What Is Intent-Based Networking (IBN)?

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By: R. Scott Raynovich

Technology markets are often marked by a battlefield of marketing jargon -- whether it's customer experience, Quality of Service (QoS), DevOps, or a "call to action." The latest jargon to take the networking world by storm is intent-based networking (IBN). 

As Futuriom pointed out in a post on this topic a few weeks ago, intent-based models actually originated in the military, rather than technology markets. Intent-based command defines a more distributed system for allowing decisions to be made, and it has been used as a model in the military to win D-Day or for managing companies or ships. The US Army's summary of Commander's Intent and Concept of Operations includes instructions on intent-based command.

Implementing Network Automation 

The basic idea behind intent is to program a way that decisions can be made based on existing conditions rather than some pre-formed knowledge of what's going to happen. For example, how can you plan a battle if you don't know how many enemy troops will show up? The same holds true in intent-based networking: You need to program the network to respond to changing conditions.

A key element of intent-based networking is that it needs to become more automated. For example, in some networking setups today, if you are about to receive a flood of network traffic, it may require manually configuring a new circuit to accommodate that traffic. But what if the system deduces that the traffic is coming and automatically provisions a circuit ahead of time? 

Apstra CEO Defines Intent-based Networking 

Networking startup Apstra is a pioneer in intent-based networking. Apstra CEO Mansour Karam says that the technology behind IBN requires many factors, including the following:

 1) Telemetry and data gathering 
 2) Software-based analytics 
 3) APIs and hardware interoperability
 4) Networking automation

This is a good baseline for requirements and it will serve end users well for evaluating whether a networking technology truly is intent-based. How does it gather data? Is there analytics? What is the machine-learning technology driving the analytics? Is it an open platform that can draw data from many sources? How are the data inputs and analytics used to drive automation?

Vendors should be graded on their execution on these points. 

Automation Critical to IBN 

Automation will be critical. This will come down to machine-learning algorithms that can make sense of the data and make intelligent automation decisions. 

In principle, this all makes sense. But it doesn't mean it will be easy to implement. Today, most networking is manual, and few networking systems have been built with a programmable IBN model. While startups such as Apstra are shipping early IBN products and networking giant Cisco has announced a roadmap to implement IBN, it's still very early days. 

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