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Automated network management alleviates staff shortages

Automated network management offers an alternative to outsourcing and can alleviate shortages in qualified network staff. Networks keep getting more complicated, while the network management staff shortage is becoming more acute. Experienced baby boomers who built the network and understand how the pieces fit together have begun to retire. Recruitment, training and retention of new employees to fill the void are becoming increasingly difficult. This tip explains how automated network management can help.

Automated network management offers an alternative to outsourcing and can alleviate shortages in qualified network staff.

Networks keep getting more complicated, while the network management staff shortage is becoming more acute. Experienced...

baby boomers who built the network and understand how the pieces fit together have begun to retire. Recruitment, training and retention of new employees to fill the void are becoming increasingly difficult.

Adding to the dilemma are compliance standards such as Sarbanes-Oxley (SOX), Payment Card Industry (PCI), and Health Insurance Portability and Accountability Act (HIPAA), which require documented procedures to ensure that data will be restricted to authorized parties. In addition to a set of procedures, a reliable way to record that the procedures are being followed is also necessary.

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One solution is to outsource network management. The risk is that the outsourcing vendor's priorities may not always match yours and that adequate resources may not be available when required.

Automated network management offers another solution. Network automation software can:

  • Monitor your network 24/7 more effectively than a human.
  • Watch for device and network link problems and automatically react without the risk of human error.
  • Track device configuration settings and signal if an unauthorized or inadvertent change is made.
  • Generate a complete and reliable record of all network events and the actions taken to address them.
  • Measure traffic levels at various time intervals and create reports to predict when links and devices must be upgraded.

Choosing an automated network management vendor

Network management vendors have recognized the problem. Solutions are available from vendors both large and small, including Cisco Systems, Opsware, Visionael Corp. and Uplogix.

Cisco Systems has enhanced several existing software products and added new components to create its Cisco Proactive Automation of Change Execution (PACE) solution. It can control administrator access to configuration options, verify sets of configuration changes before they are applied in order to detect inconsistencies, track configuration changes, generate reports designed to satisfy compliance requirements, detect unauthorized devices connected to the network, and monitor the network to detect problems.

Opsware, recently acquired by HP, offers a suite of products to automate management of devices from such network vendors as 3Com, Cisco, Juniper and Nortel. Command sequences used to monitor and configure devices vary across different vendors. Using the Opsware product, an operator can create an automation script to carry on a common operation across the multi-vendor network. The product then translates the common script to the vendor-specific commands used to address each device.

Smaller vendors -- such as Visionael Corp., which targets service providers -- concentrate on the needs of specific customer segments. The process of taking customer orders and provisioning new services is a major cost if done manually. Visionael's Service Automation Suite interfaces with the service provider's OSS/BSS software to automate the process.

Visionael's solution maintains a database of the network infrastructure that enables the service provider to keep track of which devices and links are used to provide service to each customer, in order to:

  • Inform affected customers when a network outage occurs.
  • Develop price structures and calculate the actual cost of providing service to each customer.

Most network management operations can be communicated to devices through the network, but what happens when the network itself is down? The Uplogix Envoy appliance connects to devices through their console ports, with a central appliance controlling remote appliances. When the network is up, communication among appliances utilizes the network. When the network is down, communication is done via dial-up modem, cellular network, or satellite communications.

Envoy appliances maintain a copy of recent configurations for each connected device. If a configuration change fails, the appliance can shut off power to the device and then restart it using a recent configuration. Appliances include battery backup, so the appliance will continue to operate even though power to network devices is down. When power is restored, the appliance can apply power to devices in the order specified by network staff.

It is not an easy task to manage a large network, incorporate new technologies, meet compliance requirements, and track software releases and patches while simultaneously watching costs.

An experienced, knowledgeable staff is still required to specify procedures to the automation products, deal with problems that automation cannot solve, and plan future network growth. The new automation products are a step in the right direction, however. They help by offloading repetitive tasks, by responding to some types of problems, and reducing staff load.

About the author:
David B. Jacobs of The Jacobs Group has more than 20 years of networking industry experience. He has managed leading-edge software development projects and consulted to Fortune 500 companies as well as software startups.

This was last published in January 2008

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