Put simply, Cisco’s intent-based networking will initially automate some configuration and other tasks in the access network. But Cisco’s timing is interesting because the Open Networking Foundation (ONF) is just about to move its work on intent-based networking over to MEF. So, it seems that in terms of marketing, Cisco stole some of that thunder.
A little background is in order.
Network engineers have been talking about intent-based networking for years. In 2015, David Lenrow, president of the consulting firm Summit Ridge, published an article on SDxCentral, explaining the concept at a high level.
In October 2016, the ONF published a white paper entitled “Intent NBI – Definition and Principles.” The document was the first to describe intent-based north-bound interfaces (NBIs), laying the foundation for future work in intent-based networking.
Now, the ONF is transferring its work on intent-based networking over to MEF.
“Intent is nothing new,” said Pascal Menezes, CTO of MEF. “David [Lenrow] and I worked at ONF in this whole area of north-bound interfaces.”
MEF is now taking over that work. It has created a new intent project group. Lenrow and John Strassner, a CTO with Futurewei, will co-chair the project.
“Intent’s been around for a long time,” said Strassner. “There were goal-based policies in the late 1990s.” He said the intent project group at MEF “is aimed at business people and app developers that want to abstract policy in a natural language.”
Cisco’s Intent-Based Networking
Cisco employees also have been involved with ONF’s work on intent-based networking. A couple of folks who wished to remain anonymous said that it seemed like Cisco did an end-run around the open source community, grabbing the term for itself.
MEF’s Menezes said the intent-based project group is in discussions with Cisco. “Whatever they’re doing doesn’t mean we don’t need a standard approach,” he said. “Intent has to be implemented in a way that we all agree on.”
So what exactly is Cisco doing with intent-based networking and what are the parts and pieces?
Its announcement on June 20 and its elaborations at the Cisco Live event later that month involved a lot of big-picture concepts. Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins said the technology would “redefine the network for the next 30 years.”
Prashanth Shenoy, Cisco’s VP of marketing for enterprise networks, gave SDxCentral some more detail.
Cisco’s efforts involve hardware (surprise!). Specifically, its first foray into intent-based networking will be focused on branch, access, and campus networking, using its new Catalyst 9000 switching portfolio. Catalyst switches have been around for quite some time. But the new 9K platform includes innovation at the ASIC layer as well as the software (IOS XE) layers. “We needed to re-write the hardware from ASIC level,” said Shenoy.
When a customer purchases the Catalyst 9K switches, “It is mandatory for a customer to purchase the [accompanying] software subscription,” he said. This is all part of Cisco’s new software licensing push.
In terms of the intelligent controller to support its intent-based networking, Shenoy said it would be Cisco’s Application Policy Infrastructure Controller – Enterprise Module (APIC-EM).
“For the data center, we use APIC; for branch and campus we have the APIC-EM controller,” he said. APIC-EM is the same controller enterprise customers use to control Cisco IWAN for their branch offices and that Cisco has been leveraging for software-defined wide area networking (SD-WAN).
For intent-based networking, the APIC-EM will apply to both the WAN and access networks. Cisco refers to the latter as software-defined access (SD-Access). The company plans to automate day-to-day tasks such as configuration, provisioning, and troubleshooting.
“The number one thing is the operational complexity challenge,” said Shenoy. “Currently, customers spend three times more on OpEx compared to spend on the network itself. That is because it’s done in a manual and laborious box-by-box process.” With intent-based networking Cisco will automate operations such as IP address settings and configuring VLANs. It will also mine the network for analytics to detect threats, even in encrypted traffic. And it will troubleshoot network issues.
Shenoy said intent-based networking via the Catalyst 9K switches, APIC-EM controller and other software is becoming available in stages beginning now and running through November. The company plans to expand intent-based networking to the data center environment over the next few quarters.
“These are the nuts and bolts of how things happen,” said Shenoy. “The customers should just express the intent and the ‘how’ part disappears.”
Lenrow said, “The way we build networks today it’s 100 percent prescription. It’s zero percent intent. The goal is to move as far toward the intent as you can. It allows the smart software the most latitude to decide how to optimize.”
And Menezes said the intent-based work done at ONF focused on lower levels of intent with SDN controllers. But the project at MEF plans to take intent to higher levels.
As far as Cisco, it will be interesting to see if intent-based networking is embraced by its army of certified engineers.
An anonymous source told SDxCentral, “There’s a huge base of tech people who get paid a lot of money to configure Cisco equipment. They don’t like this automation stuff. They learned the CLI way of doing things. If things are automated this attacks their core skill base.”
But Cisco is under competitive pressures. The startup Apstra, for instance, does intent-based networking, and it’s been gaining traction.
The Apstra operating system (AOS) 1.2 allows network managers to, for example, perform normal maintenance actions by providing simple intent-based specifications.
Apstra CEO Mansour Karam, expressed similar sentiments to Cisco’s Shenoy.
“Large networks are being operated in similar ways as they were back in 1995,” said Karam. “Network engineers type in commands to troubleshoot devices, individually, by these commands. We need to evolve the operational aspects.”
He cited a Gartner study that found 85 percent of networks use the command line interface (CLI) as the primary method for operating their networks. “It’s impossible to scale using those methods,” he said. “We need a drastic change.”
Karam said the first step was to provide customers with APIs into devices so they could configure the devices and access telemetry from them. “Now with APIs, we have an infrastructure that is programmable,” he said. “The piece that was missing was the software that sits on top of hardware and leverages those APIs to deliver a drastically new operational model. We like to call it a self-operating network.”
Asked what he thought of Cisco’s announcements, Karam said, “The high-level messaging was about the power of the intent-based approach and the business outcomes one can get. It’s similar to the high-level messaging we have put out since we launched in 2016. I saw a huge validation of the power of the approach.”