept pace with the demands of digital transformation.

“Eighty-five per cent of networking teams today still operate their networks like they did in 1995, essentially, manually, box per box, using command lines which are [arcane] and specific to every hardware vendor,” Karam said.

Trying to embrace digital transformation and IoT while operating the network in the same way as in 1995 was, the CEO added, “the equivalent of wanting to build the house of your dreams, yet being unwilling, or unable to invest in a proper foundation. It’s not a great idea.”

Karam claimed that Apstra’s network operating system, AOS, release 2.0 of which came out in early October, was the first vendor-agnostic intent-based networking OS for the data centre that supports integrated physical and virtual networks.

In its announcement of AOS 2.0 Apstra said: “AOS automatically prevents and repairs network outages for dramatically improved infrastructure uptime. It operates a network as one system, massively improving infrastructure agility while reducing operational expenses.

“AOS’ distributed data store is a repository of all intent, configuration, and telemetry state, and hence acts as a single source of truth for your network.”

Intent based underpinned by APIs

Karam said he and his cofounders started Apstra in 2014 “because we knew APIs were coming and the pain point was growing so it was the right time to get in and build a proper system that leverages those APIshellip; We didn't have APIs five years ago, so automating the network would have been almost mission impossible. Today we don’t have these issues. Today the programmability is there. It's a matter of building the right software - and the pain point is huge.”

Karam compared intent-based network to a self-driving car: “You get in and you just tell the car where you want it to go. That's intent based. You may also have some opinions. You may say, on your way to work, if my laundry is ready, I'd like to pick up my laundry along the way. Your car should be able to include that constraint as part of its algorithm in terms of delivering on your intent. That's intent based.”

At the core of AOS, Karam said, is a distributed data store that is a repository of all of the states in network infrastructure and that captures all of the relationships between the physical environment, the virtual environments, the logical entities and all of the telemetry.

“Once you do that you have an ability for the software to powerfully reason about the state and to provide the deep visibility to the operator as to what's going on in their network, both of which are critical to delivering on the vision of an autonomous infrastructure.

“Doing this properly, involves layering in all of the abstractions so that the majority of the code is vendor agnostic and the only vendor-specific components are what we call device agents that are experts in the specific devices that they're controlling.”

He claimed an intent-based network could deliver massive improvements in agility, and massive reduction in network outages and operating expenses.

“We know that 80 percent of outages are caused by human error. We know that organisations spend $3 to $4 on network operating expenses every dollar of network capex, and 80 percent of that opex is on manual operations.

“And you can refocus your engineers. Instead of your engineers spending 80 percent of their time running mundane tests manually, they can retrain, hone their skills to become instrumental to the areas of the business that are more strategic to you.”

Intent based according to Cisco

Apstra is not the only vendor talking up intent-based networking. Network market leader Cisco in June unveiled its intent-based networking products hailing the move as “one of the most significant breakthroughs in enterprise networking” and “the culmination of Cisco's vision to create an intuitive system that anticipates actions, stops security threats in their tracks, and continues to evolve and learn.”

The new network, was, Cisco said. “the result of years of research and development by Cisco to reinvent networking for an age where network engineers managing hundreds of devices today will be expected to manage one million by 2020.”

Juniper appears to be playing down the idea, despite championing a similar concept under a different name. At the time of Cisco’s announcement Juniper’s senior director of strategic marketing, Mike Bushong, wrote a somewhat sceptical blog post on the subject of intent based networking.

In January this year Computerworld reported on Juniper’s vision of what it called a self-driving network, one that would be able to “self-discover network elements, self-configure, self-monitor and self-correct, auto-detect customers, auto-provision to meet their requirements and to self-analyse and self-optimise.”

Apstra meanwhile plays down the threat of competition from established players, claiming its solution to be superior. Head of marketing, Mari Mineta Clapp, told journalists at NetEvents, that Apstra partnered with all the major networking vendors.

“In some cases they will go in and say to customers and say ‘we know you want that, but buy this from us instead’, but when the customer gets to the point and says ‘wait, that is not going to work’ those same people bring us in.”

The author attended the NetEvents conference as a guest of NetEvents


Copyright © 2017 IDG Communications, Inc.

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