Cisco loads DNA Center up with AI features — Industry Voices: Kerravala

Zeus Kerravala

Cisco this week released the next version of its DNA Center, an open platform for orchestrating network deployment. DNA Center version 2.2.2 builds on version 2.1.2, which, according to Cisco, saw the fastest adoption rate on record, and comes with new capabilities centered on connectivity, security and improved controls for IT administrators.

Cisco has numerous software orchestrators and controllers that are managed across different domains (campus, branch, cloud) and across different architectures (networking, security, applications collaboration). All of these elements come together in DNA Center, which takes a systems-thinking approach to all aspects of the network, including wired campus, Wi-Fi network and wide area networking (WAN). When coupled with Cisco’s flagship Catalyst 9000 switches and Catalyst 8000 SD-WAN routers, DNA Center is well positioned to deliver “secure agile networks,” explained Jeff Scheaffer, VP of product management for Cisco.

While some of this is marketing speak, Sheaffer is correct.  I’ve talked to many DNA Center customers that use the AI capabilities to ensure the network is always running optimally. It aids with security as it simplifies the process of pushing policies and updates across the network quickly.  

Whether employees are returning to the office full-time or moving to permanent work-from-home environments, IT administrators must ensure that the expanded enterprise network runs smoothly, and users get a flawless digital experience regardless of their location. The new capabilities in DNA Center address the challenge of maintaining complex enterprise networks.  Cisco has evolved DNA Center to be more than just a network management tool as it’s designed for four personas: NetOps, SecOps, AIOps, and DevOps. Typically, each of these groups would use a different dashboard but Cisco is trying to create a “single tool to rule them all.” While the intention is good, those four groups still work separately in many organizations.

The pandemic could tip things in Cisco’s favor though as the network value has increased greatly because of the pandemic. ZK Research recently ran a survey and asked companies about network value post pandemic, and 69% stated that the network is considered more strategic today compared to a year ago.  This has put pressure on the IT subgroups to collaborate better together. DNA Center can be that single source of truth. 

The big news for this update is that Cisco is bringing AIOps, or advanced analytics in the form of artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), to network operations. AIOps improves network reliability by predicting problems and addressing them proactively. When using AI/ML to troubleshoot, administrators can quickly identify the root cause of network problems and restore service. Taking that up a notch, a new comparative analytics feature in DNA Center allows administrators to evaluate the performance differences of network devices and clients.  

This can be very beneficial with Wi-Fi that has been historically difficult to troubleshoot. ZK Research found that network engineers can spend up to 25% of their time doing nothing but Wi-Fi troubleshooting.  AI based analytics can certainly help bring that number down. The WAN is also a huge problem spot, particularly in a hybrid work environment as most management tools did not extend off the corporate campus. DNA Center shines a light on a historical big blind spot. 

RELATED: Top takeaways from Cisco’s Q3 fiscal 2021 results — Kerravala

As part of the DNA Center subscription, Catalyst 9000 switches will be shipping with Cisco’s ThousandEyes observability tool. The tool is designed for organizations that have complex multi-cloud environments with hundreds of apps. The integration of DNA Center and ThousandEyes agents on access switches simplifies their installation, updates, and removal. I’ve followed ThousandEyes long before the Cisco acquisition and customers have raved about the tool's ability to find the source of problems on the public Internet, another historical blind spot. This extends the concept of “end to end” to be the home worker, across the internet and on to the company premises. 

RELATED: Cisco snatches up network monitoring company ThousandEyes

One DNA Center customer, Renown Health in Nevada, is currently running two main campus locations and about 70 off sites. In the new version, the urgent care network wants to take advantage of the ThousandEyes integration. Implementing ThousandEyes through DNA Center will simplify and speed up deployment, which was slow in the past, said Dustin Metteer, lead network engineer at Renown Health.

Additionally, DNA center now integrates with Ekahau maps, so administrators can better plan out wireless deployments. They can access Wi-Fi coverage heatmaps to track network performance throughout the day and custom build networks that take floor plan and capacity requirements into consideration.

The other key improvements in DNA Center focus on network security. SecOps is responsible for classifying endpoints, enforcing security policies and eliminating threats. In version 2.2.2, Cisco implemented macro- and micro-segmentation within the network using SD-Access, an AI/ML-based tool that provides zero trust security. SD-Access establishes trust by identifying and classifying endpoints, as well as by analyzing traffic. It then contains and remediates threats using Cisco’s Identity Services Engine (ISE) network administration tool.

Cisco also continues to heavily invest in NetOps, particularly in the area of growing and scaling networks, said Sheaffer. Organizations can track their savings with DNA Center-generated return on investment (ROI) reports. In 2021, Cisco is turning its attention to scalability to drive down the per-unit cost of device management. The new DNA Center version has a feature called 2X Scale, which doubles the capacity of it.

Lastly, DNA Center now offers integration and programmability for “out-of-the-box” connectors, open application programming interfaces (APIs) and public software development kits (SDKs). San Jose State University (SJSU) has been using DNA Center since 2017. SJSU manages 230 network closets, approximately 30,000 wireless clients, and has a diverse environment. Shai Silberman, director of network services at San Jose State University, sees a lot of value in the DevOps integrations and shifting between domains.

“With DNA Center, we’re moving our teams more into a DevOps mode, so they see all the different domains. Whenever an issue arises, the entire DevOps team is engaged,” said Silberman. “The quicker you can cut the problem in half, you can communicate to users what's going on. At the same time, the team is focused on more productive actions, rather than going in ten different directions trying to identify an issue.”

On a grander scale, DNA Center is not just about the monitoring and management of the network, but about the user experience, Silberman added. SJSU’s team is aware of what’s happening within the network and can resolve issues before they affect users.

Zeus Kerravala is the founder and principal analyst with ZK Research. He provides a mix of tactical advice to help his clients in the current business climate and long-term strategic advice. Kerravala provides research and advice to end-user IT and network managers, vendors of IT hardware, software and services and the financial community looking to invest in the companies that he covers. He can be reached at [email protected], and follow him @zkerravala and on YouTube.

Industry Voices are opinion columns written by outside contributors—often industry experts or analysts—who are invited to the conversation by Fierce staff. They do not represent the opinions of Fierce.