Intent-based networking – giving the network some smarts

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A relatively new term has appeared in the software-defined networking (SDN) firmament recently – intent-based networking (IBN). What is it? It is the next stage in the evolution of network software management and uses machine learning and innovative orchestration to reduce the complexity of managing networks.

In general terms, IBN utilizes networking middleware as a substitute for intelligence that was previously only provided by networking engineers and administrators. Utilizing IBN means network administrators can work from a more top-level standpoint, and simply tell networks what their “intent” is, i.e. what tasks and policies they want the network to perform and implement. The IBN then configures the network hardware to carry out these tasks.

IBN is adaptable too. For example, if the network needs a new firewall adding or a WAN link creating, then the IBN will change with it to preserve the “intent” the IT administrator laid out.

This frees up network administrators to focus on instant responses and other business-critical tasks rather than their time being consumed implementing policies.

Greater control

Intent-based systems can give IT administrators even further control over the network, allowing them to set rules whereby only specific employees are able to access and utilize particular data. In terms of security, IBN employs machine learning to automatically enforce security policies and maintain network consistency.

The introduction of IBN perhaps points to a bigger shift in network management: IT managers and administrators can look forward to a world where they manage less individual devices and have more focus on a central, globally managed policy which can govern the entire network. IBN is also scalable in ways that traditional network management is not.

Where does it add value?

According to Gartner, IBN is best explained as a piece of networking software that enterprise IT departments can use to plan, design and implement or operate networks with improved availability and agility. Gartner further breaks IBN down into four core elements, which include:

  1. Translation and Validation: The system takes a higher-level business policy (what) as input from end users and converts it to the necessary network configuration (how). The system then generates and validates the resulting design and configuration for correctness.
  2. Automated Implementation: The system can configure the appropriate network changes (how) across existing network infrastructure. This is typically done via network automation and/or network orchestration.
  3. Awareness of Network State: The system ingests real-time network status for systems under its administrative control, and is protocol- and transport-agnostic.
  4. Assurance and Dynamic Optimization/Remediation: The system continuously validates (in real time) that the original business intent of the system is being met, and can take corrective actions (such as blocking traffic, modifying network capacity or notifying) when desired intent is not met.

Intent-based benefits

IT managers and administrators are always looking for ways to make their lives – and the lives of their end-users – simpler. They want better access control, a high degree of scalability, security and multi-vendor device management. IBN could be a real boon in this last instance, as it could give the ability to manage thousands of heterogeneous devices on a network more quickly and easily than ever and with automation at its core.

Is intent-based networking just SDN under a different name?

It is more like the next iteration of SDN. Where SDN comprises a series of network objects such as switches, routers and firewalls, all deployed in an agile and automated way, IBN takes the capabilities of SDN and adds extra smarts. IBN as an idea has been around for a while, as goal-based policies existed back in the late 1990s – but there wasn’t the platform on which to run it. SDN acts as an enabler that lets IT managers and administrators enjoy genuine “intent”.

Coming soon

In summary, IBN is about giving network administrators the ability to define what they want the network to do, and having an automated network management platform create the desired state and enforce policies. IBN is in its early days at the moment and will take some time until it becomes mainstream. But as an approach, it looks like one that enterprise networking managers will need to begin thinking about.

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Steve Harris

I’ve been writing about technology for around 15 years and today focus mainly on all things telecoms - next generation networks, mobile, cloud computing and plenty more. For Futurity Media I am based in the Asia-Pacific region and keep a close eye on all things tech happening in that exciting part of the world.