Forward Networks: Managing the complexity of large-scale networks

Nikhil Handigol, Co-Founder

The multitude of routers, switches, firewalls, load balancers, and other devices that comprise a growing network are not exempt from the technical issues that plague every other piece of technology. Network issues may arise due to a variety of reasons, stemming from the sheer volume of connected devices, multiple device protocols, outdated hardware, security regulations, and complex hybrid cloud environments. Dependence on such a broad array of connections makes networks highly convoluted and fragile, and a misguided move can bring down an organization’s digital infrastructure like a house of cards. Upon noticing problems such as extreme complexity, human error, and outdated tools in network operations, Forward Networks was founded to identify and fix potentially perplexing network issues using user-intuitive solutions.

Aligned to the company’s mission of simplifying the complex, its flagship product—Forward Enterprise—uses a mathematical model to create an accurate copy of the network infrastructure to help teams eliminate outages and reduce network downtime. This model can then be used to search, verify, predict, and compare network behaviors. The software pieces information from all the devices comprising a network and computes every possible traffic path.

A comprehensive solution like Forward Enterprise that computes and indexes an astronomical amount of data such that network operators can quickly search and remedy issues is invaluable to any organization. “It works as a search engine for your network. Everything from tracking an IP address to isolating and remedying the root-cause of a problem is done in a few seconds,” says Nikhil Handigol, Co-Founder of Forward Networks. The ‘verify’ capability of Forward Enterprise checks that the network is configured and behaving strictly as intended across on-premises, cloud, and other virtual overlay networks. This feature is essential when operators need to ensure that the network is compliant with regulations and is audit-ready.

Our platformallows users to change their stance from constantly firefighting/troubleshooting issues in the network, to detecting and addressing problems before they even affect the end-user

However, the need to continually evolve, keep up with compliances, and integrate new technologies for better experiences can sometimes jeopardize the entire network. In such cases, Forward Enterprise’s ability to predict the effects of these changes before their implementation is crucial to minimizing risk and bolstering efficiencies. Finally, the ‘compare’ application, also known as Behavior Diffs, allows for easy observation of the network between any points in time. Using snapshots of the network, users can check changes in configuration files, interfaces, policies, and more.

Proactively identifying potential connectivity and security policy violations is essential in maintaining stable communication networks in any organization. “Forward Enterprise is a platform that allows users to change their stance from constantly firefighting/troubleshooting issues in the network to detecting and addressing problems before they even affect the end-user,” remarks Handigol. Traditionally, companies have used monitoring tools to detect unauthorized traffic in a network. But, the team at Forward Networks considers this to be a more reactive approach to remedying a problem. “Once you notice unauthorized activity in your systems, it’s usually too late, and you need to resort to damage control protocols,” continues Handigol. Forward Enterprise, however, easily thwarts this predicament by using a mathematical model to understand the network’s behavior and preemptively highlight possible holes in its security. The solution’s proactive capabilities are especially useful during the pandemic when users cannot be monitored as well as they used to be. Networks have become more complex, and enterprises require solutions that can manage the additional load. Yet, Handigol states that Forward Enterprise proves to be even more valuable in these harder-to-operate, more complex networks.

Another hurdle that organizations usually encounter in their network management is categorizing and analyzing the enormous amount of configuration and state data of the networks.
Well, that is precisely what the Network Query Engine (NQE) tackles. It provides an open platform for accessing structured data about the network, in a fully-parsed form. Akin to a database, NQE takes configuration files and state-information from all network devices and exposes it in a well-defined schema that can be queried by users.

Handigol cites a case study that proves the power and flexibility of NQE in a real-life scenario. During the Christmas season of 2019, Cisco issued a field notice which stated that some of their switches and routers with specific configuration in them were prone to an issue that could severely impact companies. Organizations that relied on these devices were given 10 days to fix this issue. “Needless to say, it would have been very stressful for IT teams to remedy the situation before the New Year,” says Handigol. Usually, operators would have to get an inventory of their devices, log in to each of the thousands of devices, check for the incorrect configuration, and then fix it. This would undoubtedly take up an immense and unnecessary amount of resources and effort. It was at this juncture that Forward Networks released a simple query using NQE. The solution quickly compiled a list of all affected devices, such that users could detect and fix them via a few keystrokes. With NQE, the issue could be resolved on the same day that Cisco’s notice was published. Forward Networks had just solved a problem for their customer base that reduced days of tedious work down to just a few seconds.

Forward Networks has built its solutions to rise above contemporary expectations of user-intuitiveness. Complex mathematical models analyze the innumerable ebbs and flows of network traffic, and are built to scale to a multitude of devices. “Currently, we have demonstrated our platform to scale up to 45,000 devices, and are looking to touch 100,000 soon,” adds Handigol. The solutions are also flexible enough to adapt to devices (and their accompanying lines of configuration) manufactured by a plethora of vendors. Despite the sophisticated back-end processes that make Forward Enterprise such a versatile platform, its user interface remains simple and intuitive. Staying true to its core principles, Forward Networks aims to unravel network management complexities via an easy-to-understand and modern software interface.