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Intent-based networking: Taking the hassle out of networking management

Intent-based networking can articulate the needs of the business through networking policy—and take the manual tedium out of setting policy. Here’s how.

For networking engineers, there is a new tool in the networking management toolbox, and it has already begun to change how networking pros manage network infrastructure.

Known as intent-based networking (IBN), this new policy-based management form of networking management enables configuration of network hardware through software. It’s a new way of managing the network, so it may seem foreign at first. But with some basic organization and policy concepts–combined with the knowledge of how migration tools can get you there–you begin to realize the true power of business intent applied to a network.

With intent-based networking, administrators can identify business-oriented policies that can be converted into network configuration policy. One set of policies is articulated by the business, the other by the network. The intelligence behind IBN translates one into the other. The translation process eliminates time and complexity in modifying networks to align with business goals. It's an impressive step forward–and a drastic departure from the norm.

That said, IBN can prompt hesitation among networking professionals who don’t understand the new skills it requires. Some struggle to understand where they should start in building an intent-based networking architecture. With traditional networks, the design process begins by an architect manually translating business goals into configurations that the network understands. This includes tasks such as creating/managing virtual local area networks (VLANs), subnets as well as establishing thresholds for networking performance and security policies.

If a business uses videoconferencing and needs video applications particularly within certain hours, it may configure the network for certain bandwidth requirements that enable numerous users to use videoconferencing without experiencing choppiness or delay. Once a network understands these kinds of business requirements, policies can be automatically deployed based on these needs.

Put another way: Legacy networks require that a network architect identifies how data flows are transported across a network. With IBN, the how process is handled for you. Instead, the network platform simply needs to understand what the network should do from a business perspective. Thus, a network architect simply needs to understand what the network needs to know in order to create the necessary configurations. The artificial intelligence (AI) within the IBN then automates the creation of network policy based on this intent.

For this to work, application, system and network administrators must know how to input policy at a high level; translation is no longer required. The trick is organization. For example, let’s say that the business requires you to deploy a series of Internet of Things (IoT) sensors throughout the enterprise LAN.

To accomplish this goal, your input to the IBN orchestrator might look like this: "Create a new VLAN and IPv4 subnet for all IoT devices." Thus, instead of manually creating the Layer 2 VLAN, Layer 3 subnet, DHCP pools and quality of service/access control list policies for IoT devices, IBN would perform these duties. As long as the network provides what the business needs from a network perspective, the tedious and time-consuming configuration steps are no longer part of the process.

When you think about it, is it necessary to choose a specific VLAN number or IP address scope? Not really. As long as these items fit into a network framework that’s predetermined, the details are irrelevant and can be configured and managed by AI. If end devices are categorized by user and/or device type, the appropriate IP settings, traffic-shaping rules and security policy enforcement can be automatically applied seamlessly and without error.

With a bit of organization, you can build the operational network state, which is the power of IBN and the path to better networking management.

That said, it’s one thing to be able to start from scratch and organize network components and various network parameters into categories to create a fresh operational network state. It’s yet another to try to take an existing legacy network and migrate it to a more intelligent IBN, right?

Not necessarily. Instead of forcing you to comb through lines of code on your legacy network devices to piece together and reverse-engineer business intent on a hop-by-hop basis, most IBN platforms offer automatic host and network policy discovery tools to automate this process for you. These automated tools collect the necessary information and present it to you in a readable format. Once complete, you can easily review, change and upload these policies into the IBN policy orchestrator.

For those contemplating how to migrate from traditional networking management tactics to IBN, it requires looking at the network differently. With some organizational skills and a reliance on handy tools, you’ll quickly begin to understand why intent-based networks are expected to completely revolutionize all of enterprise IT in the very near future.

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Andrew Froehlich

Andrew Froelhich is the president of West Gate Networks, an IT consultancy and services provider. He has been involved in enterprise IT for more than 15 years. His primary focus is Cisco wired and wireless, voice-network design, implementation and support as well as network security. Froehlich has experience with network infrastructure upgrades and new buildouts. He's also been heavily involved in data center architectures designed to provide fault-tolerant enterprise applications and services to thousands of users.