Intent-based networking (IBN) is the catch-all term for the gradual shift from today’s manual network operations to a more hands-off automated ecosystem. Using AI, sensor-driven data flows, virtual abstraction and a host of other technologies, the idea is simply to define what you hope to achieve, then let the data environment itself configure the network in the most optimal way to suit those needs.
If only it were that simple.
The fact is, IBN is only truly effective when deployed universally. Without full end-to-end abstraction and automation, operators will only be able to define their intent within a relatively limited scope, resulting in a situation in which the automated portion of the network is functioning at hyper-speed and efficiency, while the rest tries to play catch-up. But implementing IBN as a fork-lift upgrade is equally problematic, and will likely lead to widespread disruption of applications and services.
Still, IBN is expected to grow at a rapid clip. According to Market Research Future, the sector is expected to surge from $634.5 million in 2017 to more than $4.9 billion by 2023, a compound annual growth rate of 42 percent. Much of this activity will take place in the data center, the cloud, and remote offices, all of which are rapidly converting from traditional IT infrastructure to modularized, hyperconverged footprints. In this way, IBN can avoid the hassles of integrating into legacy environments by becoming a core attribute of this new environment, which is likely to support next-generation apps and services catering to the IoT, DevOps and other advanced data initiatives.
Clearly, this is a huge opportunity for today’s leading networking companies, but it represents a threat as well. Cisco, for example, has made no secret of its support for IBN, and has been acquiring a wealth of technologies to make it happen. Some of these are obvious, such as AI and SDN; some are not, like the recent acquisition of Luxtera, a semiconductor firm that specializes in silicon photonics (SP). As The Stack noted recently, state-of-the-art physical-layer networking is key to IBN because it supports the high-speed, high-scale environments like IoT that are expected to be too large and too complex for manual operations.
Juniper is on board with IBN, although they are taking a slightly different track. Last October, the company unveiled the EngNet, a series of automation tools that network operators can mix and match to produce their own optimized management environments. In this way, rather than simply impose a top-down IBN platform, the company can foster a development community for users to share experiences, develop new products and in general chart the best way toward IBN and away from the traditional Command Line Interface.
Meanwhile, however, several smaller companies are looking at IBN as a way to break the stranglehold that markets leaders like Cisco and Juniper have had on networking for the past two decades or more. Data Center Knowledge notes that a start-up called Apstra has released an IBN operating system that works on any hardware, while another called VeriFlow acts as the eyes and ears of abstract network architectures to enable predictive management models and other automated functions.
IBN is more than just a new management regime, of course. It represents an entirely new relationship between data, infrastructure, and the people who work with them. As the network becomes more adept at analyzing, provisioning and repairing itself, the challenge shifts from figuring out how to make it work to figuring out what you want it to do in the first place.
In the end, expect IBN to make networking both easier and more complex, even as it opens up a whole new world of digital possibilities.
Arthur Cole is a freelance journalist with more than 25 years’ experience covering Enterprise IT, telecommunications and other hi-tech industries.