Co-authored by John Apostolopoulos, VP & CTO Enterprise Networking Business, and Lab Director for Innovation Labs


IT is facing a seemingly impossible tradeoff.

On one hand, IT teams have to move faster to keep pace with the needs of the organization – making changes, rolling out new applications, neutralizing threats and bringing up new locations in minutes. On the other hand, they need to operate with a near zero margin of error.  The network simply CANNOT go down. It’s more critical to the business today than it’s ever been. So how can IT move this fast without breaking anything? Is it even possible?

What IT needs is closer than you might imagine.

To achieve this, Cisco and the networking industry is thinking in a fundamentally different way about how we build, operate, and monitor networks. It requires us to shift away from box-by-box configuration and relying on tools like ping and traceroute troubleshooting. Instead, this new network must capture the organization’s requirements – or “business intent” – and be able to continuously align to it. 

This is achieved through a declarative, policy-based system that can self-optimize based on the context in which it’s running. A network that proactively identifies and remediates problems before they result in service degradations, outages, or security breaches. The approach we are describing is very real and the industry has termed it “Intent-Based Networking”.

We can describe an intent-based network as…

“….capturing and translating the intent your organization has for your network,
then automating the intent, enforcing the intent,
and assuring that your network is operating as intended.”

Specifically, when we talk about “intent” we should take into account things like application and service requirements; network and security policies; compliance demands; and operational processes.

To recognize it’s full potential, the intent-based model should be applied end-to-end across all the organization’s relevant network domains, including data center, campus, branch, WAN, cloud and extended enterprise.

In Cisco’s view, an intent-based network (refer to figure) comprises three foundational elements – translation, activation and assurance:

  • Translation: The “Translation” function is about the characterization of intent. It enables network operators to express intent in a declarative and flexible manner, expressing what the expected networking behavior is that best supports the business objectives, rather than how the network elements should be configured to achieve that outcome.
  • Activation: The captured intent then needs to be interpreted into policies that can be automatically applied across the network. The “Activation” function instantiates these policies into the physical and virtual network infrastructure using network-wide automation.
  • Assurance: To continuously check that the network is behaving as the expressed intent, the “Assurance” function maintains a continuous validation-and-verification loop. Context derived from telemetry data is used to check that the operation honors the desired intent. Sophisticated techniques ranging from formal mathematical verification to machine learning and artificial intelligence provide 360 degree visibility of network operation, identifies issues or opportunities for improvements, and recommends actions.

At Cisco, we foresaw the need for this radically new networking model and have been working to deliver the technologies and solutions that are making it real for our customers – based on years of innovation.

We recently announced the latest platforms that will allow you to build “Assurance” across the data center, campus and branch networks.

Over the coming months this blog series will dig further into each of the foundational elements and use cases for intent-based networking. Our aim is for this series of blogs to help you gain a better grasp of intent-based networking, the opportunities and benefits that it can provide you and your company, where we are today at Cisco and our vision of what the future holds.

Let us know if you have questions or topics you’d like to see included in the series.

At this very exciting period in networking, across Cisco we are completely focused on continuing to be your best partner for this journey. Stay tuned.

John and Tom
CTOs for Enterprise and Data Center Networking

For additional information, including analyst research, go to cisco.com/go/intentbasednetworking. And for a deeper dive, we get into more detail in our recent White Paper on Intent-Based Networking.





Tom Edsall

Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer

Data Center Networking