Wouldn’t you love to be able to just tell your network to turn up a VPN for customer x between their Chicago office and their New York office that needed to be able to easily handle video traffic and it just knew what to do? Welcome to the world of Intent Based Networking! In the course of talking about this (not so) new idea we will discuss just what it is, what it is supposed to deliver, and the reality of where we are now and what needs to happen to get there in the future.
What is it?
First of all, just what is meant by the term “Intent” specifically? There are two sides to solving an issue. There is the Intent based view, and then there is the Prescriptive view. Intent means saying WHAT you want done. Prescriptive means saying HOW you want it done. The most popular example I have found in my studies on this topic is cutting your lawn. The Intent based approach is to go find someone that cuts lawns and simply ask them to cut your lawn. You don’t have to explain to them how to do that job because it is what they do. They already know what to do.
A Prescriptive approach would be to go find that person and ask them to: acquire a lawn mower (if one is not already present), acquire gas for the mower, put gas in the mower, check oil in the mower, start mower, cut the grass in a clockwise manner with the cutting height set to 1 inch, and then rake any excessive clippings into a pile in the Southwest corner of the lawn. In this case even if the person you hired wasn’t sure how to cut your lawn, there is a good chance they could get it right by following your Prescriptive set of instructions.
Think of the Services you sell as your lawn and the network control plane and configuration management systems as the hired help to deliver those services. If your network is intelligent enough all you have to do is tell it the Service you want delivered, where to deliver it, and any pertinent optional attributes needed by the customer.
Is your network smart enough to do this today? I think we all know the answer to that.
The promise of Intent Based Networking overlaps with a lot of the promised benefits of Software Defined Networking (SDN). The idea is to create a programmable, dynamic network intelligent enough to take the burden off of Engineers and Circuit Designers to detail how a Service gets delivered to a customer. The catch is that Intent Based Networking is not going to happen without a successful SDN implementation, with appropriate tools supporting the controllers involved.
Imagine a day when your upstream OSS systems are pretty much nothing more than Product and Service Catalogs that link to Order Entry in such a way that the Order communicates the Intent to the intelligent network and has to know nothing else about the technical details of the Service involved. The removal of this burden from those front end OSS systems should make them much easier to manage. It will result in a more complicated network management ecosystem, but this is more than made up for from the gains in flexibility and the ability to dynamically adjust the network to the needs of its users. Orders should be able to flow from a Sales Order, straight to the network for provisioning…once any physical networking activities have been completed, such as fiber builds or equipment installations, of course. Imagine the savings in Cycle Time and manpower needed to complete orders.
The Reality and Future
The reality of Intent Based networking is we have a long way to go for this to be real. You MUST have accurate Resource and Service Inventories for this to work. You MUST have a network that is dynamic and programmable through the implementation of controllers and controller-of-controllers to manage the processes in order to enable the level of automation required. You MUST have automated testing capabilities, for physical and virtual components, in place that can determine if a Service is up and operating to the required specifications, or be able to roll it back if it is not. You must have a Service Catalog that enables detailed modeling of Services and the options available to meet the identified key Intents that customers can choose from, such as video, voice, Data, speed, locations, etc. These Intents are defined by the customer and then the toolset provisions all other details to meet this Intent.
You also MUST have very capable configuration management practices in place, including the ability to manage standard configuration parameters and audit the network to ensure each device meets the standard.
Reality is most, if not every, company is 3-5 years from even being close to this kind of intelligence anywhere in their network, and 5-10 years from it existing across the entirety of their network to an extent than enables full implementation of Intent Based Networking.
I believe this is the target environment everyone should be striving for, however. It is a future that includes powerful platforms that will consume the APIs of southbound systems and expose those capabilities to the top level OSS components. These platforms will provide a level of Service Orchestration to remove a lot of the complexity from the user and place it in the network. Within these platforms will be specialized Micro-Services that will interact with the network and automatically generate a Prescriptive instruction set to the network based on the Intent provided from the user.
This capability will only be possible through the API consumption mentioned above. This will allow the platform(s) to perform unique functions that cross application/device boundaries. This ability to formulate new functionality by combining capabilities of the devices and applications/systems involved is the real power of a platform-based approach to operationalization.
So, the question now might be, “just how do I get there?” I think the industry is working on the specifics of that answer now, but I truly believe that a huge part of that answer is to build on the backs of powerful platforms that can pull together the disparate components involved in the new, evolving network and provide the level of intelligence required to make this happen. We at Itential would like to think we have one of those…one of the first, actually, to focus on this specific problem. We’d love to talk to you about it…
To learn more about Intent Based Networking, here are a few links that delve into more of the details involved: