Intent-Based Networking: Nascent but Hurdles Remain

M. Fratto

• Intent-based networking (IBN) promises to optimize network operations by shifting IT from a configuration focus to an outcome focus.

• The promise may be a stretch today but IBN is evolving as a technology and a practice and improvements will come from early adopters.

IBN faces significant technical and operational challenges in gaining market acceptance within enterprise IT. The challenges start with defining and understanding what IBN is, but then quickly progresses to include things such as organizational and technical implementation.

Currently, I define IBN at a high level as a dynamic system in which IT can describe a desired set of outcomes from a network and, given a topology and knowledge of connected nodes, the IBN provisions the configuration end to end. An analogy for IBN would be the network engineer. A business line manager tells the engineer what they want. The engineer figures out how to reach that goal, or tells you why it can’t be achieved, implements the configuration in the most efficient way they can, and reports back with the results. The business line manager doesn’t need to know anything about networking, CLI, protocols, or the other details.

I don’t think the industry is anywhere close to a point where the desires of a business line manager can be reliably translated into network configurations. I do think we are at a point — evidenced by companies like Apstra, Cisco, and NEC, to name a few — where network engineers can off-load the configuration details to a IBN system, reducing the engineers workload and improving configuration quality and consistency. The success of any IBN will be highly dependent on a strong willingness of IT to let go of the configuration reins, the IBN product, the existing network products in use by the company, the technical experience of the networking staff.

Those four aspects: 1) company commitment to automation; 2) the IBN system; 3) the network; and 4) IT experience are all dependent on each other and any intent based strategy. Consider the scope of what IBN promises — intelligent network provisioning across multiple systems.

Ethan Banks from Packet Pushers presented ‘Automating Workflows’ at the InteropITX Future of Networking Summit and he used an example of what it takes to perform a seemingly simple task like adding a VLAN to an enterprise network. Seems easy enough, right? Ethan came up with over 21 steps, most with sub-steps, covering everything from number selection, switching, routing, IP address management, (DNS and DHCP), firewalls, IPSec VPN, load balancers, and so on.

For networking professionals, adding a VLAN is so well understood it barely warrants a change control process because there is a person making dozens of decisions every step along the way. Codifying ‘add a VLAN’ into a set of automated steps is a much bigger challenge. And we haven’t even gotten to the thornier issue of how the network discovers which devices are connected to which port, in order to provision the VLANs on-demand.

Evaluate IBN to augment your networking staff and to automate the repetitive, low hanging fruit which can consume too much of your staff’s time. Be aware that these products will evolve over time as vendors get more feedback from early adopters and integrate more products.

What do you think?

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