Relieving network management pain

Network management software helps to maintain a balance between keeping growing network environments operational and having them running at an acceptable cost.

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By  Peter Branton Published  March 20, 2005

Introduction|~||~||~| Network installations came into full bloom in the early 1980s when companies realised the cost benefits and productivity gains delivered by network technology. However, as companies began to expand their network environments, they started to experience growing pains from deploying heterogeneous — and sometimes mismatched — network technologies. While this was not a huge issue to begin with, as end users typically had smaller networks, it is an issue that is coming to the fore as organisations in the Middle East become increasingly reliant on information technology and their infrastructures. “These are perplexing times for network administrators,” says Wael Fakharany, regional manager, 3Com Middle East. “Whereas, not long ago, networks generally supported only particular processes within enterprises, they are now the driving force of most organisations’ core operations and services,” he explains. With networks being the lifeline of a company’s day-to-day operations, network failures are no longer considered a minor setback. Nowadays, network downtime is tantamount to business disruption, something that can cost end users significant sums of money. A study of 80 large companies in North America reveals that, on average, these companies experience 501 hours of network downtime each year, which results in annual productivity and revenue losses that are in the millions of dollars. “When something goes wrong, the critical nature and importance of the network is often felt across the entire organisation and it becomes immediately obvious why the network is vital to a business’ ability to compete,” says Yousef Khalili, regional marketing manager, Cisco Systems Middle East. When a network fails, it’s not just simply a matter of not being able to send e-mails or to access the internet. Far worse, a network breakdown leads to the failure to access mission-critical processes. “Degradation in network performance may have various consequences: unacceptable response times for crucial applications, loss of data, drops in productivity, or even the abandoning of tools by their users,” says Aymeric Vague, product marketing manager for Patrol Network Management at BMC Software Middle East. However, a growing network environment is not the only cause of network disruptions. Sometimes, the problem is associated with the assimilation of new technologies, especially sophisticated ones that existing resources cannot accommodate. “Many new demands are being placed on networks. Growing in users, size and complexity, today’s networks must support a new generation of sophisticated, high-bandwidth applications, wireless links, and increasingly massive databases,” says Fakharany. According to Fakharany, newer technologies such as telephony and web-based technologies are demanding much more resources and higher levels of performance. “These solutions demand high levels of network performance to support time-sensitive voice traffic and have made network administrators directly responsible for their companies’ mission-critical communications,” he says. “With the advent of client/server and web technologies, the impact that users and applications bring to any network infrastructure has increased exponentially. Customers need a simple way to monitor the performance of their network infrastructures via historical, real-time, and predictive network analysis methods so application users can be assured of a satisfactory experience or proactive communication explaining why a slowdown is in effect,” Vague adds. ||**||New technology|~||~||~|The advent of convergence, for one, is a major challenge for most administrators. While it brings companies a potential for cost savings and improved performance, convergence also delivers its fair share of headaches to administrators. “In today’s converged enterprise reality, network management tools are essential for delivering the benefits of convergence. Without careful management, networking costs will inevitably spiral, the desired quality of service will not be achieved, and the converged network will fail to deliver its promise,” says Joseph Mehawej, Middle East marketing & technical sales manager, Nortel Networks. “While convergence promises lower costs and the ability to introduce innovative communications services, it brings with it many new challenges related to its management. It can cause upheaval for enterprises previously dependent on data networks because it now requires them to manage totally different types of traffic while still having to deliver the necessary prioritisation to critical data applications,” he adds. Network downtime is not the only issue, Mehawej says. Too often, bandwidth-hungry applications take most of a network’s resources, thereby affecting the performance of more crucial applications. “It’s not just availability and reliability that are vital to converged networks. Even if the network doesn’t experience downtime, other considerations such as undesirable traffic, will undoubtedly impact the performance of critical applications. Many multimedia apps are particularly sensitive to the real-time network characteristics such as loss, latency and jitter,” explains Mehawej. Network administrators are often caught in a Catch 22 situation. Not only do they have to ensure things are running smoothly, they are also being pushed to provide the required services at the lowest cost possible. “Most administrators are feeling the heat from upper management to reduce costs and increase efficiencies — in short, to do more with less. They are being forced to maintain networks at optimal levels of performance with minimal IT resources,” says Fakharany. John Rea, regional director for Peribit Networks agrees. “IT managers are caught between attempting to reduce costs while offering users even more computing performance, and a network is a simple illustration of this fact. Network bandwidth does not come at a low price, and yet businesses are constantly upgrading their data-hungry applications,” he says. The need to balance cost and performance within heterogeneous networks is creating demand for automated network management solutions that can be integrated across diverse environments, according to Chris Moore, regional manager, Extreme Networks Middle East & North Africa. “The networking infrastructure serves the critical function of ensuring a business operates without glitches. The growing prominence of the network in the productivity and profitability of a business, along with the constant need to run the network with less people, drives network managers to use network management tools. Consequently, network management tools play a key role in ensuring that the network infrastructure remains functioning as expected,” he says. “Careful planning and infrastructure preparation are a must. It calls for a management platform designed to match the performance requirements of multimedia communication. It requires network managers to monitor infrastructures in real-time, manage growth and react promptly to anticipated issues,” adds Mehawej. Network management tools enable network administrators and IT managers to optimise their company’s performance, thus delivering more for less. They also provide vital tools in securing the network when it comes to finding faults and ensuring certain data is protected. ||**||Early