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Enterprise Networks - Intent-based networking sparks business innovation

The network used to get in the way of business initiatives. Today, with intent-based networking, it's enabling them.

For years, networking infrastructure has been an easy target for criticism.

When the network is sluggish, or security is compromised, blame tends to fall on IT. The business often perceives networking as a necessary evil blocking business agility.

But today, networking is enabling new capabilities such as network programmability and automation. These reduce the time and error associated with tasks that can be better achieved through software code.

Dubbed intent-based networking, this network programmability enables IT pros to deploy, manage, or troubleshoot network devices via application programming interfaces (APIs) to gather data and automate network functions.

Experts say APIs enable IT pros to manage the network as a uniform entity and build new capabilities on top of it. “It turns the network into a centralized platform to manage apps and infrastructure,” said Brandon Butler, senior research analyst at the analyst and research firm IDC.

Cisco partners and integrators are seeing the benefits of intent-based networking in action.

“We can very quickly build apps which extend the out-of-the-box functionality because of the APIs and programmability,” said Neil Anderson, practice manager of mobility and access at World Wide Technology (WWT), a Cisco partner. The St. Louis company has built a mobile app on top of Cisco intent-based networking.

Data from research and analyst firm Enterprise Strategy Group suggests that companies now see the network as the onramp to business benefits. Specifically, companies see the following networking capabilities as most beneficial to the business: network security (46%), the ability to incorporate Internet of Things (IoT)-connected devices (23%) and enabling new applications (23%).

Mobile network management

Over the past 10 years, the world has gone decidedly mobile. But IT pros have been able to manage the network effectively only by remaining within the confines of network operations centers (NOCs).

With APIs, Cisco service providers have been able to break from those limitations and program networks to do new things. IT pros receive alerts on or manage policy configuration from an iPhone. That frees network engineers to monitor the network from whatever location—while remaining informed and able to take action in real time.

“Using our Mobile Ops Center app, I can get push notifications on something in the network that has changed status,” Anderson said. “I can click on that alert, and it takes me into a mobile version of Cisco Digital Network Architecture (Cisco DNA), or Cisco DNA Center, and figure out what is going on with the network, even mark that issue as resolved, or open a case in a trouble ticketing system.”

Admittedly, though, mobile network troubleshooting can involve a two-tiered strategy. Mobile device screens are small, and commands onscreen are even smaller. In some cases, network engineers will have to resolve the issue when they return to their desks.

“You may need to get on your laptop to remedy the issue if there is a lot of troubleshooting involved,” Anderson said. “But it at least allows you to monitor and solve simple issues.”

WWT also envisions combining this mobile app with other technologies, such as Alexa, Siri and other voice-activated assistants. This kind of hands-free network management will evolve, Anderson said. Networking engineers could instruct Alexa to complete an action, such as “’Tell me if our top applications are getting great experience’ or to get information like, ‘How many wireless users are on the network right now?’ These kinds of capabilities didn’t exist not that long ago, and we’re just scratching the surface of the possibilities,” Anderson said.

Network automation and IoT

Building applications on top of the network enables companies to bring various technologies together for business-specific purposes.

Italtel USA, a Cisco partner and integrator, for example, has combined intent-based networking with collaboration technologies and IoT-connected devices to secure access to manufacturing production lines.

Using network programmability, APIs, IoT devices and collaboration technologies, Italtel has established granular networking and security policies to monitor and control those trying to gain physical entry to the manufacturing floor, said Camilio Ascione, strategic alliance manager and chief technology officer at Italtel. The plant area is restricted to users with access privileges.

“It’s very dangerous to have someone in there who shouldn’t have access,” Ascione said.

If a user wants to gain access to the restricted area via an RFID-enabled badge, his or her identity is then sent to Cisco DNA Center. Identity verification switches on an IoT-enabled surveillance camera to further identify the individual and also initiates a conversation via a chatbot, or automated digital assistant, that communicates via text or voice, via Cisco Webex Teams.

If the individual is denied entrance to the area, the chatbot can send an alert. Humans, who also manage access to the production line, can intervene and determine whether the individual should gain access or whether there may be a security risk requiring the production line to be shut down.

Network engineers now have a centralized console from which to manage applications and infrastructure in accordance with security policy, plus they can build new business-enabling capabilities on top. As in Italtel’s case, building IoT-enabled capabilities on top of the network enables new production-line automation and security.

“That’s incredibly important for IoT devices, given how many of them there could potentially be,” Butler said. “You need automated processes to be able to manage those. If you’re doing it manually, it’s just not going to work at that sort of scale.”

The next chapter in networking?

Observers agree that intent-based networking signals a significant step forward in IT infrastructure.

“Most people I’ve talked to are far more excited today about what’s taking place in the network than ever before,” said Bob Laliberte, a senior analyst and practice director at Enterprise Strategy Group (ESG).

Experts say that other technologies’ progress, including machine learning, will enable even more intelligent networking capabilities and automation in the future. 

“In the future, we’re going to see increased ability to set policy centrally and apply that across different domains,” Butler said. “We’ll have the opportunity to have management policies, security policies and user policies centralized across one environment. Machine learning platforms, as they get more data fed into them, will become more useful. We’re just at the tip of the iceberg.”

But unlocking these capabilities may require retraining, education and introduction of new skills, including network programming skills. Networking engineers may have to shed traditional scripting in and learn new programming languages, such as Python and Java.

“Intent-based networking holds a lot of promise,” Butler said. “But because it’s new technology, it’s going to require education on how to apply in [companies’] environments and how to best incorporate automation in your environment and centralize visibility.”

For part one of this series on intent-based networking, see “Networking programmability and automation ushers in efficiency revolution.”

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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.”