Cisco targets its intent-based network at kickstarting operator spending

Cisco, which has suffered in recent years from slowdowns in operator spending, is hurling major new platforms at the segment, in a bid to take advantage of 5G-driven capex uptick, and to convince service providers that it really is a born-again software house.

As well as the slowdown in network spending in many major markets in the past few years, and the consolidation of operator customers, Cisco has also been threatened by the industry shift from expensive, proprietary hardware solutions to virtualized, software-defined networks running on commodity servers and white box routers and switches.

But on the earnings call to announce its fiscal second quarter 2018 results, Cisco CEO Chuck Robbins was upbeat about the recovery of the telco sector, and said his firm was now fully focused on software and automation – as are large operators – and could apply lessons it had learned from working with cloud and Internet providers.

“When we think about service providers, obviously one of the key variables for us is continuing to make the progress that we’ve been making in the webscale community,” he said. Like rivals with a more specific telecoms heritage, like Nokia (see lead item), Cisco hopes to have a bigger addressable market, as network operators and cloud/Internet providers start to require the same kind of platforms.

A larger target base for Cisco solutions will, it is hoped, offset the pressures that those same cloud giants have piled onto its model, with their moves to push the industry towards commoditized network and server platforms, and a greater reliance on software. “That’s a key focus area for us, as they’re included in this business,” Robbins continued.

Targeting cloud as well as telecoms operators was the first of three measures to inject some new life into Cisco’s service provider business. Second, said Robbins, was to be more regionally diverse and to identify the parts of the world where there were still growth prospects. He said: “The consistency of capex coming from everyone in this space around the world will certainly be a contributor to the future performance. So, I think that’s the other thing that we look for.”

Most importantly will be attempts to launch sufficiently compelling solutions that Cisco manages to kickstart operator spending and buck the stagnation trend – or at least steal share of a pressurized market from competitors. “Third … we’re also working on some next generation platforms that we think can help us here as well,” Robbins concluded.

Those solutions are heavily centered on Cisco’s Intent-Based Networking platform, which is powered by the Catalyst 9000 switch in its current iteration, and on automation, a key theme for service providers gearing up for 5G and the IoT.

In June, Cisco announced a new branding and portfolio called Network. Intuitive, with Catalyst 9000 as its engine; and its automation platform, DNA Center. The 9000 comes with a subscription model option, which enables Cisco to deliver additional features to its intent-based network platform as they appear – the most recent ones, last month, concerned assurance spanning data centers, wireline and WiFi networks.

Robbins said in an interview with Network World: “If you go back to the original launch we talked about intent, which is really delivered through automation and context which is delivered through analytics. What we have done is rewritten our operating system to not only support modern API structures and programmability but also to build analytics capabilities out of the network which helps deliver this context”

The broad intent-based networking strategy is woven through with analytics, AI and automation, and increasingly, Cisco will target these capabilities more specifically at the operator market as providers start to consider how to implement the fully intelligent, fully automated market and the business models, including network slicing, that could enable.

Last week, Cisco announced Crosswork Network Automation, a software suite designed to help service providers automate processes and solve network problems more quickly. It promises to address various operator issues, including migrating networks to new technologies; deploying new services; extracting network performance data from vendor silos; identifying and remedying network problems which create poor customer experiences.

Crosswork is designed to move a step ahead of current self-optimizing network (SON) offerings – such as those Cisco itself acquired with Intucell – and to approach full automation, rendered intelligent by AI-driven analytics. This will lead to a “self-healing and self-optimizing infrastructure without interrupting services and without human intervention”, Cisco said, while reducing the time it takes to deploy a new service or fix a problem.

The company claims Crosswork is “the first closed-loop, mass-scale automation solution that embraces multivendor networks” – though as multivendor SON system vendors know, there can be major challenges in getting the network equipment providers to open up to work with third party tools.

Crosswork builds on two existing Cisco products: Network Services Orchestrator and WAN Automation Engine, and it also contains five new offerings:

• Data Platform: A data lake to visualize historical data by aggregating data from across the network into an unstructured database based on the open source big data analytics platform.

• Network Insights: A cloud-based service to help operators understand their router BGP infrastructure to resolve problems and meet attacks.

• Situation Manager: This monitors all the network’s daily events and condenses them into a small set of scenarios which the operator can focus on solving, highlighting general trends such as regional issues.

