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Unified network management primer

Unified network management tools provide a single user interface from which admins can manage both their wired and wireless network devices.

Editor's note: This is the first part of a two-part series examining unified network management. Part two covers the key characteristics of unified network management platforms and what companies should look for when assessing vendors.

A user reports that the Wi-Fi in a conference room isn't working. After the helpdesk determines the problem doesn't stem from the endpoint, the network administrator logs into the management console monitoring the wireless LAN infrastructure to run some diagnostics. The result? The access point isn't overloaded, misconfigured or faulty. There is no radio-frequency interference. The WLAN controller is functional.

According to the console, everything looks OK. Unfortunately, the helpdesk has an incomplete picture. Without concurrent insight into the wired network, the network administrator may not see that the root cause of the problem is the connection between the wireless access point and the switch it plugs into.

A broader slice of vendors are offering lighter-weight [unified network management] solutions that are easier to deploy.
Jim FreyEnterprise Management Associates

"A management system that looks at only the wired network or the wireless network is likely to misinterpret some of the spikes in the response time and blame the wrong network component," wrote the authors of a Microsoft Research paper, Towards Unified Management of Networked Services in Wired and Wireless Networks. "A single system that jointly manages and diagnoses both aspects simultaneously has much better odds of correctly finding the cause of observed problems."

That's precisely the role of unified network management tools, which provide network administrators with a consolidated view of both their wired and wireless network assets.

What is unified network management?

Through that single interface, network managers can identify, configure, monitor, update and troubleshoot all of their wired and wireless network devices. This approach -- often referred to as a "single pane of glass" -- eliminates the need for network admins to toggle between multiple network management tools to diagnose a performance issue or reconfigure devices.

Many of the traditional networking vendors -- notably Cisco Systems and HP Networking -- sell unified network management tools, as do more specialized WLAN vendors. The market also includes third-party vendors that specialize in network management.

The concept of unified network management has been discussed for years, so it is not quite an emerging technology, but mature commercial products have only recently begun to take shape.

"The primary [wired network management] platforms have, for some time, been able to recognize and do fault or availability monitoring for wireless controllers and access points," said Jim Frey, vice president of network management research at Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates. "Configuration [management] and performance monitoring have not necessarily been under the same set of tools, but I think it's getting a little better."

Why should you care about unified network management?

Wireless no longer plays second fiddle to the wired network, with deployments today having evolved from spot coverage in conference rooms and lobbies to implementations blanketing entire buildings and campuses. At the same time -- or perhaps consequently -- users increasingly expect the corporate WLAN to provide full-throttled connectivity for their personal devices. Meanwhile, LAN architectures are getting more complex as they support larger amounts of bandwidth.

More on network management

A unified network management platform that provides a holistic perspective of all network assets can help network admins quickly diagnose and resolve issues on either network, ultimately improving performance and reducing operating expenses.

Software-defined networking is also increasing the need for unified network management.

"It puts even more emphasis on better, more robust management practices and automation, which is something you need a more systemic view to pull off -- and hence you need a more unified [approach to] management," Frey said.

Moreover, these tools are finally becoming simpler for most IT shops to deploy on their own, he added.

"Historically, there were products that did this unification, but they were high-end products that needed professional services [to help with implementation] and customization," Frey said. "A broader slice of vendors are offering lighter-weight solutions that are easier to deploy … which means it's more practical for the bulk of the mid-tier market, where there's a lot more pressure on total cost of ownership."

Continued in part two of our unified network management primer: Key unified network management product features and vendor strategies

This was last published in August 2013

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