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Intelligent networking is all about app development

Today intelligent network architecture enables enterprises to gain data insights about customers and combat cyberthreats. At Interop 2017, DevNet’s Susie Wee outlined how apps fuel intelligent working.

LAS VEGAS -- As enterprises aim to become more agile, they face obstacles: cyberthreats and ransomware, outmoded IT infrastructure, and contracting IT budgets. But some enterprises have turned to intelligent networking when traditional IT falls short.

For years, the network was too hardware-driven and manual to satisfy business needs – whether executives wanted to build new applications, bring on hundreds of new mobile users and devices, or just run faster.

Today, though, the network is becoming automated and intelligent through software code. With application development, networks can be automated and programmed through code rather than manual scripts. Programmable networks can monitor for security threats and gather data intelligence. As a result, intelligent networks are shifting from cost centers to sources of business value.

Susie Wee, VP and CTO of Cisco DevNet, at Interop 2017

At Interop 2017 in Las Vegas in mid-May, Susie Wee, VP and CTO of DevNet, the Cisco developer program that launched in December 2013, outlined the road of IT infrastructure from cost center to locus of innovation. Wee’s keynote underscored thoughts from her Cisco blog on how software is changing infrastructure:

“There was a time, not so long ago,” Wee wrote, “when applications and network/IT infrastructure were managed separately—when applications were the domain of software developers, and infrastructure belonged to network engineers and IT professionals.”

“Today, applications have become the primary vehicle for reinventing entire workflows that transform (or disrupt) businesses.”

Intelligent networking fueled by application development

According to Wee, apps are meeting infrastructure in several ways that create new business outcomes. Where previously hardware and software didn’t cooperate, today they must do so to enable business functionality.

“The imperative is clear,” Wee said. “Applications and infrastructure must meet.” Wee outlined apps’ intersection with various aspects of the IT environment.

Apps meet infrastructure. Applications have become the engine of intelligent networks that are now programmable and manageable through software code rather than manual scripting. Server, storage, and network virtualization have initiated this software-driven infrastructure.

Because hardware can be virtualized in software, infrastructure can now be controlled through code. “Infrastructure as Code enables the technologies that you use to manage your software in the same way you now can manage your infrastructure," Wee said. "You don’t have to separate them. And then the infrastructure can provide value.”

Apps meet cloud. As cloud computing becomes pervasive and central to IT infrastructure, companies need networks that enable applications and data to span public and private clouds. “Any application you run needs to run in public and private clouds,” Wee said. “We’re going from monolithic apps to microservices, and they need to be orchestrated.”

Developers meet network engineers (DevOps). Methodologies like DevOps, which bring developers together with IT engineers to build and program infrastructure, have enabled a programmable, intelligent network, Wee said. These methodologies are about new modes of staffing and organization, but they also are critical to creating infrastructure that is secure, flexible, agile, and robust. “It’s hard,” Wee noted. “But the benefits are huge. So you have to go through that learning curve. The way people work together and the way teams are organized require more communication and change the culture. That gives agility and scale.”

Apps meet security. Wee outlined the importance of building security into the network architecture. Wee also outlined Cisco’s own Talos research organization, armed with 250 data scientists and ethical hackers devoted to monitoring and rooting out security threats, such as the WannaCry attack. Wee said that other methods, such as network segmentation, help reduce security breaches, particularly as companies add devices such as Internet of Things-connected sensors to the network. These should be segmented from other networked devices, such as HVAC systems or vending machines, to prevent breaches.

Apps meet analytics. Data analytics have also enabled wholly new capabilities, such as gathering data from how users interact with the network, to derive new business insights. Wee noted that network segmentation and treating the network as a sensor enable more thorough-going security.

Wee said that the Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS) has done just this, using Cisco’s AppDynamics application. For example, when RBS wanted to identify its busiest U.K. branch, it used network data to determine how many application programming interfaces (APIs) were being called and to which application. It determined that the busiest “branch” was, in fact, the mobile app users accessed from mobile devices on the 7:15 a.m. train to Paddington station.

“Analytics are built into the infrastructure," Wee said. "We can use apps and APIs as a sensor to gain business insights. The IT infrastructure becomes very strategic and provides a lot of business value.”

As devices proliferate in an IT infrastructure, network segmentation becomes critical for security. One network might connect surveillance cameras and a separate network would connect vending machines. You can provision and treat them as distinct. As Wee noted, this segmentation has become easier because of programmable infrastructure.

“You could have done it before, but it was very manual,” Wee said. Additionally, you can gather data on people’s comings and goings and learn about where people badge in, their path and whom they collaborate with, and what kinds of services they use within the building to create more efficient workplaces.

Does DevNet have the chops?

As companies such as Cisco cultivate programs like DevNet, the logical question some industry observers are asking is whether they have the technical know-how and the culture to open their infrastructure to a developer system that is often driven by open source, rather than proprietary, technologies.

During a May 2 episode of The Cubea TV show covering enterprise technology, John Furrier asked Wee this very question.

“A new class of open source companies are [defining this market],” Furrier said. “You have to embrace a new kind of ecosystem,” he said pointedly. “Cisco is now going into a new market and being proactive. Are you ready? Do you have the chops? How are you guys going to go big after just having a toe in the water [on open source]?”

“We’ve had heroic attempts,” Wee said. “But until DevNet came along, we didn’t have a centrally funded program with a mandate from the CEO to get network programmability out there. Now, we have that.”

Other industry observers say that companies such as Cisco are ready but need to prove themselves given the open source options available.

“Cisco DevNet is doing its best to equip networking professionals with the tools and techniques they need to translate the concepts of network programmability into real, functioning code,” said Ed Tittel, a networking researcher based in Texas.

“With projects and analytics to examine network infrastructures and to accommodate data center, public and private clouds and applications, as well as unified communications, DevNet offers APIs and training, to guide network pros into putting SDN [software-defined networking] and NFV [network function virtualization] to work,” Tittel said.

“The real question is, of course, ‘Will network professionals choose to jump on the Cisco bandwagon, or will they stick to better-known, open software and open APIs like those from the Open Networking Foundation and OpenStack?’"

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Lauren Horwitz

Lauren Horwitz is the managing editor of Cisco.com, where she covers the IT infrastructure market and develops content strategy. Previously, Horwitz was a senior executive editor in the Business Applications and Architecture group at TechTarget;, a senior editor at Cutter Consortium, an IT research firm; and an editor at the American Prospect, a political journal. She has received awards from American Society of Business Publication Editors (ASBPE), a min Best of the Web award and the Kimmerling Prize for best graduate paper for her editing work on the journal article "The Fluid Jurisprudence of Israel's Emergency Powers.”