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Apstra’s Intent-Based Networking OS for Data Centers Gets Smarter

Startup adds analytics to its system – a prerequisite for intent-based networking

Apstra, one of the pioneers behind the emerging intent-based networking trend, is making it easier for data center operators to manage their networks by adding analytics to its flagship software.

The Apstra Operating System (AOS) allows network administrators to automatically configure, deploy, and validate their networks. They can use it to manage networking equipment from any vendor without using command-line interfaces to manually configure each networking device individually, the startup’s CEO, Mansour Karam, said in an interview with Data Center Knowledge.

Gartner defines intent-based networking as software that helps users design a network based on high-level business policy. It takes as input business policy and generates as output the necessary network configuration to support it. It also actually configures the network automatically, monitors network status in real-time, and makes changes continuously to ensure the business policy is upheld.

Last week Menlo Park, California-based Apstra released a new version of the software, AOS 2.1, which features intent-based analytics. The new feature allows IT staffers to specify exactly how they expect their networks to operate. The software continuously validates IT staff’s intent and sends alerts if it spots problems or anomalies.

“For us, it’s a natural extension to say, ‘let’s incorporate this big data pipeline as part of our offering.’ So you can start looking at these sophisticated, complex signatures to detect patterns and really provide insight beyond connectivity and highlight any type of performance issue, security breaches, or traffic imbalances,” Karam said.

The intent-based analytics feature is fully automated and allows network administrators to quickly and easily configure the analytics through a simple interface.

“You can specify the whole pipeline in the most flexible way across any telemetry you want using single declarative specifications,” he said. “It requires no programming or integration and takes minutes rather than months.”

In the past, if IT administrators wanted to grab network data when they installed a new server, they would have to manually configure it. Now, with Apstra’s AOS and intent-based analytics, it will automatically recognize new servers and add the servers’ network interface to the data pipeline, he explained. 

Karam said intent-based analytics brings the industry closer to the ultimate goal of autonomous, or “self-driving,” networks. These networks configure, monitor, and manage themselves with little human intervention.

Intent-based analytics is a critical feature for intent-based networking to work, said Brad Casemore, IDC’s research director for data center networks.

“With intent-based networking, if you don’t have rich analytics and [aren’t] able to make sense of the network data as it relates to performance, application dependencies, and security threats, you may have issues in actually faithfully carrying out the intent of the network,” he said.

Apstra is a pioneer in intent-based networking, but it will face strong competition from the likes of Cisco and Juniper, as well as startups like Veriflow and Forward Networks, as they place their own stamp on the fledgling market, Casemore said.

Cisco, for example, has its own vision and is enhancing its Application Centric Infrastructure platform for intent-based networking, he said.

“You can assume all the major players are going to look to respond to this one way or another,” he said. “This is going to become an area of tremendous innovation, and customers will be the ultimate beneficiaries. In the bigger picture, network operators need to leverage intelligent automation to keep up with the speed of their businesses."

Apstra is seeking to differentiate itself with the breadth and depth of its features, which include intent-based analytics and the fact that it is doing it in a vendor-agnostic way, Casemore added. That means Apstra’s AOS can run on a network that includes equipment from multiple vendors, such as Cisco, Juniper, and Arista Networks.

Data center operators have traditionally standardized on one network equipment vendor, because using a mix of vendors was not an option in the past. In IDC surveys, however, some customers have expressed interest in exploring the use of mixed networks, Casemore said.

“What Apstra is trying to do is say, ‘If you adopt our system, this is the direction you can go,’” he said. “It’s hoping that interest in open networks in data centers will translate into adoption of their intent-based model.”

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