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Amidst complex infrastructures, network visualization is needed

Today's networks are increasingly complex. An overhaul in network visualization is needed to help parse and diagnose modern networks.

Modern networking is in need of a network visualization overhaul.

Let's start at the beginning -- the very early beginning. More than 40,000 years ago, we humans began painting on cave walls. Move forward 30,000 years or so, and the early Egyptians started using pictures, or hieroglyphs, to create scripts and record events. A few thousand years after that, we began naming the constellations -- imagined images in the sky, with backstories to help us remember them -- and we carved those stories into stones and laid them out as a blueprint of the skies. Thereafter, paper and pen and now digital tools have allowed countless generations to document, describe and draw -- both in shape and with words -- our ideas. 

How does this little history lesson relate to network visualization?

Well, it helps to illustrate that the very core of our being is really quite visual. We understand complex ideas more clearly with diagrams, blueprints, layouts and narratives of ideas, protocols and devices we work with every day. And it underscores what's needed to accurately comb through the multiple pathways that anchor today's modern networks.

What we have is no longer enough

Sure, we have the ability to create some diagrams that allow us to see those pathways, but what we have is not enough. To help truly understand our networks and to truly improve our monitoring and management of them, the network devices and traffic need to be brought to life in new, visual ways.

We understand complex ideas more clearly with diagrams, blueprints, layouts and narratives of ideas, protocols and devices we work with every day.

Don't believe me?

Consider device setups. A switch stack should have a completed ring of pairing partners when properly set up. However, we regularly power up these devices, cable them together and then configure them with the mere assumption they are working correctly. Think about the longevity of these devices as people add or move cables.

What if the wrong cable is removed?

What happens if the daisy chain is broken?

These scenarios could cause a half-duplex -- or worse, no redundancy at all, potentially resulting in unexpected downtime. And if the device is sitting in a remote office or inaccessible data center where you cannot physically see it, how can you be 100% sure it is -- and remains -- configured and plugged in correctly?

Consider Border Gateway Protocol networks. When diagramed with traditional approaches, they often just look like a tangled web of connections. Wouldn't it make our lives easier to see the pathways from one device to another clearly with network visualization? Of course, it would. Shouldn't there be a way to visually drill into a device's pathway and see how traffic is getting from point A to point B without the tangled mess of connections getting in the way? Yes, what we need is to much more simply see that between any two devices, this is the path traffic is traveling and this is how it's all performing without assuming or getting lost when tracing.

Think, too, about software-defined devices like unified computing systems, which compact different networking components like switches and blades together to create one system. We still need to monitor those individual components to know how they are performing and when to increase capacity or change configuration. Knowing our fiber interconnects and which one is active and considered switch A or B allows us to quickly verify the configuration, interfaces and blades. Troubleshooting such a device when its individual components are visually represented translates to time saved.

Don't accept the status quo

Many network monitoring tools have a deficiency that I believe far too many network administrators have simply accepted: a lack of visual insight demonstrating network devices are configured correctly for the design and protocols in use per device. In reality, knowing a device is connected and configured correctly in seconds versus having to troubleshoot or research through old, outdated network diagrams should be table stakes when it comes to network monitoring software. 

We should be able to open a page and visually see that our switch stacks are correctly configured and in a perfect circle. We should be able to see that our pathways between locations are up and running as expected. We should be able to see which portions of our switch stacks are the masters versus the slaves.

Is this really too much to ask?

The new benchmark for network visualization

The complexity of devices with software-driven protocols and back-end designs, meantime, creates a new need -- network visualization is the benchmark we should all be moving toward. Just think how much time you can save the next time you're moving devices from one location to another or bringing new devices online and you can see right there on your screen for a fact that you're ready to start moving cables instead of having to physically verify your configurations and connections?

I, for one, would rather look at my screen and simply say, "Yeah, I got this."

Next Steps

Network monitoring tools improve BI

Evolutions in network control

Network design checklist

This was last published in October 2016

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What are the benefits you see from network visualization tools?
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Visualization need to more than a mere snapshot of pieces and parts. It need to make obvious the content flowing in the network along with what where and why; i.e., teleology.
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Take a look at NetBrain... 
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