Why Intent-Based Networking Requires Better Network Visibility

Intent-based networking (IBN) became a major talking point of the networking industry in 2017 and 2018 after Cisco announced a major push to bring the technology to end-to-end networks. Much has been said in the past 18 months about the benefits of this new, policy-based, highly-automated style of network management, and the possible roadblocks to implementing it successfully. But, the concept of network visibility has been mostly absent from that discussion, which is a terrible oversight. The importance of granular network visibility can’t be understated when it comes to IBN initiatives. Without comprehensive network visibility, operators can’t establish meaningful, effective intent-based policies, verify those policies are working appropriately, or access the insights required to troubleshoot network issues occurring in spite of, or because of those policies.

A quick refresher. IBN is the idea that a network administrator can set a policy for the desired state of the network, and automated network orchestration software will implement those policies without further human interaction. This idea isn’t new, but with the adoption of software-defined networking and the controller with the increased use of machine learning, there is an increase in automating network management tasks. According to Cisco, the main benefits of IBN are speed and agility, freeing up time for IT to focus on activities that add value to the business, and reducing risk and improving compliance by eliminating human mistakes. IBN is still very much an early-stage technology and Gartner estimates it will not be “mainstream” until 2020.

On the surface, successful IBN seems like it would eliminate the need for detailed network visibility and management tools – it’s all automated now, right? Wrong. This is absolutely incorrect. Here are several reasons why network visibility is key for successful IBN:

1. Context and Understanding: Humans beings still need to set the policies that intent-based networks follow. If you don’t know the current state of their network or where it has issues, you might select the wrong policies. If you can’t verify that the automated system is working as planned, you don’t know if they need to adjust your policies or not. Analytics, especially highly visual ones, help to provide this understanding.

2. Hybrid Network Analysis: Gartner predicts that IBN will initially be deployed on a small scale for specific tasks like managing spine/leaf data center fabrics and WAN edge infrastructure. Large enterprises will upgrade their networks in stages. During this transition, enterprises will have hybrid networks that are even more difficult to manage with legacy monitoring methods. LiveAction uses a big data backend and our own machine learning to comb through network telemetry data at scale to make it easy to visualize and troubleshoot the entire network, both the IBN portion and the legacy portion.

3. User Trust: Customers that adopt IBN or software-defined networking (SDN) solution don’t necessarily trust these systems from day one. Network visibility, especially the visualizations that LiveAction offers, provide a way to easily check that the system is performing as designed. As businesses build up trust in these systems over time, they will move to adopt additional coverage or more complex policies (intent).

4. Visibility into Complex Fabrics: IBN/SDN fabrics create a virtual network. Customers need tools that can extract networking data from them with the proper context to make it understandable or else they’ll become black holes in the network. This makes troubleshooting and planning for future upgrades significantly more difficult.

5. The Irony of Automation: Contrary to what you might believe, automating a system actually makes users understand it less since they are no longer immersed in the nitty-gritty tasks of maintaining that system each day. LiveAction’s network visualizations are designed to provide that deeper level of network understanding that is lost by the high levels of automation inherent to IBN. A large body of academic research shows that automated systems inevitably have errors over time (whether due to human errors setting them up, or by failing to account for all possible scenarios), so without a tool like LiveNX, the networking team will actually be in a worse position to troubleshoot these errors in an intent-based network.

As you can see, network visibility capabilities, especially the type of network visualizations that LiveNX provides, are critical to the success of IBN initiatives. Read more about our partnership and integration with Cisco DNA Center here and about our capabilities that support intent-based networking here.