If you haven’t heard of intent-based networking, you’re not alone. Building on software-defined networking as its foundation, intent-based networking represents the next potential evolution of enterprise networks—fully-automated, fully-orchestrated handling of configurations and capacity, based on the real-time behaviour of users and applications. Hence, intent-based—a network that understands its traffic and shapes itself accordingly. Is this autonomous network just a literal pipe dream, or something more?
Most businesses aren’t close to deploying intent-based networks anytime soon—and the process of doing so will likely prove challenging for even well-resourced organisations. But for those who take on that challenge, intent-based networking could mean radical improvements in network performance and simplicity—and perhaps even the definition of the modern-day network administrator.
No Pain, No Gain
Today’s software-defined networking already simplifies network management to a significant degree. Instead of dealing with multiple command-line interfaces from different vendors in the infrastructure every time a change is required, net admins can simply apply the changes through the SDN’s dashboard. One command-line interface, one point of management and visibility—one much less stressed IT team. Intent-based networking takes that a step further, merging machine learning and AI into the software layer to automate and even predict the responses to different network behaviours and their corresponding states of user intent.
As a result, intent-based networking promises to deliver much easier network management, with much fewer performance issues and much less risk of downtime-inducing errors—the sorts of things that typically plague complex, heterogeneous network environments. It also promises to deliver a lot of hard work.
That’s because the precursor to intent-based networking is SDN—everywhere. If any part of the network isn’t governed by some form of software layer, the automation and orchestration components of SDN won’t be able to govern it. That, in turn, creates blind spots in the infrastructure that potentially compromise any machine-learning decisions on the network. In other words, intent-based networking brings with it an all-or-nothing calculus of SDN—one which businesses will take time to adapt to.
How close are we to the ubiquitous adoption of SDN? Not as far as one might think. All public cloud providers now run some form of SDN, meaning any business using said providers has at least partially virtualised their network. Adoption of SDN in on-premises network components has gone from a niche field to one growing quickly in most industries. The real challenge will likely be at the intersection between the two, where SD-WAN and edge computing platforms will need to provide that software-defined connecting tissue. And after that comes the actual design, deployment, and management of the intent-based networking platform itself—involving levels of machine learning and automation expertise that remain in short supply.
So, is intent-based networking worth it? Yes, if you can stay the course. Get over the hill of extremely testing deployment, and you’ll find it exponentially easier to manage and scale your network than ever before, even with the latest SDN architecture. And there are ways to make the challenges of deployment less of a mountain and a little closer to a molehill.
To Fix Your Pipes, Call a Plumber
The smartest thing most net admins can do to start moving towards intent-based networking is to find proficient vendors who can manage the process from start to finish. The market leaders in software-defined networking offer obvious starting points, given most organisations are still some way away from SDN-exclusive network infrastructure. Installing and integrating those software-defined components, with a view towards applying machine learning to network data in the future, becomes much easier with third-party expertise in play.
When they do call in assistance, net admins would be wise to let their vendors get on with the job – without excessive interference or insistence on doing things their way. Any intent-based network will require heavy customisation of the rules, processes, and analytics that track intent throughout the organisation, the design of which will fall out of virtually every net admin’s expertise. The process can be likened to changing your house’s entire piping system—for which most people will call in a plumber. That plumber knows how to get things done from start to finish, better than you ever will, so there’s little point trying to tell him or her how to do the job.
Which begs another, perhaps more concerning question – in an intent-based networking environment, where machine-learning rules and automated responses determine performance, does the net admin still add any value? For a start, someone still needs to write those rules—as well as take responsibility and improve them if they don’t work like they should. Net admins would do well to learn the basics of intent-based networking from the vendors and experts they employ—and, combining that knowledge with their understanding of the business, redefine their roles around creating value and minimising risk for current and future use cases of the network.
Despite its name, intent-based networking will never truly understand the intent of the people using it. That’s something only net admins—getting out of the server room, and closer to the rest of the office—can do, and do well.