Why Cisco's new intent-based networking could be a big deal

Scentsy, a $500 million manufacturer and seller of wickless candles, got an early look at what Cisco and some analysts are saying could be the next big thing in the network industry: intent-based networking.

“I think this could be a pretty big shift in terms of the paradigm of network management,” said Kevin Tompkins, network architect at the company. “We’re getting away from managing individual devices and into having a central, globally managed policy, all controlled from one place that pervades through the network.”

This week Cisco released a series of new hardware and software capabilities that it said use machine learning technology to provide advanced network automation. The system allows users to express policies and have a software platform that executes and maintains the desired state of the network.

What is intent-based networking?

The first thing to know about intent-based networking is that it is very early days. “Intent-based networking is nascent, but could be the next big thing in networking, as it promises to improve network availability and agility, which are key as organizations transition to digital business,” Gartner analyst Andrew Lerner wrote in a recent report.

Intent based networking systems (IBNS) have four components, Lerner said:

1. An end user can express desired policies and state of the network, either through commands, a graphic interface or through application programming interfaces (APIs). The IBNS can verify whether the intent of the network can be met. Lerner likened this to entering the destination address into a GPS.

2. The IBNS has automated abilities to configure the network based on the policies and desired state. For example, a user could specify that a certain level of security be applied to specific applications, and the IBNS could assign specific security policies based on user role, device or time. The IBNS has the ability to configure the necessary firewalls, vLANs and other technologies within the network to satisfy the request.

3. IBNS collect a repository of network data, including logs of traffic and streaming telemetry so that the system can constantly assess the state of the network and determine the best way to implement the desired state.

4. The IBNS has the ability to dynamically optimize and remediate the state of the network to ensure policies are enforced. For example, if a certain segment of the network is down, the IBNS would have the ability to automatically re-route traffic to ensure the policy is enforced appropriately. In the GPS analogy, this would be like the system rerouting a driver around a closed road or traffic jam.