The task of maintaining an operational network delivering predictable, reliable services to meet enterprise needs has always been and remains the day-to-day task of legions of network management and operations professionals. The task becomes more difficult and more critical to business success as a result of escalating demands for better performance, increased reliability and dynamic adaptability. These demands result from a proliferation of more complex, more distributed, and more dynamic business services. To meet customer demands, services are exhibiting a growing addiction to network-based solutions (e.g.,VoIP) and an emerging interest in sophisticated, bandwidth-intensive applications such as IP Multimedia Services.
With this growing dependency on reliable, high-performance, adaptive networks, the demand for experienced, highly skilled network management and operations staff who can monitor and maintain the network "plumbing" ought to be heading for stratospheric levels.
Not so fast. All too often, today's network management and operations are viewed and treated as overhead tasks whose objective is to maintain connective "plumbing." If network management is nothing more than maintenance service, it can be outsourced while the enterprise and IT focus on "real" business operations.
Adding to the problem, study after study by industry number-crunchers and pundits point to the link between increasing operational problems and human error -- an inevitable result when the need for dynamic network adaptivity collides with the limits of human capabilities to manage and implement error-free change.
Network operation appears caught in the vicious cycle of management complexity, resource reduction and poor visibility of its business contribution – the combination that led to the charges of business irrelevance of IT infrastructure services. In fact, there is as little substance to these charges now as there was when they were applied to IT.
Once upon a time, a good network manager could monitor IP-based data networks with a few probes to maintain a relatively fixed database. The database consisted of aggregated, historical performance management data useful for trending and troubleshooting analysis.
Today, three converging trends combine to force network managers to develop a more complex view of network management:
- Voice and data networks are rapidly converging. Voice-driven and data-driven applications make different demands on the network. Each has its own unique class of transient problems, difficult to diagnose and with hard-to-identify root causes. This analysis requires a comprehensive view of how and what occurs as each and every application traverses the network.
- Business service complexity continues to escalate. A call center service uses a VoIP application to communicate with customers, a Web-based application to connect to various CRM applications along with several distributed databases. The network manager must be able to view all of the different transaction paths required to deliver a service that appears as a single service to the business user.
- Results-oriented business managers require business-comprehensible metrics, metrics that they understand and that will help them to work more effectively with the technology. This requires translating technology metrics into business-oriented performance metrics. Typical traditional technology metrics, such as network segment traffic flow patterns, no longer have a one-to-one relationship with business services. Network managers must operate in a broader context with an end-to-end view of a service to proactively link and demonstrate their operational alignment with business goals and priorities.
These trends generate a database requiring more comprehensive data analytics, management and reporting skills. Without a database expert on-hand, network operations managers must be able to identify the tools they need and must apply them to effectively use this new information and data.
The final word
The current complex brew of voice and data applications will continue, as will the inevitable escalation in network traffic. This means a continued increase in the amount of network performance data that must be collected, stored, analyzed and reported.
Network managers will therefore continue to spend time learning how different types of applications interact with one another and behave under various operating conditions. If network managers are not to collapse under the weight of performance data analysis, solutions must be available to automate and simplify the collection, storage, analysis and administration of that data without requiring a full-time data manager.
Finally, to get proper recognition for their contributions, network managers must provide the right information at the right time in the right context to their own as well as business management, all while they continue to maintain high levels of reliability, performance and overall service. Network operations managers must broaden their view and reporting expertise to link and manage their activities to business needs. As solutions appear in the market, it is the responsibility of network teams, management, operations and administrators to make the attitude and behavioral adjustments necessary to benefit from them.
Founder and Partner, Ptak, Noel & Associates
Richard Ptak has over 30 years experience in systems product management. He was VP at Hurwitz Group and D.H. Brown Associates and worked at Western Electric's Electronic Switch Manufacturing Division and Digital Equipment Corporation. He is frequently quoted in trade press and is author of Manager's Guide to Distributed Environments.