Apstra Launches Intent-based Analytics


By: R. Scott Raynovich

Apstra, a startup that pioneered the concept of intent-based networking (IBN) -- now a marketing mantra of many major networking companies -- now wants to cultivate a new buzzphrase. Today it announced the addition of intent-based analytics (IBA) software

Apstra says that IBA, an addition to its Apstra Operating System (AOS) version 2.1, will enable network operators to program the intent and operations of their network and then monitor the networks in real-time, validating their operation with analytics software that will check for network anomalies vs. programmed intent. 

"We are beefing up the continuous validation piece," Apstra CEO Mansour Karam told a collection of analysts at a briefing here in San Francisco this week.  

Automation Agenda

It's good timing for Apstra, as service providers and large enterprises step up their rhetoric about automating their networks to reduce operating costs, which by most estimates run as high as four or five times the cost of the networking equipment. Recent interviews with service providers indicate this is a focus for them in 2018. 

Apstra is targeting both service providers and large enterprises in a mission to rewire how they manage the operations of their networks. The subtext of introducing IBN and IBA is that network operating costs of many enterprise and service provider networks are far too high -- and they can be automated in the way that many webscale players such as Facebook and Google have done. But the Google, Facebook, and Amazon's of the world have build their network automation in custom fashion. Apstra is building an off-the-shelf software offering that automates network operations. 

Focus on Interoperability

Of course, no discussion about networks can't be had without talking about one of the elephants in the room -- Cisco. Cisco has been making a lot of hay about IBN lately. The questions is whether they have the goods.

Apstra officials point out that the startup shipped AOS in 2016, approximately a year before Cisco started talking about IBN and the "self-driving network." They also say that their website gets a lot of traffic from Cisco employees. 

As Cisco fires up the marketing budget for an IBN war, Apstra has one key differentiator -- it's designed to be multi-vendor, working by using APIs to place an agent on networking hardware from network equipment vendors including Arista, Cisco, Cumulus Networks, Dell, HPE, and Juniper Networks. Cisco's plans for IBN and automated networking is geared exclusively for its Applications Centric Infrastructure (ACI). Another challenge for Cisco is that ACI only covers a small subset of its networking equipment -- the Nexus portfolio of switches targeted at large data centers. 

Apstra also believes it has a unique approach an superior technology. As the company statement says, the "status quo is to sift through mountains of raw telemetry and stare at network visualizations 24/7 to detect unusual patterns." Sasha Ratkovic, Apstra's CTO and CoFounder, points out that many network analytics software efforts, including Cisco's Tetration product, work "backwards," by looking at mounds of data and then trying to make sense of it -- rather than being programmed from the beginning to check the network against a desired, programmed state. In a blog published today, Ratkovic detailed how he things IBA could solve the problem of "grey failures" that Microsoft detailed this week. 

Indeed, getting the full IBN story from Cisco is difficult. The company hasn't tied IBN to specific products, and when company are officials are asked about analytics they point to Cisco Tetration. While Tetration delivers network analytics functionality, it's goal is to analyze traffic for security functions, rather than linking to an intent-based programming function. Tetration is also enabled via a hardware ASIC, meaning it can only work on Cisco equipment with the right ASIC installed. 

Programmed Telemetry and Queries

So how does Apstra's IBA work, exactly? Network operators would license the software on a per-switch basis, and then program it as they are building a network. They do this by specifying how to query networking hardware for telemetry data. 

Here's how it works, according to Apstra:

  • The telemetry queries are dynamic and can monitor both physical and virtual networks changes and configurations. This is done by placing Apstra probes on the equipment using REST API calls. 
  • IBA includes a big-data processing function that aggregates the telemetry and extracts the relevant information. 
  • The IBA compares operations with the programmed intent in AOS, looking for anomalies and deviations.  

Apstra says the funcationality of IBA is wide-ranging and programmable. For example, network operators can deploy it to detect link traffic imbalance between leaf and spine switches, tell when links are reaching saturation, compare traffic pattern distributions, or detect hardware interface and other errors. It can also be used to monitor, compute, and plan bandwidth distribution among data-center switches. 

IBA is an interesting offering that is likely to get the attention of major service providers and enterprises looking to press forward with automation. Apstra says it is already shipping AOS and IBA for revenue, but it's not naming specific customers. The company is known to be working with major financial institutions and service providers, so it will be interesting to here who exactly who those are. Apstra officials hinted that announcements with high-profile customers are coming soon.