Intent-Based Networking: What Is It and Will It Usher an Era of Agile Networks?


As networking gets more complex, over-dependence on manual configuration and management is turning out to be a bottleneck. Admins are increasingly looking for technologies that can replace manual handling of network configuration and network issues. In Intent-based networking (IBN), they have found a solution that leverages machine learning (ML) and cognitive computing to allow more automation with the larger goal of aligning business intent with network intent. 

Just when we didn’t think the business world couldn’t move any faster, 2020 carried the bar to a whole new level. Companies recognize that they must be flexible to react to changing environments that grow more unpredictable every day and seemingly overnight. Because technology is infused within nearly every facet of the business, IT is like a faucet that CIOs are now responsible for turning on to unleash innovation. The network is the artery distribution that feeds innovation to the many business units scattered across highly complex hybrid architectures. The prevailing truth today is that the agility of your network determines the agility of your business.  

When the Network Is the Bottleneck

There is no doubt we’ve come a long way over the past twenty years on the back of computer virtualization. Today, server admins can fire up a virtualized server in a manner of minutes to host the application that drives business processes. End users can self-provision their endpoints on demand without waiting for IT. Storage virtualization allows us to carve out virtual drives from physical storage pools from across the network, providing us highly resilient and shareable storage volumes without the complexity of SCSI and RAID configuration.

But just like the days when one would upgrade the components of their desktop computers to obtain greater speed and performance, there always seems to be a remaining bottleneck. You could double the RAM, upgrade your CPU or install a NIC card, and there was always something that still held you back. Maybe it was the I/O rate of your hard drive or the bus on your motherboard. For many networks today, the holdup lies within the network itself. Many of those virtual servers are still tied to physical network hardware and topologies. Where there is hardware, there is a technician assigned to it performing some manual process. While a manual transmission may prove nostalgic for a car enthusiast, a manual-dependent network infrastructure doesn’t cut the mustard in today’s era of automation. Scalability doesn’t have the time to wait for manual labor. What we need is to speed up the last component of the three-legged stool – the network itself.

Learn more: Open Source vs. Closed Source Network Automation: Which Path Should You Take?

What Is Intent-Based Networking?

In 2017, Gartner coined the phrase, intent-based networking. They defined IBN as “software that helps to plan, design and implement/operate networks that can improve network availability and agility.” They also referred to this technology as “the next big thing on the networking horizon.” Sounds like a lofty prediction. Well, according to Gartner research, a full IBN implementation can reduce network infrastructure delivery times by 50% to 90%, while simultaneously reducing the number and duration of outages by at least 50%.  

IBN sets out to reverse the network/admin relationship in which legacy networks rely on manual intervention and configuration. IBN transforms this hardware-centric manually driven model into one in which a software orchestrator governs the network, monitoring the performance and enforcement of policies to achieve predicted performance levels. Think of it as a proactive approach to network administration rather than a reactive one. The administrator manages this orchestrated controller, but not someone that governs configuration settings. IBN allows admins to define the desired network state as an outcome that aligns with a specific business objective. The software controller then processes how to achieve this desired state through artificial intelligence and machine learning. 

To put it into simplistic brevity, IBN translates intent into policy and configuration settings. Business intent can now equate to network intent. Not only does an intent-based network deliver policies and configuration changes to achieve stated outcomes, but it verifies them and makes adjustments if necessary.  

IBN Seems a Lot Like SDN

You might say that IBN sounds a lot like software-defined networking (SDN), and you would be right. Think of IBN as the next evolutionary step of SDN. By software defining the network infrastructure itself, we can inject agility of design and visibility throughout. SDN paved the way for the level of automated provisioning and configuration that IBN offers. IBN is simply the missing piece of the puzzle that provided the intelligence necessary to command layers 2 and 3 from the application layer itself through automated policies. IBN doesn’t replace SDN, it enhances it to take it closer to its foreseen destiny. 

Learn more: How Organizations Can Effectively Manage the Exploded Network

The Four Characteristics of IBN

So what are the characteristics that give IBN powerful capabilities?

  • Translation and validation – IBN is designed to translate the given intent commands from network admins and convert them into network configurations. These configurations are then validated to ensure that they produce the intended outcome.
  • Automated implementation –An IBN system can implement these translated configuration changes across the existing network infrastructure through automated policies using a vendor-agnostic approach.
  • Awareness of state – IBN is in a constant state of network monitoring to evaluate its current status and achieve an optimized state.
  • Assurance and dynamic optimization and remediation – An IBN-based system can take corrective action when needed if at any time the original business or network intent is not being met. The system uses AI and machine learning to deduce the best way to self-heal the network to achieve its desired state.

Benefits of IBN

IBN is predicted to liberate internal IT from time-consuming administrative tasks. An intent-based network can provision and repair itself without relying on human intervention. This means that human-induced troubleshooting becomes a thing of the past as network issues are often remediated before admins are even aware of them. Not only does all of this achieve greater speed and efficiency, but it also allows IT talent to focus on projects that provide far more value to the core business, which results in further innovation.  

A major intent for both IT and corporate leadership is compliance. The IBN orchestrator can take continual measures to ensure that the network complies with the policies set forth by company leadership to remain compliant with industry standards and governmental regulations. Because network systems are monitored continually, cybersecurity professionals can get the heads up concerning a breach or cybersecurity incident in a prompt fashion.  

Because IBN systems are vendor agnostic, companies don’t have to worry about vendor lock-in. The leading systems today utilize multi-vendor SDKs that allow a centralized controller to interact and monitor network devices from various vendors.  

Learn more: The Importance of Intent-Based Networking for Distributed Enterprises

IBN Is Not Science Fiction

The intent-based network is not a theory transcribed within a science fiction novel. There are several vendors today, such as Cisco and Juniper and a slew of startup companies that are offering IBN system solutions. The intent-based network is now being cultivated in a data center near you. 

Do you think intent-based networking is the right way forward to overcome network inefficiencies? Comment below or let us know on LinkedInOpens a new window , TwitterOpens a new window , or FacebookOpens a new window . We would love to hear from you!