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Buying the right network management application for you

With SDN and the integration of wireless networking within enterprise infrastructures, IT must carefully assess its network management needs.

Editor's note: In this two-part How to Buy series on what to look for when you're buying network management tools, part one addressed the features and capabilities of today's management platforms. Part two looks at the questions IT managers need to ask as they assess their current and future network requirements.

Finding the network management application that's the best suited for your infrastructure is a critically important task. Fortunately, there is no shortage of monitoring and management tools capable of providing the insight most network managers need.

The options are numerous, ranging from vendors like HP and IBM that offer integrated management systems, with a slew of tools that go with them, to IT management specialists -- including SolarWinds and Lancope -- that offer monitoring and analysis tools that can be downloaded and deployed rapidly. And there are specialized vendors, including NetScout, Fluke Networks and Riverbed Technology, which provide applications tailored to virtualized environments.

Network management tools designed to interact with software-defined networking (SDN) controllers, for example, may actually be able to capture more in-depth information than monitoring applications designed for previous-generation networking equipment can. Using deep packet inspection to examine application traffic, these new SDN-specific monitoring tools can track traffic types at speed. And while these tools work with SDN environments, many are also able to monitor traffic on the underlying physical networks -- giving network managers a clear view of the network as a whole.

These tools work by collecting traffic from multiple links and filters, then aggregating the information for network monitoring and security purposes via commodity network switches. The switches are linked directly to points where data packets are collected and network monitoring probes connect. Aggregating the data eliminates the traffic overhead that would occur in a more classic monitoring scheme.

At the same time, analytics are being used more widely to assess the collected data and help IT organizations implement changes to increase the efficiency, reliability and performance of the network. Working with network management tools, these monitoring applications allow IT managers to institute changes automatically, reducing the time it takes to resolve issues and helping to ratchet up overall service quality and reliability.

While SDN technology is still relatively lightly deployed in most corporate environments, the networking approach is gaining traction. With that growth in penetration will come an increasing demand to manage these complex networks. To that end, vendors are working with networking standards bodies to develop systems that will work with both SDN and legacy networking equipment -- giving enterprises the flexibility they need to support both virtual and physical infrastructure monitoring and reporting.

Wireless growth puts additional stress on management tools

As each 802.11 wireless standard iteration becomes more robust and a new generation of mobile devices is introduced, organizations are positioning their wireless networks to be seamless extensions of their wired foundations. This means IT managers must assess the network management application best-suited to wireless LAN networks. These applications are designed to isolate the source of performance problems, a challenge in a mobile environment where issues might be difficult to pinpoint. These monitoring tools typically rely on network analyzers or sensors to find the exact location of a particular device that might be impacting the performance of the larger network.

The IT organization needs to consider both its legacy environment and any new technologies it plans to deploy.

Vendors -- among them Cisco, Extreme Networks and HP -- have developed unified platforms that can oversee both wireless and wireline technologies in a consolidated fashion. Juniper and Aruba Networks, meantime, earlier this summer said they would work together to offer a similar unified management package to their users as well. These applications collect data that measure congestion, fault information and general statistics, as well as provide a window into the security of the unified environment.

With literally scores of network management tools from which to choose, it can be difficult for IT managers to navigate their network management options. Most organizations tend to use the utilities and point products supplied by their networking equipment vendors -- at least in some capacity -- but there are also other choices available, many of which bring richer capabilities and greater ease of use.

What works now; what's needed for the future

To build the best network management foundation, the IT organization needs to consider both its legacy environment and any new technologies it plans to deploy. It's essential that systems provide visibility and control across each individual network element, but it's also vital that they offer an unrestricted view of traffic activity across the network as a whole. IT also needs to have a control point from which it can troubleshoot any problems and, whenever possible, issue an automated response to resolve an issue and limit downtime.

For this function, enterprises need a console to act as a consolidated control point for the network as a whole. IT professionals with different roles can tap into the console to support their respective functional requirements, whatever they are. Additionally, these systems should be engineered with a mechanism that can provide a graphical representation of the network that's based on the user's specific task.

Whichever route an IT organization chooses to take to improve its network management posture, what is clear is that network managers need to take into account their full environment. Because every setting is unique, each organization's path will differ. What all businesses require, however, are network management platforms that dovetail with their infrastructure to support an environment that delivers optimal performance, efficient resource utilization and maximum reliability.

Next Steps

How to buy: Getting the right management tool

Pocket guide to network management

This was last published in December 2014

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Are network management vendors giving you the capabilities you need?
Network management vendors don't always give me the answers I need. I recently had an experience in which my website was running slowly and wasn't responsive to smart phones and other computer devices, such as iPads and readers. I had to reconsider my network management vendor. Seconds count in business, and in a world in which I am competing for every second, it's a necessity to have both a responsive mobile design and a website that loads quickly and efficiently. I found that asking how a network management company plans to increase load time and responsiveness was a really good question to ask before signing a contract.
@toddO53, Interesting comment. Have you switched network management vendors because the incumbent couldn't answer your question?