• Change Automation and Health Insights: These combine to enable networks to solve problems on their own without staff intervention.

The launch is vintage Cisco in the sense that it harnesses open source technology and open APIs, in the service of creating a de facto standard. It is notable that Cisco is not basing its solution on one of the open frameworks, such as ONAP or ETSI Zero-touch, which are addressing similar issues, but wants to establish its own platform as the best way to manage multivendor networks.

However, this moves on the debate and puts some practical tools into the intent-based framework unveiled in June. Those were initially firmly geared to the data center. But as telco networks evolve into IT and cloud platforms, and even the mobile RAN can be run as a set of virtual network functions (VNFs) in a data center, intent-based systems – once stripped of their hype – will certainly be closely watched by mobile operators too, something Cisco recognized in its latest operator-focused launches.

Intent-based networking has been buzzing around in the conversation about next generation enterprise and carrier networks for at least a year and a few start-ups have implemented elements of it commercially (Apstra, Veriflow and Forward Networks among them). Like SDN (software-defined networking), it is a broad concept of how a network can be run, into which many specific products and standards will fit. It is basically a new approach to lifecyle management for networking infrastructure, harnessing machine learning to plan, design and run highly agile systems in a very automated way which responds to changes in traffic, or network condition, as they occur.

The main difference from other software-driven network ideas is that the network configures itself based on an outcome mandated by the operator or the user. An operator issues a command and the network automatically configures itself to achieve that.

Its tasks can be grouped around four stages of operation, all of which can be applied to the mobile RAN and backhaul. Once an end user or operator expresses a desired outcome or policy, through commands or APIs, the system:

• Ingests real time network status alerts with advanced context awareness.
• Creates a network configuration in response to user request or operator policy and validates whether it is achievable.
• Implements that configuration automatically across the network infrastructure, via orchestration software (e.g. if an operator defines a certain level of security for certain apps, firewalls and other elements can be configured for the appropriate users, times of day etc) . This is not about managing individual devices, but applying a policy throughout the network and its elements.
• Continuously validates that the policy objective (e.g. bandwidth amount, QoS level) is being met, in real time, and takes corrective actions (e.g. modifying capacity, fixing faults, blocking traffic) when this is not so.

This extends existing ideas of intelligence, automation and agility which have been creeping into MNO thinking via virtualization, SDN, SON and network slicing. Indeed, intent-based networking may be very significant in making network slicing a more practical option for some operators, helping to bridge the gap between implementing SDN and creating dynamic, end-to-end slices of capacity, optimized with the right network characteristics for a particular service or user.

Machine learning is at the heart of intent-based networking, enabling the network to learn constantly about its context and use that knowledge to make ever-better decisions about tweaking and adjusting itself.

This is where the test will come for Cisco in the operator environment – whether its approach stands up against those of other organizations which are developing AI algorithms and embedding them into the functions of lifecycle management, network orchestration and preventative maintenance. From Nokia’s self-driving telco program to Juniper’s Cloud-Grade Networking, there are many takes on this issue, whether or not they are labelled intent-based.

The primary reason why machine learning is on the minds of enterprises and operators now is the looming spectre of the massive IoT, one in which many millions of devices may be attached to one network. Manual engineering and optimization processes will clearly fall down at this point but Cisco claims that, with intent-based systems, network provisioning time can be reduced by 67%, and the impact of a security breach lowered by 48%. With promises like this, the vendor aims to put intent-based networking at the heart of its multi-faceted attack on the IoT world.

“We have to drive ruthless simplicity,” said Robbins, in order to accommodate a world of mobility and IoT. That means viewing the whole network holistically, since there will be no time for different siloes to set up communications, in a world of huge numbers of devices, some requiring near-real time response. In order to “turn the entire infrastructure into a single system”, Robbins added, intent-based networking will be paired with telemetry and machine learning to create a constant feedback loop that allows the network to be fully context-aware.

This clearly fits with the approach that many mobile industry players believe will enable effective network slicing. These slices will be orchestrated and assured from end to end through automated closed control loops using intent-based management, analytics and policy, says TMForum.

