Apstra is proud to have participated at Facebook’s exclusive Disaggregate event featuring unique and cutting edge innovations in the network engineering space. Jeremy Schulman, Head of Customer Enablement at Apstra was one of the presenters today. Modularization of both network hardware and software have the potential to yield enormous benefits for network engineers and businesses that need network. However, there is another really important thing that needs to be disaggregated to fully realize these benefits.
It’s All In Our Heads
When network engineers gather their requirements and understand what they intend to do with their network, they must have an idea of the end-to-end services and edge features they need to achieve their goals. These goals include things like network forwarding characteristics, network filtering and isolation, and redundancy. These services and features are deconstructed into features such as routing protocols and filtering mechanisms, or “service components.
These components must be rendered on the devices themselves, and the exact syntax of how this is accomplished on a box-by-box basis is determined by each box’s operating system and features. For instance, you configure a BGP neighbor on a Cisco NXOS device using syntax that is different than on a JUNOS box. Both accomplish the same thing, but the syntax is different.
This enormous, data-heavy, and highly interconnected web of abstract notions from intention to services to components to rendering are largely contained in the mind of the network engineer, and they are realized through the command-line interface on the devices themselves. It is ultimately through configurations that engineers express these abstract notions. It is, in a way, like describing someone’s face by giving instructions on how to draw it.
“Using a 3B pencil draw and fill in two circles each 4mm in diameter, approximately 63mm apart center-to-center. These are the pupils.”
That sounds like a ridiculous way to describe how someone looks to someone else. It would be tedious and error-prone. Yet, this is exactly how we’ve been building networks for decades. Disaggregation of both network hardware and software means creating interfaces between the various components that make up network devices and network operating systems. These interfaces present us with an opportunity to expand the way network engineers can express themselves, and this is precisely what Apstra has done.
Disaggregation at the device level has, in turn, allowed us to deconstruct and disaggregate this dense web of abstract notions in the minds of network engineers. Intelligent software can be transformed into a distributed system and extended down into the devices themselves in order to fully exploit the interfaces that device disaggregation has created and exposed.
A new palette, far more effective and less prescriptive than device configurations, can be created that allows network engineers to express far more effectively what kind of network they intend to build. This palette allows them to express their intent at the highest level, and to customize easily and as narrowly as required. Well understood and proven design patterns in the network space can be leveraged and customized, reducing the clutter in the minds of engineers.
Well-designed semantics for intent, however, extends beyond just providing better design and deployment experiences. From the expressed intent of the engineer, intelligent software can generate expectations of what the state of the network should be. With a model of these expectations, this software will monitor the network a continuous basis examining numerous operational data points across all devices. Configurations, route tables, MAC tables, ARP tables, interface statuses and counters, even topological changes. This model of expectations allows the software to form a closed feedback loop, alerting engineers about anomalies in the network.
This is the Apstra Operating System (AOS®). While AOS is certainly a big boost for network engineers, it is even more significant for the broader organization: AOS makes the network ready for business sooner and with less risk, all the while improving end-to-end network service delivery to end-users.
With this approach to networking, a network engineer can design, deploy, and operate a network with minimal, if any, CLI interaction. Using multiple vendors in your environment, for instance, one vendor at the edge and another in the core, becomes breathlessly simple to do. Smart software understands what you intend to do and takes care of the details for you.
Thinking Beyond the Box
Innovation such as Facebook’s Wedge100, which disaggregates and modularizes network hardware and software, is what opens the door to real transformation in the user’s experience. By providing network engineers with more effective ways to express themselves, intelligent software can bridge the gap between what’s in their mind and how systems are configured, effectively extending what they intend to do with the network all the way into the devices themselves. Disaggregation isn’t just about system-level details — It’s about pulling apart the tangled knot of network knowledge and implementation details that lives in the minds of network engineers and giving them a sane way to express themselves.