warnings|~||~||~|“Operating a network without network management tools is rather like driving a car blindfolded. Everything will be fine until you run out of petrol, or worse, you have to turn the first corner. Network management tools, just like a car’s petrol gauge, the speedometer, or the oil warning light, provide network managers with a real time view of the network. When there’s a red warning light, it means something is wrong, and an indication of future performance issues,” says Khalili. “In simple terms, network management tools aid the network manager in configuring, monitoring and troubleshooting the network for optimal performance and uptime,” he adds. To ensure end users are provided adequate IT resources, network management tools are used to monitor a network’s performance. The larger the network the more important network management becomes. Wide area networks (WANs), where administrators are frequently housed away from nodes and users, present particular challenges. “Although local area network (LAN) costs have decreased in the last few years, there is a definite need to monitor the performance of network infrastructures to ensure that there is adequate capacity for users and the applications that they use, on a constant basis. Unlike LAN costs, WAN costs have not decreased as steeply, thus many infrastructures can benefit from a monitoring solution that allows them to tune their service-centric WAN costs accordingly,” says Vague. “Network administrators are turning to network management tools to maximise network value and effectiveness. Traditional management applications, however, have failed to fill this bill. Complex and expensive, these open management platforms typically require highly skilled technicians to use and provide advanced capabilities, such as policy-based management, that only very large companies can use. Fortunately, network management technology has progressed,” Fakharany adds. ||**||Wide range|~||~||~|With a wide range of products to choose from, both from the networking giants and specialised software houses, selecting the network management tool that is ideal for a companies infrastructure can be a daunting task. However, given the wide and varied range of tasks a network manager should fulfil, there are several features that he or she requires from a software package, particularly those that revolve around the five basic elements of managing networks, collectively known as FCAPS (fault, configuration, accounting, performance and security). Fault management is the process of detecting, recording and notifying users of any network problems, and having the capability to automatically fix these problems. It is the most widely instigated element of network management since faults can cause downtime or unacceptable network degradation. “Network management tools must have the ability to detect outages and display their impact to services provided to users,” says Vague. With an increasing number of different devices deployed in a network, it is also critical to accurately spot the exact location of a network device. This is where configuration management — the process of monitoring network and system configuration information — comes in. According to Vague, configuration management is important because it helps in tracking and managing the hardware or software element that is causing the problem. “As today’s network devices are more reliable, the problem is not whether the network works or not, but whether it works well,” he says. “ When a network device is down, little time is required to identify it as the cause of your availability problem. It’s a relatively simple task that belongs to a single team. However, when a user complains of poor system performance, solving the problem is much more complex and this may involve a different team to carry out recognition and repair,” Vague explains. Network management tools are not only used to resolve downtime issues, but also to monitor a network’s performance. Performance management provides managers to establish certain metrics that help them determine whether or not the network is performing according to users’ expected performance level. ||**||Accounting|~||~||~|Similar to performance management, accounting management is used to measure a network’s utilisation parameters so that individual or group users can be regulated appropriately. This is necessary to measure the utilisation of all important network resources. Finally, to ensure that networks cannot be sabotaged, network managers should install sound security policies and procedures in place. With security management, administrators can control the access to networks according to company-drafted guidelines, giving users the appropriate access assigned to them. “In assessing new network management applications, administrators must consider their security needs,” says Fakharany. “These tools can play an important role for protecting a system, helping managers to align security with management of the networks they are trying to safeguard.” Furthermore, an ideal application should be able to communicate with the security components on the network, Fakharany says. “It should be able to look for weaknesses and hot spots on the system and identify suspected intrusions and security violations. It should also be able to gather vital data from switches, such as SNMP (simple network management protocol) vulnerabilities. Finally, it must be able to summarise this information for managers so they can take steps to preserve the integrity of the enterprise,” Fakharany explains. According to Moore, simply achieving the goals of FCAPS is not enough. “All network management tools have to implement FCAPS. These, however, are just the basics a network management tool should do. Users today are asking for more than basic FCAPS,” he says. “The main user requirements today are ease of use, excellent status reporting, ability to integrate new applications and service to the network and proactive monitoring capabilities to ensure maximum uptime for the network,” Moore adds. Rea agrees. He believes network managers are putting more importance to quality of service (QoS). “In this industry, we often talk about QoS, which manages bandwidth capabilities and allocation of resources. Traditionally, it has not proved an easy task monitoring WANs and other types of traffic infrastructure as these are difficult to monitor and difficult to cost-justify,” says Rea. “The most important feature for a network management tool is the ability to adapt to the changing demands of new services and applications,” adds Moore. “The proliferation of new data services, such as IP telephony and wireless, in combination with a rapidly changing business environment, require that a network respond extremely well to change and network complexity.” According to Khalili, all of these demands can be summed up in one word: flexibility. He argues that if network managers and their tools remain nimble then they are more likely to deliver on the goals of senior management both now and in the future. 3Com’s Fakharany agrees. “Clearly, administrators will continue to be called upon to squeeze additional performance, value, reliability and security from their communications infrastructures. Without a doubt, careful control of the network will be an increasingly vital strategy for realising these goals. Those who turn to the right network management resources will not only make their networks more productive assets, they’ll also find their jobs a lot easier, more secure and more rewarding,” he says. ||**||

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