Cisco says its new portfolio is the culmination of its vision to create an “intuitive system that anticipates actions, stops security threats in their tracks, and continues to evolve and learn.” In fact, many of these ideas were already present in their portfolio. Tom Nolle of CIMI Research wrote in a blog post about the launch: “Cisco’s approach to transformation has always been what cynics would call ‘cosmetic’. There really isn’t much new in the Cisco intent approach.  Cisco has always been an advocate of “policy-based” networking, meaning a form of determinism where the goals are translated into a hierarchy of policies that then guide how traffic is handled down below.  This is still their approach.”

Cisco will have more of a challenge when intent-based networking extends its reach into the RAN, where the company has not penetrated the fortresses of Nokia, Ericsson and Huawei. Those vendors may not be using the term just yet, but they are pushing ahead with AI-driven, automated, intuitive and self-driving networks all the same. They tend to start in the access networks where they have unique strength, but they are moving rapidly into the data centers too, conscious that this will be the key to power in virtualized, IT-driven RANs.

A mighty clash is threatening between the traditional mobile vendors and Cisco, in the critical battle to achieve end-to-end orchestration of a virtualized, software-defined telco network, which can support slicing even in the difficult area of the RAN.

Cisco’s intent-based networking may be currently focused on its traditional customers, but if it is to rejuvenate its carrier business, it will need to ensure that their particularly demanding requirements are met. This will come to a head when operators start to plan slicing for real, and have to decide between an approach with mobile industry roots, as defined by NGMN or ETSI, and one coming from the IT industry. The same dilemma is seen in other key places within the new software-driven telco network – ETSI MEC versus OpenFog for edge computing, for instance, or OSM versus OpenStack-based ONAP for orchestration.

There will not be a strict either/or decision, and most vendors and operators will end up combining elements of both approaches. That may involve Cisco opening its garden walls a little and working more closely with partners with real telco and RAN knowledge, strategic ally Ericsson being the obvious one. For now, its new announcements may not be as radical as it would have us believe, but they do put a fashionable label on a very significant attempt to seize the initiative as the telco network turns into another IT platform.

The foundation stones of Cisco’s Intent-based Network:

The key elements of Cisco’s Intent-based Network, as set out in June, are:

• The DNA Center, a successor to Cisco’s Digital Network Architecture, is the brains of the intent-based system. This will be the command and control platform, communicating intent to network elements and receiving and analyzing telemetry inputs.

• Catalyst 9000 switches. Cisco’s latest Catalyst models are its most programmable to date, in line with the move to a software-driven network. They are based on new ASICs which are sufficiently programmable that they can support third party applications. That will be valuable in the one of the key approaches of the intent-based system – to distribute the cloud platform, with all its analytics and AI, to the network edge. The new switches will provide replacements for the whole Catalyst portfolio – the 9300 will replace the Catalyst 3000 line, the 9400 will succeed the 4000 range, and so on.

• Upgraded IOS XE, which has been rewritten to be “open, modular, and API-driven”. Cisco has added container support and the ability to program the OS through APIs, and for the first time, the system will run third party applications.

• SD-Access, new software to manage automated policy enforcement and network segmentation.

• Network Data Platform, a repository that categorizes and correlates network data for use by the machine learning tools.

• DNA Developer Center, which includes learning resources, sandboxes, APIs and support to help developers create applications that interface with the network.

Service provider performance in Cisco’s Q218:

In its second fiscal quarter, Cisco’s service provider revenue declined by 5% year-on-year. However, there were some bright spots, notably the new Catalyst 9000 switch which has been adopted by 3,100 customers across all segments, according to Robbins.

“I think our total customer population is well over 800,000, so we obviously have room to run,” he said. “From a segment perspective, the commercial marketplace has been a great adopter of the technology. And what I would tell you is that the enterprises have been evaluating it because it represents a different architectural approach with automation and analytics and security built into the network.”

Total revenue was $11.9bn, up 3%, with product revenue up 3% and service revenue up 3%. From a geographic point of view, Americas was up 5%, while EMEA was flat, and Asia-Pacific was down 2%. It was the first time for six quarters that Cisco reported year-on-year sales growth.

Other highlights of the quarter included:

• Product revenue was up 3% year-on-year to $8.71bn. Infrastructure Platforms returned to growth, growing by 2% to $6.69bn.

• Applications (unified communications, conferencing and telepresence; Jasper IoT; and AppDynamics), was up 6 % to $1.18bn.

• Security revenues rose 6% to $558m and services were up 3% to $3.17bn.