Does Cisco Now Have a Network That Can Read Admins' Minds?

Cisco’s all-new network ostensibly can recognize intent, mitigate threats through encryption and learn over time, enabling admins to handle millions of connections.

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Cisco Systems is taking its concept of a smart network to a whole new, post-graduate level.

At a media event in San Francisco, the world's largest internet pipeline fitter and networking provider on June 20 unveiled what it calls an "intent-based," cognitive-in-nature networking system that anticipates actions, provides predictive analysis if needed and stops security threats in their tracks—all while machine-learning everything for future use.

In short, this network ostensibly will know more about what's going on inside the pipes than most administrators will ever learn; in a lot of cases, it will know how to fix errors and plug security holes faster than a human can analyze a problem and do something about it.

Nothing against network admins; it's just that there are so many new-gen pipelines being laid, connecting so many new data sources, clouds and storage arrays in anticipation of the Internet of things, that it is getting virtually impossible to manage what are fast-becoming mega-networks. The new Cisco network is the result of years of research and development to reinvent networking for an age where network engineers managing hundreds of devices today will be expected to manage 1 million by 2020.

Reality check: That's less than three years away.

What Distinguishes an 'Intent-Based' Network

What's the main difference between an "intent-based" IT network and a typical "smart" network, which also contains brains that are quite useful for IT admins? Can it "read" admins' minds, so to speak?

"In my mind, the intent-based network is solving specific customer issues," Cisco Vice-President David West told eWEEK. "These are around digitization, IoT, mobility, cloud, pervasive security. This is taking infrastructure and combining it with software to deliver a rich set of services across a network."

This new network is content-based, because it will use machine learning to capture and understand what is going on across all networks inside a system, West said. It will know what an admin needs before he or she does.

So does this mean that these networks can be optimized for specific use cases within various industries?

"Yes, this is programmable, it's API (application programming interface)-driven, it has consistent silicon and a new operating system that runs across the entire Cisco product line," West said.

Chuck Robbins (pictured at the June 20 event in San Francisco) has been at the forefront of this initiative during his two years in the Cisco CEO chair.

"The network has never been more critical to business success, but it's also never been under more pressure," Robbins told a gathering of press and analysts. "By building a more intuitive network, we are creating an intelligent platform for the future that propels businesses forward and creates new opportunities for people and organizations."

Conventional Networks May Be Unsustainable

Most companies manage their networks by using conventional IT processes that are likely to be unsustainable in the age of IoT. Cisco's approach is an intuitive system that constantly learns, adapts, automates and protects, in order to optimize network operations and defend against an always-worsening threat landscape.

Cisco, which has been looking during the last several years to move into new businesses because its original Internet pipes have pretty much saturated the global market, has decided to go back to the future and revisit the needs of the IT network economy as it will relate to future economies.

As a result, the company decided to use its No. 1 network market position to gather data of all types and move its products to the new level noted earlier in this story. All this data from the field is being used to create its new analytics-led system, so that it can provide IT users with insights to spot anomalies and anticipate issues in real time, without compromising privacy.

By automating the edge of the network and embedding machine learning and analytics at a foundational level, Cisco is able to manage and automate growing networks and allow IT to focus on strategic business needs, West said.

Seventy-five global enterprises and organizations are conducting early field trials with these next-generation networking solutions, West said, including DB Systel GmbH, Jade University of Applied Sciences, NASA, Royal Caribbean Cruises Ltd., Scentsy, UZ Leuven and Wipro.

Informed by Context, Powered by Business Intent

Cisco describes its intuitive network as an intelligent, highly secure platform "powered by intent and informed by context." More specifically:

  • Intent: Intent-based networking allows IT to move from tedious traditional processes to automating intent, making it possible to manage millions of devices in minutes—an important development to help organizations navigate an ever-expanding technology landscape.
  • Context: Interpreting data in context is what enables the network to provide new insights. It's not just the data that's important, it's the context that surrounds it: the who, what, when, where and how. The intuitive network interprets all of this, resulting in better security, more customized experiences and faster operations.
  • Intuition: The new network provides machine-learning at scale. Cisco is using the vast amount of data that flows through its networks around the world, with machine learning built in and unleashing that data to provide actionable insights.

What Powers the Intuitive Network

Cisco Digital Network Architecture (DNA) is comprised of the following:

  • DNA Center: An intuitive, centralized management dashboard providing IT teams with an intent-based approach spanning design, provisioning, policy and assurance. With full visibility and context across the entire network, DNA Center allows IT to centralize management of all network functions.
  • Software-Defined Access (SD-Access): SD-Access uses automated policy enforcement and network segmentation over a single network fabric to dramatically simplify network access for users, devices and things. By automating day-to-day tasks such as configuration, provisioning and troubleshooting, SD-Access cuts the time it takes to adapt the network, improves issue resolution from weeks and months to hours, and reduces security breach impact. Initial analysis with field trial customers and internal testing have shown a reduction in network provisioning time by 67 percent, improved issue resolution by 80 percent, reduced security breach impact by 48 percent, and OpEx savings of 61 percent.
  • Network Data Platform and Assurance: This new analytics platform categorizes and correlates the vast amount of data running on the network and uses machine learning to turn it into predictive analytics, business intelligence and actionable insights delivered through the DNA Center Assurance service.
  • Encrypted Traffic Analytics: Nearly half of cyber-attacks are hidden in encrypted traffic and this number keeps growing. By utilizing Cisco's Talos cyber intelligence and machine learning to analyze metadata traffic patterns, the network can identify the fingerprints of known threats even in encrypted traffic, without decrypting it and impacting data privacy. Cisco claims to enable IT to detect threats in encrypted traffic with up to 99 percent accuracy, with less than 0.01 percent false positives.
  • Catalyst 9000 Switching Portfolio: Cisco is introducing a new family of switches built for the new realities of the digital era and centered on the demands of mobility, cloud, IoT and security. The Cisco Catalyst 9000 delivers unmatched security, programmability and performance by innovating at the hardware (ASIC) and software (IOS XE) layers.
  • Software SubscriptionCisco is now making software subscription an essential element of its flagship campus switching portfolio. When purchasing the new Catalyst 9000 family of switches, customers will access the DNA software capabilities by subscription, either via pre-bundled Cisco ONE software suites or a-la-carte components. Available across the entire enterprise networking portfolio, Cisco ONE software provides businesses with access to ongoing innovation, budget predictability, and a more agile way to consume the technology.
  • Developer Center: Cisco is releasing a new DevNet DNA Developer Center with resources to help developers and IT professionals create network-powered applications and integrate them within their IT systems and workflows. This includes new learning tracks, sandboxes, and developer support resources for using APIs and building skills.

Availability

Cisco said it is rolling out its new Catalyst 9300, 9400 and 9500 systems containing all these new capabilities this month and in July. Other products will be made available next fall. Go here for more information. 

Chris Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger

Chris J. Preimesberger is Editor of Features & Analysis at eWEEK, responsible in large part for the publication's coverage areas. In his 12 years and more than 3,900 stories at eWEEK, he...