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What is the relationship between SDN and intent-based networking?

SDN and intent-based networking share more in common than hype about their promises and potential. Our expert weighs in on how the two technologies aim to improve automation.

Intent-based networking is the newest concept that promises to revolutionize the networking industry. SDN and intent-based networking share similarities, as IBN extends SDN concepts to improve network automation and abstract complexity, which includes capabilities like reducing manual network programming.

SDN was introduced six or seven years ago as a way to logically separate network hardware and software, and as the means to provide network programmability, improve automation and reduce costs. The concept of SDN is now mainstream in the data center and the WAN -- in the form of software-defined WAN. It has moved the focus of network innovation to software, rather than proprietary hardware. While some leading hyperscale cloud providers, like Google, Facebook and Amazon, have deployed SDN to program their networks and radically reduce costs, SDN has had a relatively limited effect in terms of automating networking operations.

Moving to intent-based networking

According to Gartner, 75% of organizations still manage their networks manually, and many continue to use command-line interfaces. Intent-based networking abstracts network complexity and improves automation by eliminating manual configurations. It allows a user or administrator to send a simple request -- using natural language -- to the physical network. For example, an IT administrator can request improved voice quality for its voice-over-IP application, and the network can respond.

Like SDN before it, IBN and its promises are not yet a technological reality.

SDN and intent-based networking dovetail with each other, because IBN implementation may include the use of an SDN controller that can carry out the desired policies and intent. Current versions of IBN can automate operations like IP address settings and configuring virtual LANs, and it can analyze network traffic to detect threats and provide clues about how to troubleshoot network issues. Intent-based networking should allow organizations to rapidly deploy and scale new data center network resources.

Future IBN advances will be able to detect and automatically resolve network challenges, like security anomalies and network slowdowns. Implementation of open APIs in IBN will allow for better multivendor integration and enable advanced users to more easily program the network.

IBN challenges

Both SDN and intent-based networking offer compelling promises. But like SDN before it, IBN and its promises are not yet a technological reality. Suppliers like Cisco have started to deliver on the journey toward IBN. Standards organizations like OpenDaylight need to add IBN awareness to their standards-based SDN controllers. IT organizations still face the challenging decision as to whether they should base their data center, campus network or WAN on one vendor, or work with a number of innovative startups -- or open source code -- to abstract their physical network.

Suppliers to watch

As with all new hot marketing terms, networking suppliers are rushing to describe their products as intent-based networking. Cisco recently announced ambitious plans to enhance its products with improved automation via its Digital Network Architecture and Catalyst 9000 switches. Smaller suppliers innovating around the concept of intent-based networking include Apstra, Gluware, Plexxi, Veriflow, Forward Networks and VeloCloud.

This was last published in December 2017

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