Out-of-band network management
Network management is the ultimate paradox: The vast majority of management happens over the network itself, yet the need for it is highest when the network is down. To resolve this paradox, many enterprises have a parallel "out-of-band" network dedicated to management.
Out-of-band networks enable administrators to monitor and manage network equipment remotely, regardless of whether the machine has power. Traditionally, out-of-band networks have been an extra investment for companies that need high-availability or have highly distributed networks without "local" support. But nowadays, high-availability distributed networks are the norm. Nemertes research shows that most companies, regardless of industry or size, are rapidly moving to a zero-downtime network model. Since hardware and software can never operate at 100%, companies must invest in redundancy and out-of-band management.
Out-of-band capabilities exist in most network devices and appliances, but usually as an "add-on" that must be purchased. The most common out-of-band technology is the serial console, but many devices also offer a management Ethernet port for out-of-band management. The choice of technology is more an issue of consistency: You must pick the out-of-band technology that you can support in most of the devices you have and have appropriate converters for the rest.
Location means nothing: The move to remote network management
Using out-of-band network management enables companies to eliminate the Network Operations Center (NOC). The NOC, often collocated with the primary data center, is another hidden cost of management.
The operations staff commutes into the NOC daily and from there manages the network. Ironically, the network that the staff manages from a central location is becoming more distributed as time goes by. Today, more than 89% of employees work away from headquarters in branch and remote offices or from their homes.
Moving away from the centralized NOC model can generate significant cost savings and flexibility for companies. In many organizations, the location of the NOC acts like a gravity well: It is cheaper to manage devices and hire staff near the NOC. In the long run, this creates an unbalanced network. Devices that are close to staff members get fixed, while those remote from staff are inherently less reliable. When things near the center work better and are cheaper, the company loses the ability to grow in a geographically distributed manner.
Distributed management and the use of out-of-band networks break the relationship between the location of staff and that of network devices. Instead of growth influencing staff location, staff location influences growth. By breaking up your NOC and making it a distributed and virtual operations center, you break the stranglehold of location, freeing your company to grow where it needs to.
Hiring flexibility in distributed network management
An even greater benefit arises from the hiring flexibility that results from a distributed operations team. If your employees can manage the network from anywhere, then you can hire operations staff anywhere. That can translate either into hiring better-skilled employees in areas with more labor supply or hiring less-costly employees in areas with lower cost of living.
This does not necessarily mean outsourcing network operations to an emerging economy overseas -- an extreme outcome that has compliance and security implications. Rather, it means sourcing operations staff from areas in the U.S. where salaries are lower and markets are less competitive, such as the Midwest and West. Moreover, it means being able to hire employees from several regions and time zones to manage a single network collaboratively.
Distributed network management better for the environment and the budget
Another effect of this strategic change is the environmental impact. By moving to distributed network management and out-of-band networks, you are automatically reducing travel both to and from the NOC, as well as truck rolls to repair remote network devices. This will result in reduced emissions from traffic and an overall "greener" network.
But even if you don't care about the environmental impact, you should care about the savings. A virtual NOC with out-of-band management is also more cost-efficient. Commute time is converted into work time, employee retention is increased, fault resolution time is dramatically decreased, and network reliability is improved. All in all, there is a dramatic reduction of total cost of ownership of the network.
Your network is growing rapidly and becoming more distributed, and you rely on it for continuous availability. Those factors mean that the old model of centralized in-band management via a physical NOC is rapidly becoming obsolete. A strategic move to a distributed, virtual NOC model with out-of-band management will not only break your ties to geography, it will also dramatically lower operational costs, decrease the environmental impact and increase hiring flexibility.
This was first published in September 2009