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Infrastructure monitoring can give administrators a clearer picture of what is going in their IT environment. But how does it work?

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Analyse this
By  ITP.net Staff Writer Published  October 13, 2011

Infrastructure monitoring can give administrators a clearer picture of what is going in their IT environment. But how does it work?

The network is at the crux of everything the modern enterprise does. Think about it: the network is the backbone that connects everything together, from servers, to desktops, to storage, to data centres. Sever that, and in many cases an organisation will cease to function altogether. It is no surprise then that businesses bestow so high a value on guarding the network against interruptions and malicious intent.

Understandably then, a galaxy of solutions and services exist specifically to maintain the integrity of the enterprise network, including security appliances, intrusion detection, traffic management and disaster recovery, and so forth.

While all of the aforementioned examples seek to resolve specific threats or technical hitches, infrastructure and network monitoring instead aims to give administrators a 360 degree perspective of all activity on their network. Perhaps the best analogy is that of close circuit television for the enterprise network.

The concept can be quite a nebulous one, however, encompassing a myriad of different technologies and services, depending on the vendor and type of network.

Jose Bustamante, vice president, MEA, at infrastructure monitoring specialist Azeti Networks, says that the essence of network monitoring is allowing administrators and IT staff to gain a complete picture of what is happening across the enterprise network at any one time. “Network monitoring is an effective tool to provide transparency regarding the current and future status of information technology deployed in an organisation.” He says that as IT has become increasingly interwoven with core business processes – everything from payments, to telephony, to energy provisioning – it has consequently become more important for administrators to gain greater visibility of their networks. “IT transparency has become increasingly important in recent years as information technology impacts the success of a business,” he notes.

When a comprehensive network monitoring system is in place, it will alert administrators in real-time when any issues arise. Understandably, the sooner an administrator is made aware of a problem, the sooner it can be resolved. “Network monitoring systems monitor the infrastructure, alert and trouble shoot as and when problems occur, and ensure availability and performance of the hardware and software deployed,” Bustamante continues. He says that this capability can have a direct impact on a business’s bottom line. “It also reduces troubleshooting times which in turn lowers overall network downtime, enabling huge benefits on budgets and thus business performance.”

From a technical perspective, there are a number of ways in which network monitoring works. According to Azeti’s Bustamante, networks and the hardware connected to them generate volumes of operational and status data, and network monitoring is simply a way of collecting this data and presenting it “in an easy to understand format”. Azeti’s Solarplex appliance, he says, is a good example of this.

He adds that the complexity of operational information mined by network monitoring tools varies substantially, ranging from “a simple ping check to complex IT process checks with root-cause analysis capabilities”.

In regard to what is actually being monitored, Yarob Sakhnini, systems engineering manager, CEMA, Brocade, claims that there are two key doctrines: monitoring of the health of the network-connective devices themselves, and monitoring of the traffic that travels across the network.

“Device monitoring is the ability to monitor the status and health of the networking devices themselves,” he reckons. “Networking devices themselves can be targeted for malicious activity as well as failures, either in software or hardware. The ability to continuously monitor theses devices is paramount to the ongoing operation of the network.”

“The other aspect is network traffic monitoring, where the traffic going through the network is monitored and evaluated to mitigate any risk or abnormality that can be present,” Sakhnini continues. By observing traffic, organisations are better placed to predict and alleviate any potential bottlenecks in the network, which may occur during times of peak demand. There are a number of things that monitoring tools may flag up in a network. These can include: if a piece of hardware is running at more than its full capacity; if something on the network has failed entirely; if a connection has been unplugged or hardware has been disconnected; or if equipment on the network is under-utilised or not being utilised at all.

If the impression given so far is that network monitoring is primarily squared at those organisations with unmanageable, sprawling beasts of an IT infrastructure - like services providers and multinationals - that is not necessarily the case, Sakhnini claims. “We have seen small enterprises implementing network monitoring, and we have seen large service providers implement it,” observes Sakhnini. “There are different uses for each, an enterprise will use it to mitigate against viruses or worms, especially when combined with a prevention system. Service providers can use it for network capacity planning to foresee any bottlenecks that can happen on their network.”

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