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Intent-based networking is being touted as the next big thing in IT networking, with companies from a variety of industries already starting to deploy it in their networks. This approach takes advantage of cloud computing elements and uses algorithms to make data networks more intelligent and secure.

In this guide, you’ll learn what intent-based networking is, how it works, and how and why your organization may want to take advantage of it.

What is intent-based networking?

Intent-based networking (IBN) is a software-enabled automation technique that improves network operations and uptime by combining machine learning, artificial intelligence, analytics, and orchestration. IBN allows for flexible and agile network design that optimizes the quality of service for end users, using an algorithm that automates much of the process and scales well at a low cost.

While traditional approaches to network management can scale up to a certain point, they quickly run into problems as a network grows larger. IBN addresses these issues by automating processes based on intent, giving network administrators tools that make it easier to manage large networks.

Characteristics of IBN

IBN works through a process of translation and validation, automated implementation, network state awareness, and dynamic optimization. These four characteristics demonstrate how automation propagates throughout different levels of your network based on feedback from tests and real-time traffic analysis.

Translation and validation

IBN architecture is guided by a high-level business policy derived from user feedback. The software then checks to see if a user’s query is doable and sends proposed setups to the network administrator for authorization. This means intent is translated into actionable plans by validating against current network constraints.

Automated implementation

Implementation of IBN does not necessitate any manual input. All new setups are carried out and applied across the entire network architecture in an automated manner. This means actions are automated based on plans via software or other mechanisms.

Awareness of network state

The third characteristic is awareness of all services across all layers. This level of awareness allows monitoring and measurement at any layer to be analyzed in the context of the entire network.

Assurance and dynamic optimization/remediation

After a change has been made through intent-based methods, it’s important to monitor the results and adapt accordingly. This final step increases confidence that proper changes have been made.

What is the purpose of intent-based networking?

One of the problems in traditional IT networking is that it wasn’t built with automation in mind. IBN improves traditional IT networking from enhancing security to improving performance by basing its design on identity, automation, and intent rather than source and destination. This allows for more security against intrusion attempts, reduces the chance for human error, and saves time.

IBN helps to ensure that your network remains safe and productive without taking away your ability to grow it quickly. Plus, IT professionals can now spend their time working on strategic projects rather than doing tasks that should be automated.

How does IBN work?

Over time, IT networks can become cluttered and hard to manage, slowing down performance for users and making it difficult to add new systems. The logical first step in addressing these issues is to rework your network, but what does that entail if you choose to move toward intent-based networking?

IBN uses an innovative approach to redesign and deploy networks that focus on all aspects of a company’s IT infrastructure rather than only hardware assets. IBN addresses challenges related to managing enterprise networks, using AI and machine learning to execute regular activities, define rules, respond to system events, and verify that objectives and actions are met.

Intended for environments where big data, smart devices, software-defined everything (SDx), analytics, and automation overlap, IBN analyzes both structured and unstructured datasets to understand events happening across an entire enterprise — down to machines within individual buildings. These events trigger responses by orchestrating actions across multiple areas, including physical security systems (such as access controls), wireless settings (such as visibility), and cloud applications.

4 benefits of intent-based networking

Some of the biggest advantages brought by intent-based networking include faster troubleshooting, reduced manual tasks and misconfigurations, reduced network downtime, and enhanced security.

Faster troubleshooting

IBN uses information about applications and services to troubleshoot common issues before they occur. You can now take action immediately to solve problems as they arise instead of relying on slow, manual processes.

Reduced or eliminated manual tasks

IBN allows users to manage networks based on their own intentions, actions, and interactions. That means networks can be quickly configured when new nodes join, even when they are completely unfamiliar with each other’s existence. This will result in less configuration work for IT administrators and more flexibility for employees who have access to an enterprise network.

Reduced misconfigurations

Misconfigurations can be a huge headache for IT. They result in frustrated employees and an overworked IT department, and they increase security risks for your organization. Fortunately, IBN makes it easier to get it right from day one by building networks around what you need to do versus how you do it. This helps reduce misconfigurations and increase network efficiency.

Reduced downtime and enhanced security

IBN reduces downtime for servers because you can quickly identify potential issues and react before they cause an outage, reducing incidents that will cost money and require time to fix.

4 intent-based networking challenges

If you’re new to IBN, you may wonder why more organizations aren’t on board with it. After all, centralized orchestration eliminates point solutions, which is always better for cost management, and the automation of network policies seems like a strong selling point. However, some challenges can make an intent-based approach difficult to implement successfully.

Inability to store security metadata outside of SDN controllers

Once security metadata is stored inside software-defined networking (SDN) controllers, it becomes harder to secure communication between orchestrators, controllers, and managed devices — a critical limitation since a controller failure could lead to a catastrophic loss of control over a network.

Centralized automation requires close alignment with existing tools

It’s common for enterprise IT organizations to have hundreds of different management tools from multiple vendors that were implemented years ago as part of an initial virtualization or cloud migration effort. Not all will play well with centralized orchestration.

