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Introduction to Controller-Based Networking

Chapter Description

In this sample chapter from CCNA 200-301 Official Cert Guide, Volume 2, you will be introduced to the basic concepts of data and control planes, explore product examples of network programmability using controllers, and compare the benefits of traditional networking with the benefits of controller-based networking.

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CCNA 200-301 Official Cert Guide, Volume 2

CCNA 200-301 Official Cert Guide, Volume 2

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Comparing Traditional Versus Controller-Based Networks

Before finishing the chapter, this final topic turns directly toward the CCNA 200-301 exam. Three of the CCNA 200-301 exam topics in domain 6.0, “Automation and Programmability,” ask us to compare some aspect of traditional networks versus new networking using controllers and automation. Those exam topics include

  • 6.1: Explain how automation impacts network management

  • 6.2: Compare traditional networks with controller-based networking

  • 6.4: Compare traditional campus device management with Cisco DNA Center enabled device management

First, the wording in all three exam topics can be reduced to “compare and contrast.” Two use the word compare. The other uses a longer phrase “explain how automation impacts…,” which asks us to compare what was before to what happens now that automation has been added to the network.

Two exam topics (6.1 and 6.4) center on network management, so what might Cisco mean by “network management” in these exam topics? You could break that down into two aspects of network management: configuration management and operational management.

Configuration management refers to any feature that changes device configuration, with automated configuration management doing so with software (program) control. For instance, Cisco’s ACI uses the APIC controller. You do not configure the devices directly, but the APIC pushes configuration down to the ACI switches that it builds based on its interpretation of the policies configured by the engineer. With ACI, the configuration management occurs as a part of the overall system. Other configuration management tools can be more focused on automating traditional configuration processes, with tools like NETCONF/RESTCONF, Ansible, Puppet, and Chef, as discussed in Chapter 18, “Understanding REST and JSON,” and Chapter 19, “Understanding Ansible, Puppet, and Chef.”

Operational network management includes monitoring, gathering operational data, reporting, and alerting humans to possible issues. For instance, the APIC-EM and DNA Center both have an app that checks the IOS images on Cisco devices to make sure only approved versions are used and that no changes have occurred to the images in comparison to the images created by Cisco.

The other exam topic (6.2) described in this section focuses on controller-based networking instead of network management. That exam topic includes any SDN network as characterized by the use of a controller. Today people might use that term or these other synonyms to describe some of the newer networking options that happen to use controllers:

  • Software Defined Networking

  • Software Defined Architecture

  • Programmable Networks

  • Controller-Based Networks

Table 16-3 summarizes the chapters that have content related to these three exam topics.

Table 16-3 Exam Topics and Most Relevant Chapters

Exam Topic

Exam Topic Text

Most Relevant Chapter(s)


Explain how automation impacts network management



Compare traditional networks with controller-based networking

16, 17


Compare traditional campus device management with Cisco DNA Center–enabled device management


How Automation Impacts Network Management

This chapter introduces many of the features that enable automation in SDNs, but so far it has not made any overt statements about how automation impacts network management. This next topic works through a couple of examples that show the power of automation as enabled through controller-based networks.

First, centralized controllers formalize and define data models for the configuration and operational data about networks. We humans might be comfortable with visually scanning the output of show commands to find the tidbit of information we need. Programs need to be able to identify the specific fact. To build a controller-based network with APIs, all the data about the network needs to be defined in a data model so programs can use that data via API calls. Before using controllers, automation scripts often had to begin by processing the text output of a show command, but with controllers and the data models behind the APIs, the data can be readily available to any automation script or vendor application through a northbound API.

For instance, Example 16-1 shows some output from a command on a switch. With a northbound API on a controller, and the data model it supplies, an automation program could issue this command and begin by parsing this text. The goal: find the configuration setting on the switchport mode command and the current trunking state.

Example 16-1 Small Output from a Switch Command

SW1# show interfaces gigabit 0/1 switchport
Name: Gi0/1
Switchport: Enabled
Administrative Mode: dynamic auto
Operational Mode: static access
Administrative Trunking Encapsulation: dot1q
Operational Trunking Encapsulation: native
Negotiation of Trunking: On

Example 16-2 shows a simple example of the starting point for a program using a controller’s northbound API. Instead of asking for the text from a show command, the API call will result in the program having a series of variables set. In this case, there are variables for that same interface that list the trunk configuration setting and the trunk operational state.

