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Unified network management tools: Key features, vendor approaches

Unified network management platform buyers should look for key product features and be aware of three different vendor approaches to the market.

Editor's note: Continued from part one of our unified network management primer, which looks at why enterprises need unified wired and wireless network management and monitoring tools.

Although vendor approaches to unified network management vary, network managers should look for five essential features and functions when evaluating these tools.

The key characteristics of a unified network management platform include the following:

  • Multiple management functions. Although some capabilities are still evolving, network managers should look for a vendor whose platform can perform a variety of management functions -- or at least have them on its roadmap. "This means not only monitoring for availability, faults and errors, but also tying into some concept of performance and some concept of configuration management," said Jim Frey, vice president of network management research at Boulder, Colo.-based Enterprise Management Associates. "So, when you recognize a problem…you have within that same product the ability to take an action to correct the issue."
  • Multi-network support. At the most basic level, unified network management tools must provide visibility into both wired and wireless network assets. But there's also a growing need for these platforms to manage virtual networking components like virtual switches, as well as do some network performance monitoring for cloud services, Frey said.
  • Multi-vendor support. With the exception of Cisco and HP Networking, few vendors manufacture both wired and wireless networking equipment. Consequently, many enterprises have multi-vendor networks, and support for such heterogeneous environments is crucial.
  • Reporting tools for multiple roles. Network managers aren't the only ones with a greater need for visibility. As the network plays a bigger role in how enterprises do business, network managers need reporting tools that can analyze and present information about the network to different constituencies within and outside of IT, Frey said.
  • Endpoint awareness. Although the capability is still developing, unified network management platforms have begun to offer visibility into some endpoints, recognizing key servers or ancillary devices like firewalls, application delivery controllers and load balancers, Frey said. This is a departure from traditional network management tools, which primarily provided insight into just the core network equipment like switches and routers. As networks grow more complex, network managers need a more comprehensive approach that enables them to zero in on a single device or pull back for a high-level view of the network, Frey said.

How do different vendors approach unified network management?

Because unified network management is an area of technology that is still evolving, it is best to research or contact potential vendors to learn about their latest approach. There are three general vendor paths to consider, according to Frey.

The first path includes wired and wireless network equipment vendors that provide integrated configuration management and monitoring across their wired and wireless product lines, he said. These include Cisco (with its Meraki and Cisco Prime product lines), HP Networking (Intelligent Management Center [IMC]), Enterasys (NetSight), Xirrus (XMS), and Aerohive (HiveManager).

"Other than HP, none of these solutions promote themselves overtly as being multi-vendor capable -- although they all are, to some extent, on the wired side of things," Frey said. "Also, other than HP and Cisco Prime, all focus primarily on the wireless side of the equation, adding wired management only as an adjunct capability. Basically, you would not buy any of these products, other than HP IMC, as a full-blown, multi-vendor, integrated wired/wireless solution -- only if or when you were investing in that vendor's wireless devices."

The second path comprises network monitoring platforms, many of which have added some degree of support for wireless elements from a fault- or availability-monitoring perspective, he said. Some vendors in this category are HP, IBM, CA, SolarWinds, Entuity, Ipswitch and Paessler.

The final path follows performance management systems that vendors have enhanced to gather statistics and metrics from wireless devices, and to decode wireless protocols for troubleshooting, Frey said. Examples of vendors in this group are CA, SolarWinds, NetScout, WildPackets, Riverbed and Network Instruments.

Return to part one of our unified network management primer.

This was last published in August 2013

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