Because of possible incompatibilities, IT professionals may have to consolidate some of these tools onto their VNF manager platform if they want centralized automation. Alternatively, they can look at decoupling different types of tasks — such as decoupling device management from application delivery — so they can keep using older tools without sacrificing flexibility or wasting resources on unnecessary integrations.

Over-reliance on one vendor creates blind spots

When you rely heavily on one vendor, your networking infrastructure might become highly dependent upon that vendor due to compatibility issues with other vendors. This opens up potential vendor lock-in risks.

For example, if your system goes down due to an outage, there might not be any feasible ways for you to restore full functionality until an alternative solution is found. If you use more than one networking vendor, chances are you won’t suffer issues like these.

Although this issue isn’t unique to IBN and can be a problem across many types of networks, the software-based nature of IBN makes it particularly susceptible to vendor lock-in.

Immature product portfolio leads to fragmented adoption

Before large enterprises start deploying intent-based solutions en masse, there needs to be a large enough pool of products available. Right now, many vendors are still working on developing their offerings, so it’s hard for IT pros to justify buying them or building proofs of concept.

However, once these solutions become more widespread and their results are further proven, it should become easier for other enterprises to follow suit with IBN.

Examples of intent-based networking

Intent-based networking can be applied in various scenarios, such as the following:

  • Quality of service (QoS) management: In this case, the intent may be to ensure high-quality voice and videoconferencing for real-time communications. In response, the IBN system automatically identifies and prioritizes voice and video traffic, allocating sufficient bandwidth and low-latency paths for these applications.
  • Multicloud networking: If a network admin intends to ensure seamless connectivity and data exchange between on-premises and multicloud environments, IBN can orchestrate cloud-native networking components, such as VPN tunnels or VPC peering, to maintain connectivity and security across multiple cloud providers.

IBN can also be used for security policy enforcement, predictive network maintenance to minimize downtime and disruptions, and dynamic load balancing, which allows the network to adjust load balancing rules to optimize traffic distribution.

Examples of intent-based networking software

Some of the leading intent-based networking software solutions available today include Juniper Apstra, Cisco DNA, and Forward Networks. That list is likely to expand as the technology continues to catch on, but these three companies have been very effective early adopters.

Juniper Networks icon.

Juniper Apstra

Juniper Apstra’s IBN software helps enterprises manage their networks across data centers, vendors, and topologies. Some of the key features of this solution include multivendor support, Intent Time Voyager rollback, intent-based automation, and continuous day 0 to day 2+ validation.

Juniper acquired Apstra in 2020. The acquisition aimed to leverage Apstra’s expertise in network automation to enhance Juniper’s data center networking portfolio.

Cisco icon.

Cisco DNA

Cisco Digital Network Architecture (Cisco DNA) is an intent-based networking solution built for campus, branch, and WAN, which provides automation and assurance across the enterprise network. It enables a network administrator to control and manage their network infrastructure to support and respond to new business initiatives using end-to-end network visibility and inventories, and enhanced AI and machine learning analytics.

Cisco DNA also offers enhanced integration and segmentation tools, and is a natural extension of Cisco’s wide ecosystem of network management and security tools — although that also means that vendor lock-in could be a concern.

Forward Networks icon.

Forward Networks

With Forward Networks’ network modeling solution, enterprises can ensure their network is configured and behaving as intended across on-prem, cloud, and virtual overlay networks.

The tool has a prediction function that can proactively help network administrators identify potential connectivity and security policy violations. It also offers a search function that allows the admin to search network behavior and find devices on their network based on their connection and behavior to enable fast root-cause isolation and incident remediation.

What is the difference between intent-based networking and SDN?

IBN leverages both network functions virtualization (NFV) and SDN to enable users to move workloads around their data center or cloud environment based on activity patterns. In essence, IBN allows users to treat enterprise networks as if they were a single logical fabric with thousands of ports available for use by different applications that need access at any given time, even if those applications aren’t running at the same time.

In contrast, SDN is a networking approach that uses software-based controllers or application programming interfaces (APIs) to communicate with hardware infrastructure and direct the flow of network traffic. It centrally manages and controls your entire network infrastructure, providing end-to-end visibility of network configurability and performance and also enabling network programmability.

How will IBN affect businesses in the future?

If you’re like most IT professionals, you’re tired of dealing with two different types of network issues every day: device configuration problems and application compatibility problems. You spend too much time troubleshooting inefficiently, trying to determine if an issue is related to poorly configured devices or an application that doesn’t work properly.

IBN helps network administrators overcome these problems by automatically verifying compatibility across the network’s layers and resolving issues at their point of origin. If you’re looking for a scalable, cost-effective solution to your networking needs, you should consider intent-based networking.

Businesses are already monitoring their networks for performance problems. Over time, companies may no longer care whether something happens at layer two or layer seven; they’ll just want it to happen when they need it to happen. That’s where intent networking can step in and offer assistance.

Bottom line: Automating enterprise networks with IBN

IBN enables organizations to improve their network performance and align network operations with business objectives by leveraging automation and orchestration to translate high-level business intent into network configuration and management actions. This allows for real-time security event detection, improved network control, vendor neutrality, and faster fixes to network issues.

Explore our full rundown of the best network automation tools to free up IT resources and improve network performance and security.

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