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Andy McInerney was on vacation, relaxing at the beach, when an alert popped up on his smartphone. It was work.
McInerney, the data network and voice manager at Penn Mutual Life Insurance Co., read the email from a colleague in his company's Houston office. They needed help. A rogue device on the network had been shut down, but staff members requested that access be restored to it for a meeting that afternoon.
McInerney fired up Cisco's Meraki mobile app on his phone, accessed his network management dashboard and, within minutes, reinstated connectivity for the unauthorized device in the Houston office's conference room. With just a few taps on a smartphone screen, the crisis of the day was resolved. McInerney resumed his vacation without further interruption.
"I can literally manage the network from my cell -- from that little form factor, which I would never really do [as a standard practice]. I'll use an iPad or MacBook if I'm home. But the point remains that I can be anywhere with Internet access and manage my 45 offices," McInerney said. "They're always reachable. My switches, my APs and my firewalls are always reachable."
The fact that McInerney can oversee his network from anywhere reflects the extent technology has reshaped network management. But it also reflects the importance administrators and executives place on network monitoring and management, as demonstrated by TechTarget's 2015 IT Priorities Survey.
The study, which polled 2,212 IT professionals worldwide, found that network monitoring and management projects tied for first place – with disaster recovery (DR) and business continuity -- as the top IT initiative for 2015. A total of 44% of respondents selected those projects as ones they would pursue this year -- up from 41% last year and 39% in 2013.
In Penn Mutual's case, the insurer deployed Meraki's network equipment throughout its LAN, WAN and wireless LAN (WLAN) in 2013 as part of a broader effort to add more flexibility and visibility to its network. It's a goal shared by many enterprises trying to find smarter ways to manage networks that are being thrown curveball after curveball -- everything from cloud computing to bring your own device initiatives.
Management is further complicated by the blossoming of "hybrid" operating models, which could mean a hybrid cloud computing environment, a hybrid of wired and wireless networking, a hybrid of corporate-owned and personal mobile devices, or all of the above, according to Amy DeCarlo, a principal analyst at Current Analysis. All of those things are putting pressure on network managers to implement new tools and best practices that help them keep up with more diverse network requirements.
"There are so many changes happening quickly, and IT managers are looking for something better than what they had in place. Their expectations are higher because the expectations on them are also higher," DeCarlo said. "Sometimes it doesn’t necessarily involve big investments, but it may involve thinking strategically about specific elements in the network, having the right tools in place and having some way to integrate them so it's a much more manageable environment."
The fact that network management and monitoring share first place with DR and business continuity is also revealing, she added.
"The message is that people are trying to look at how to make their infrastructure environment much more stable, secure and reliable because they can't afford to have it any other way," DeCarlo said.
Unified network management: Are we there yet?
The holy grail of network management has long been a single platform that offers control over and visibility into all network assets -- wired and wireless -- for any vendor's hardware, with the same level of sophistication in features across the board. It's a concept known as unified network management, and while vendor-specific and third-party network management platforms have made strides over the years toward achieving this, gaps remain.
Amy DeCarloa principal analyst at Current Analysis
For instance, wireless networking vendors' management platforms generally aren't as feature-rich when overseeing wired networking devices, DeCarlo said. Meanwhile, few networking equipment vendors provide an optimal level of support for multi-vendor environments in their management platforms. While third-party network management vendors do a better job there, they tend to be unable to provide the same level of control that the equipment vendors can for their own gear.
“There's some progress being made, but I think it's still 'unified network management' in quotes because it's not really there yet," DeCarlo said.
Some recent activity from network management and monitoring vendors shows signs of that progress. Cisco announced its Cloud Managed IT strategy last month -- the primary goal being to extend the Meraki portfolio from its midmarket roots into larger enterprises. The announcement also included some enhancements to the core platform -- including integration with the vendor's Sourcefire technology -- and hinted at upcoming support for Cisco’s Intelligent WAN products on Meraki gear.
Among third-party network management and monitoring vendors, SolarWinds recently announced expanded WLAN monitoring capabilities, updating its Network Performance Monitor product to support heat mapping to identify and troubleshoot connectivity issues in wireless networks.
The bigger picture: Making networks better, faster, stronger
A separate TechTarget survey of 427 IT professionals planning to buy network management and monitoring products in the next year, meanwhile, asked respondents to identify their reasons for investing in new network monitoring platforms. The top five goals for their deployments were to get better use out of existing bandwidth (64%), get help managing an increasing number of devices (58%), improve application performance (44%), improve WAN performance (38%), and improve WLAN management (34%).
Penn Mutual's Meraki deployment, in fact, aimed for and achieved several of these goals, said CIO Greg Driscoll. The purchase was part of a bigger strategy that included swapping out the company's legacy, hub-and-spoke WAN architecture built on T1 circuits for basic Internet connectivity or Metro Ethernet services at its branch offices. The new WAN connections, by contrast, are managed by a third-party network operations center (NOC) provider.
The move reaped significant cost savings and the Meraki management platform provided Penn Mutual with unprecedented network visibility and control, Driscoll said.
"With the private VPN, we had barely any line of sight into what was traversing the wire. We could see overall network utilization, but because of the service we were on, we couldn't see exactly what was being utilized," he said. "At this point, we can see every device -- everything they're using in real time -- and you don't even need to be anywhere near one of our buildings to do it."
The networking team can use a Google Maps-like interface in the Meraki dashboard to identify potential issues, troubleshoot problems, disconnect devices and throttle bandwidth on individual devices or websites as needed. Those capabilities are especially important to a company in the financial services industry, Driscoll said.
"We need to bring an appropriate level of security to our network. It's not just seeing what the people are doing, but also seeing what people don't know they're doing, such as malicious software installed on machines that might be calling home -- anything of that sort we want a full line of sight on," Driscoll said.
Additionally, Penn Mutual has taken advantage of the Meraki platform’s geo-blocking capabilities, blocking traffic that comes or is trying to go out to about a dozen blacklisted countries.
"When the [Shellshock] Bash vulnerability came out not long ago, we saw scans coming from certain countries looking for that vulnerability," Driscoll said. "Anything going directly in and out [of those countries], we knock down before it gets anywhere. And that is just something that we couldn't have done prior."
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