Example 16-2 Python Dictionary with Variables Set to Needed Values

>>> interface1
{'trunk-config': 'dynamic auto', 'trunk-status': 'static access'}

Using a controller-based model not only supplies APIs that give us the exact same data a human could see in show commands, but often they also supply much more useful information. A controller collects data from the entire network, so the controller can be written so that it analyzes and presents more useful data via the API. As a result, software that uses the APIs—whether automation written by local engineers or applications written by vendors—can be written more quickly and can often create features that would have been much more difficult without a controller.

For instance, both APIC-EM and its successor DNA Center provide a path trace feature. The applications show the path of a packet from source to destination, with the forwarding logic used at each node.

Now imagine writing that application with either of these two approaches.

  • One API call that returns a list of all devices and their running configuration, with other API calls to collect each device’s MAC address tables and/or their IP routing tables. Then you have to process that data to find the end-to-end path.

  • One API call to which you pass the source and destination IP addresses and TCP/UDP ports, and the API returns variables that describe the end-to-end path, including device hostnames and interfaces. The variables spell out the path the packet takes through the network.

The second option does most of the work, while the first option leaves most of the work to you and your program. But that second option becomes possible because of the centralized controller. The controller has the data if it at least collects configuration and forwarding table information. Going beyond that, these Cisco controllers analyze the data to provide much more useful data. The power of these kinds of APIs is amazing, and this is just one example.

The following list summarizes a few of the comparison points for this particular exam topic:

  • Northbound APIs and their underlying data models make it much easier to automate functions versus traditional networks.

  • The robust data created by controllers makes it possible to automate functions that were not easily automated without controllers.

  • The new reimagined software defined networks that use new operational models simplify operations, with automation resulting in more consistent configuration and less errors.

  • Centralized collection of operational data at controllers allows the application of modern data analytics to networking operational data, providing actionable insights that were likely not noticeable with the former model.

  • Time required to complete projects is reduced.

  • New operational models use external inputs, like considering time-of-day, day-of-week, and network load.

Comparing Traditional Networks with Controller-Based Networks

As for exam topic 6.2, this entire chapter begins to show the advantages created by using controller-based networks. However, this chapter only begins to describe the possibilities. By centralizing some of the functions in the network and providing robust APIs, controllers enable a large number of new operational models. Those models include the three most likely to be seen from Cisco in an enterprise: Software-Defined Access (SDA), Software-Defined WAN (SD-WAN), and Application Centric Infrastructure (ACI). (Chapter 17 introduces SDA.)

This changes the operating paradigm in many cases, with the controller determining many device-specific details:

  • The network engineer does not need to think about every command on every device.

  • The controller configures the devices with consistent and streamlined settings.

  • The result: faster and more consistent changes with fewer issues.

As another example, just consider the ACI example from earlier in the chapter. Instead of configuring each port with an access VLAN, or making it a trunk, adding routing protocol configuration, and possibly updating IP ACLs, all you had to do was create some endpoint groups (EPGs) and policies. In that case, the orchestration software that started the VMs could automatically create the EPGs and policies. The new paradigm of intent-based networking was enabled through the controller-based architecture. Then the automation features enabled by the controller’s northbound APIs allowed third-party applications to automatically configure the network to support the necessary changes.

Some of the advantages include the following:

  • Uses new and improved operational models that allow the configuration of the network rather than per-device configuration

  • Enables automation through northbound APIs that provide robust methods and model-driven data

  • Configures the network devices through southbound APIs, resulting in more consistent device configuration, fewer errors, and less time spent troubleshooting the network

  • Enables a DevOps approach to networks

Chapter 17 goes into some depth comparing traditional networking with controller-based networks with descriptions of Cisco Software-Defined Access (SDA). Look throughout that chapter for some of the reasons and motivations for SDA and the features enabled by using the DNA Center controller.

Chapter Review

One key to doing well on the exams is to perform repetitive spaced review sessions. Review this chapter’s material using either the tools in the book or interactive tools for the same material found on the book’s companion website. Refer to the “Your Study Plan” element for more details. Table 16-4 outlines the key review elements and where you can find them. To better track your study progress, record when you completed these activities in the second column.

Table 16-4 Chapter Review Tracking

Review Element

Review Date(s)

Resource Used

Review key topics

Book, website

Review key terms

Book, website

Answer DIKTA questions

Book, PTP

Review memory tables

Book, website

Watch video


5. Review All the Key Topics | Next Section Previous Section

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