Article

Network device management overload: Engineers managing too many boxes

Shamus McGillicuddy

Enterprises are asking network engineers to manage more network devices than ever. Like it or not, the expectation of doing more with less may be here to stay. The result? Engineers can be so busy maintaining basic transport that they fall short on implementing long-term network strategies that could improve performance.

According to Gartner Inc.'s analysis of enterprise network device management trends, network engineers are managing 20% to 30% more devices than they were last

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year.

"We've seen a great amount of consolidation going on in the enterprise as people are trying to cut costs operationally, and that's putting a lot of pressure on network managers as a result. The best way to [consolidate] is to centralize," Gartner Vice President David Willis said. "Another thing to think about is that the expertise of network management is pretty costly. People are trying to get as much as they possibly can out of their staff."

During a regular shift in an average enterprise, a network engineer supports either 975 Layer 1 and Layer 2 network devices, 358 routers, 78 pieces of data center equipment or 42 host systems, according to Gartner, which this month revised its estimates for how many devices network engineers support on average.

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These numbers were dramatically lower back in December at 750 Layer 1 and Layer 2 devices, 275 routers, 60 data center boxes or 32 host systems per shift.

Stretched thin, engineers struggle on network strategy

Jim Prevo, CIO of Green Mountain Coffee Roasters Inc. in Waterbury, Vt., said his company is asking its network engineers to manage more devices as a result of rapid growth. The problem is when engineers are stretched thin, they can't institute forward-thinking network strategies.

"We've added several new facilities in the last year and no additional people, as I recall," Prevo said. "Whenever we do this, we end up hitting the high spots rather than doing a holistic job of managing the infrastructure. We can do this for a while, but it's dangerous. Sooner or later you need to get back to doing the whole job to be sure you aren't creating a fragile or vulnerable environment."

By "hitting the high spots," Prevo said he means establishing basic connectivity with the company's standard architecture. His networking staff doesn't have the time to characterize network traffic, perform rigorous security audits or prepare the infrastructure for new technology.

"We just know that [our network engineers] are overloaded and can't get all of the projects done when we need them done if we don't get more help," Prevo said.

To remedy this situation, Prevo plans to hire more engineers and add management tools where he sees opportunities for automation.

As network managers and engineers are increasingly called upon to handle diverse networks and more applications, they won't be able to sustain such high numbers of devices to manage.

"It's not uncommon for a network manager who is responsible for the WAN and the local area network to now have to do something about wireless, do something about unified communications and do something about voice over IP. The list of things that we're giving to network managers is growing all the time," Willis said.

"Right now, what people need to be focused on is growing wireless and mobility and growing a unified communications plan. You can't do that if you're spending all of your time only managing the base infrastructure," he added.

Try network automation and network management outsourcing wherever possible

W. Kelly Reed, a network engineer with a transportation and shipping company, said he has been leveraging automation to deal with this increase in devices to manage.

"We have just implemented a new service manager suite from HP to automate many of the processes in managing, troubleshooting and resolution of the devices that are more manageable," Reed said. "The reality of today's market is doing more with less. Unless there is some type of automation implemented, MTTR [mean time to repair] will more than likely drive higher, causing service-level agreements not to be met."

Network engineers should also explore whether they can tactically outsource some parts of infrastructure management, Willis said. That doesn't mean engineers put themselves out of a job, but rather they should look for ways to offload some tasks to a third party, he added.

"Don't outsource the whole thing, but you can get a lot more out of your staff if you reduce the burden for your network operations center and break-fix staff [with] something as basic as diagnostics done by a third party."

Standard hardware can reduce complexity

Standardizing hardware platforms may also help engineers. This doesn't necessarily mean using one vendor for everything. Instead, Willis said an enterprise should segment the network and then standardize the vendor platform within those segments. For instance, an enterprise could go with an all-Cisco edge network and buy all its routers from Juniper. One team of engineers could manage the Cisco gear and the other could manage the Juniper gear. By working with just one platform, each team would be more efficient because individuals would be dealing with less complexity.

"We are implementing voice over IP across all our plant locations in the U.S., but we're staying with our existing infrastructure vendor [Cisco Systems], so it slides nicely into the management architecture we already have," said Bruce Blitch, CIO of Phoenix-based chemical company Tessenderlo Kerley Inc. "In a lot of cases, we're literally taking out one Cisco box that did function A and putting in another Cisco box that does Function A, B and C."

With a nonstandardized infrastructure, adding devices incrementally increases the amount of maintenance, Blitch said.

"But if you have a vendor who can grow you vertically and horizontally in terms of functions and size, then you're probably in a better position to expand functionally without expanding maintenance efforts. Standardization of infrastructure is a good policy anytime, but in these times it's a policy that pays dividends because now you can do that kind of feature expansion without multiplying the number of devices necessarily," he said.

Without easing network device management, network managers won't be able to keep up with new network demands, Willis said.

"Most network managers are very diligent about maintaining reliability and security. They're going to hold those things as a top priority," Willis said. "But they do that at the expense of being able to move very quickly. So they have a huge backlog of requests for new initiatives. As the economy improves and companies start to grow again, they simply won't be able to keep up with all those requests."

Let us know what you think about the story; email: Shamus McGillicuddy, News Editor


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