When Cisco first announced its intent-based networking (IBN) in June 2017, it made a big public relations production about it, calling reporters to San Francisco for a special event.
But as a naturally skeptical journalist, I was suspicious of the term. It reminded me of Cisco’s previous big marketing buzzword, DNA. For most of the world, DNA stands for deoxyribonucleic acid. But for Cisco, DNA means digital network architecture. The company says Cisco DNA is its architecture for enterprise networks. And for a few years company employees used the term constantly and expected everyone else to take it seriously too.
By the way, when you ask a Cisco employee to explain one of their buzzwords, such as DNA, you usually get a look of innocent bewilderment. “Doesn’t everyone know what DNA is?” “What kind of idiot hasn’t heard about DNA?”
But the fact is Cisco DNA is just a made-up marketing term that’s used to describe some products and services from the company.
So when Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins trumpeted the acronym IBN, I was justifiably skeptical. Just because marketers and PR people are all waving IBN flags and marching in lock-step chanting “I..B..N” that doesn’t make it real.
I reached out to Cisco shortly after the IBN announcement to find out what IBN actually does. Prashanth Shenoy, Cisco’s VP of marketing for enterprise networks, explained at that time that Cisco’s intent-based networking will initially automate some configuration and other tasks in the access network.
Prior to Cisco’s announcement of IBN, Gartner analyst Andrew Lerner defined IBN as “a piece of networking software that helps to plan, design, and implement/operate networks that can improve network availability and agility.”
- Its priority is always to deliver the business goal (the intent).
- It operates as a network-as-a-service.
- It routinely and frequently verifies the fulfillment of the network’s purpose via network verification.
Another vendor that claims IBN expertise is Apstra.
Mansour Karam, CEO of Apstra, takes early credit for IBN. In an email to SDxCentral he said, “As you know, Apstra invented and pioneered intent-based networking when we launched the company and our first product, AOS 1.0, in June 2016. A year later, almost to the day, Cisco rebranded their software products under the intent-based networking banner. While we welcomed the move, we also warned the industry about intent-washing which, to your point, consists of branding products as intent-based networking for marketing reasons, whether they are true to the definition or not.”
Sasha Ratkovic, Apstra’s CTO and co-founder, has written that to qualify as IBN a technology must meet several requirements:
- First, it must be based on a single source of truth with the state represented in a graph that captures all the relationships between all the various layers.
- The first requirement is a prerequisite for the second – It must include real-time, continuous validation of all aspects of customer intent – across network connectivity, performance, and security.
- The second is a prerequisite for the third – It must have the ability to self-heal.
Some folks on LinkedIn chimed in with their thoughts about IBN. Larry Lang, CEO of RF Pixels, said IBN is essentially another layer of software for translating more abstract intentions to underlying implementation detail. It “seems like a fancy way of suggesting an added layer of abstraction, like ‘prevent unsecured logins’ rather than ‘block TCP port 23,’” writes Lang. “But the highest layer of abstraction is ‘don’t let anything bad happen in my information infrastructure,’ which is insufficiently specific to implement.”
My takeaway from all this is: IBN is difficult to clearly define. From a big-picture point of view, it’s as Lang says — having the intent for the network to be secure (duh!). And from a worm’s-eye-view, it could be as mundane as automating day-to-day tasks such as configuration, provisioning, and troubleshooting.
Is the term “intent-based networking” really helpful? I don’t think that it is. Another commenter on LinkedIn, Rick Bauer, said the challenges of network automation are daunting. And he suggested that eventually artificial intelligence “will step in and address this.”