Intent-based networking has moved from concept to reality, Cisco says

Intent-based networking was the dominant theme at CiscoLive in Melbourne

Intent-based networking is the latest buzzword to emerge from the networking industry, but according to Cisco it’s already moved from concept to reality.

Intent-based networking was the dominant theme last week at CiscoLive in Melbourne and underpinned several announcements at the event.

The scene was set in the opening video by actor Peter Dinklage (perhaps best known for playing Tyrion Lannister in Game of Thrones) who neatly encapsulated the promise of intent-based networking, and assured us that it was available now — from Cisco.

“What would it be like if the network used intuition to drive itself — If it actually had insight and context, if it learnt, if it could adapt?” he asked.

“If it could fix things before they break, if it could configure millions of connections, not in months or days but in minutes?

“If it could protect based on what it knew, what it had learnt from every attack. If it stopped threats, even the ones hidden in encrypted traffic. So the more you tried to hack it the smarter it became.”

This network, he assured us, “is here now. Among us. More powerful than intellect, more human, more intuitive than anything that has come before. Constantly learning, constantly adapting, constantly protecting.”

That’s quite a bold claim, considering the relative newness of the concept. It was just a year ago, in February 2017 that Gartner analyst, Andrew Lerner neatly positioned intent-based networking in the evolving lexicon of networking.

“There’s always a ‘next big thing’ in networking,” he said. “Five years ago, it was ethernet fabrics in the data centre then came SDN, and currently it is SD-WAN. As SD-WAN adoption grows and shifts from bleeding to leading edge, the next big thing on the networking horizon promises to be … wait for it … intent-based networking.”

Lerner positioned intent based networking as being “nascent” but said it “could be the next big thing in networking, as it promises to improve network availability and agility, which are key as organisations transition to digital business.”

He advised IT leaders responsible for networking “to determine if and when to pilot this technology.”

Boosting network efficiency with intent

In a press conference at CiscoLive for the global launch of two new intent-based networking products, Cisco SD-WAN vAnalytics and Cisco Meraki Insight, Scott Harrell, senior vice president and general manager, Enterprise Networking, said networks today were so complex that they operate at only about 10 per cent of their capabilities and that moving to intent-based networking would unlock their full potential.

“Instead of having a command-line interface I need to be able to express in the English language what I want to happen and the network is automatically configured,” he said. “This unlocks powerful new capabilities.”

Rowan Trollope, Cisco’s senior vice president and general manager of IoT and applications, closed his keynote speech at the conference, after demonstrating some of Cisco’s new intent-based networking products — DNA Center and its Network Assurance Engine — by saying: “The pace of change in our industry is breathtaking and the future is not far away…The products we showed you today are here now. It is time for you to start re-inventing your network and looking at those technologies.”

When Computerworld suggested to Trollope that users might be struggling to keep up with rapid evolution of networking technologies from software-defined to intent-based, he said there was a danger of confusing marketing with technology: “Technology is moving at a very fast pace and customers are having to go with that. We are responding to changes in the marketplace.”

Trollope said that in his view intent-based networking and SDN were not two discrete concepts. “One is an outgrowth of the other, so conceptually, software-defined networking in my, perhaps simplistic view, is the simple idea of separating software and hardware in the network,” he said.

He said intent-based networking was underpinned by SDN: “[Intent-based networking] is quite simply how do we drive automation into the network using machine learning and data to establish policy and rules... It relies on and uses the underlying concepts of software-defined networking, but it's not something discrete and totally different.”

Cisco products ‘intent-based ready’

Trollope said many of Cisco’s products were now intent-based networking ready.

“IOSXE is the key enabling technology for [the] intent-based network and we have deployed that across many of our products, even our access points,” the Cisco exec said.

Rob De Nicolo, director of enterprise networking Cisco ANZ, told Computerworld that most of the equipment Cisco has sold in the past five years is intent-based networking ready, and he flagged Cisco’s DNA Center appliance version 1.1, released in February, as the first practical realisation of Cisco’s intent based networking approach.

“We announced our Digital Network Architecture [DNA] two years ago. That was our statement to the market that we were changing our approach to the way we do networking,” he said.

“Last year we announced DNA Center and in February we announced version 1.1 that upgraded our DNA platform to be able to provide assurance.”

(At CiscoLive in March 2016, shortly after it announced DNA Cisco named Deakin University as one of its first DNA customers globally.)

DNA Center v1.1 delivers on intent

De Nicolo said DNA Center 1.1 delivered on Cisco’s promise in its DNA announcement, “but the product is only shipping into this part of the world as we speak.”

He said Cisco had about 10 orders and about 20 customers lined up to do trials.

De Nicolo described DNA Center as Cisco’s point of instrumentation, point of control and point of visualisation for intent-based network infrastructure, and said most customer networks would already support it.

“A customer would buy the appliance, put it in their network and depending on what they want to do, some of their infrastructure might need to be upgraded. The first step people are taking is to use DNA Center to better understand what is happening in their network.”

De Nicolo said the University of Wollongong had been taking part in early field trials for DNA Center 1.1 for the past several months and was finding it very effective in troubleshooting network problems. “They say they are taking help desk calls that would have taken four hours and are able to resolve those in 10 minutes.”

He said the University was also looking to use DNA Center to microsegment its network in the student living quarters. “They want to use microsegmentation to provide a dedicated network for every student living on campus, to isolate each student from everybody else. They have been wanting to do that for some time but it has not been practical.”

Global intent-based announcements

Cisco also made two global intent based networking announcements at CiscoLive: Cisco SD-WAN vAnalytics and Cisco Meraki Insight.

It said vAnalytics would provide IT with visibility, forecasting for applications and bandwidth planning, ‘what-if’ scenarios, and actionable recommendations, and that Meraki Insight would help IT administrators optimise the end user experience by providing valuable understanding into WAN and SaaS application performance, significantly reducing the time taken to isolate and resolve issues.

The author travelled to CiscoLive as a guest of Cisco

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